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May 15, 2014

Selling Detergent Powder in the Middle East - The Ultimate Cultural Gaffe

The following is a famous example of how even big companies make the silliest of the mistakes. This example is about a Detergent company that was doing excellent business in the Middle East in the seventies. The detergent company was using the franchisee model. The company was sending the detergent powder to the Arabic countries and the local business men were taking care of the marketing and selling functions.
The company wanted to increase the sale. It set up an office and sent out its SUPER CATS (The brilliant marketing hot shots). The marketing hot shots created a well thought out campaign and executed the same.
The marketing hot shots sat back and waited for the moolah to roll in. But to their utter shock and despair the sales simply dropped off. It was so bad that the stocks started pilling up. As is the custom with any company when things go wrong it is the witch doctors that are called in. In marketing the witch doctors are the Marketing researchers.
The marketing research team started their work. It all boiled down to the new campaign that was put in place. The time if we remember was in the seventies. The literacy levels were quite low so press advertising was not feasible. And in the seventies TV had very limited presence in the Middle East. So the company used the billboards/hoardings or outdoor media.
The campaign theme was very simple. The billboards had three panels and the panels were kept very simple. On the left most panel there was a very dirty cloth, the middle panel showed the dirty cloth being dipped in the detergent and the third or the right most panel showed the cloth coming out clean – Sparkling clean. A simple and very universal theme that catches the attention of all home makers of the world. So what is so wrong with this theme and campaign?
The Marketing and the marketing research guys were mulling over this perplexing issue. One of their local Arabic employees happened to come into the office. She   burst out laughing looking at the billboard sample put on the OHP (overhead projector) “Who would like to buy a detergent that makes clean cloth dirty and that too after washing it with the detergent. My son can do it free of Cost”.
Looking at the puzzled faces who were looking at her in amazement, totally confusing and lacking comprehension, she went on to explain “Oh Oh, You people don’t know it - right. I should have guessed it. Unlike most languages in the world Arabic is read from right to left and not from left to right. While you wanted to convey the meaning of dirty cloth becoming sparkling clean, the exact opposite was being conveyed to the Arabic customers – that the clean cloth becomes dirty by using our detergent”
This cross cultural gaffe left everyone in the room stunned and speechless.


  1. I am probably the only fire marshall at work who has let off an extinguisher...........I used to be a car race marshall years ago and had to spend a day or so learning how to put out car fires at a race track!

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  2. Amazing nice work. This is very useful article. Thank you. For more