Lost in Translation: vitaminwater Canadian Promotion Goes Awry


vitaminwater's promotion blunder. Image courtesy of Metro through adweek.com
vitaminwater’s promotion blunder. Image courtesy of Metro through adweek.com

Over the last few weeks, glaceau vitaminwater have come under scrutiny for its under-the-cap promotion that spelled out the words “YOU RETARD” (story link here).  As a bilingual Canada nation that calls English and French as its national languages, certain words may not translate so well.  vitaminwater’s promotional intent was to put one English and one French word under the cap, with the consumer collecting the caps to make funny sentences.  Apparently the problem was that the English list of words and the French list of words were separately approved and no one thought of what the consequences should both words were combined.  These consequences were amplified given that the family finding these words were a special needs family.  Doug Loates (the dad) sent Coca-Cola a letter immediately letting them know of his displeasure toward their campaign and how hurtful it was to his family.  As you see from the letter (below), he has signed it as “an ex-Coke drinker” which likely means that they have lost a customer for life.

As the glaceau business unit goes into public relations defense, what can be learnt in this situation?  The obvious lesson is to develop stronger approval systems when running a bilingual campaign in Canada (as in any other nation with more than one national language). Ensuring that the correct message is not lost in translation is critical and avoids the company any negative PR and embarrassment.  If there was a business team that handles the French marketing and another team that handles English marketing, then these two teams must collaborate more closely to ensure each party is dialed in to what the other team is doing.  Ultimately the national campaign is approved by someone that manages both teams, so that executive should also be aware of the consequences.

Aside from focusing on the directly results of this campaign, one has to wonder why vitaminwater ran this type of a campaign in the first place.  If the intent was to stimulate sales by having beverage enthusiasts collect the caps to create words, is there a prize for the funniest word?  Or was it simply a game for instant gratification by combining words together?  I have not noticed any type of media promotion to build awareness or excitement for this campaign in either case.  vitaminwater may have fared better had they simply piggybacked off of Coca-Cola’s iCoke.ca loyalty program.  After all, with an existing infrastructure where consumers are already knowledgeable of the reward system, this would make it easier to achieve the campaign’s objectives.

The next time vitaminwater runs a marketing campaign that spans the nation, we’ll see whether they have truly learned their lesson.  Will it be regional promotions with stricter guidelines for English- and French-speaking provinces?  Or will it be the same problem?

Coke Letter by Doug Loates
Doug Loates’ letter to Coca-Cola on finding the vitaminwater bottle cap
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One thought on “Lost in Translation: vitaminwater Canadian Promotion Goes Awry

  1. Pingback: Canadians Share A Coke | BevWire

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