Want to Be Successful in the Global Marketplace? Do Your Homework
It’s undeniable that the ever-morphing world of global commerce offers a multitude of golden opportunities to prosper in the marketplace of international business that were inconceivable just a decade ago. But as those advantageous chances abound, so do the opportunities to fail.
There’s an old saying that “success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan,” and, while one might expect that long-established multinational companies would be immune from failure, the sad, and sometimes humorous, truth is that they’re not.
The fact is that many companies invest millions of dollars on product design, development, sales, and marketing utilizing the latest communications technology only to fail miserably, simply because they didn’t do basic homework on their target market.
Speaking of targets, take the message posted on Walt Disney Japan’s Twitter page congratulating its Japanese followers on the 70th anniversary of the dropping of an atomic bomb on Nagasaki – a message conveyed via the latest technology and viewed by millions – wishing everyone “Congrats on a trifling day” and “a very merry un-birthday to you!,” a line from a song in the Disney film “Alice in Wonderland.”
Disney Japan, a subsidiary of the California-based global entertainment giant, pulled the “Tweet” and offered “deep apologies for causing discomfort,” saying it was sorry for using an “inappropriate expression that could annoy people” and that “it would “take care to manage the Twitter account more carefully.”
One can only hope as someone at Disney thought it appropriate to post the tweet on one of the least “trifling” days on the Japanese calendar.
The Japanese translation of the English language message described the day as “not special,” prompting sharp criticism from readers who questioned the timing of the posting. “Why are you offering congratulations, Disney-san?” said one in classic Japanese understatement.
Why indeed, but the most recent Disney faux pas isn’t the first international marketing blunder made by the company.
Its glaring mistakes in launching its theme parks in both Tokyo and Paris were rife with migraine-inducing errors due to the over-confident parent company’s narcissistic decision to export its American brand of management en masse to both projects.
The overweening attitude in the Magic Kingdom was that, if it works here (that is, in this case, the U.S.), it’ll work everywhere else – a pervasive mindset that’s been at the core of a major, often very expensive, egg on the face of many a company that failed to think before it acted, either locally or globally.
Here are a few examples of the thousands of timeless stories from real life from the zany missteps of companies from the U.S. and elsewhere that failed to clear a hurdle, or two, in the never-ending race for market share.
Once upon a time, there was a major auto manufacturer with vast international operations. The company invested millions in preparing the introduction of its latest model car in Latin America with maintenance manuals, marketing materials, advertising, and internal communications produced and transmitted in Spanish. The problem was that the company had decided to unveil the new car in its largest target market, Brazil, where people speak Portuguese, not Spanish.
Did you know that the English word “mist” translates into German as “manure”? Apparently, neither did a large U.S.-based beauty care company tried to market its MistStick curling iron in Germany. The marketing plan flopped, so to speak, as few, if any, ladies saw the appeal in running a stick of hot cow dung through their hair.
Years ago, a marketing firm conducted a consumer test on the streets of Vilnius, Lithuania, asking passers-by to sample a new perfume. The company was chagrinned to find that the brand name of the perfume elicited a decidedly negative response from more than 70 percent of the women it surveyed. It seems the brand name – CK – happened to be the acronym for the Central Committee of the recently disbanded Lithuanian Communist Party.
A Southern California based fast-food chain franchiser took a shot at the Japanese market in the early 1990s, but the company had to rethink its strategy when its barbecued chicken—with its signature spicy, yellow skin—made health-conscious Japanese customers think the chicken was, at best, spoiled, or at worst, diseased.
The efforts of a European tomato paste producer to penetrate the Middle East market failed to catch on with consumers when the company discovered too late that the words “tomato paste” had been literally translated into Arabic as “tomato glue.”
Several years ago, a Taiwanese company sent a shipment of drinking glasses to a consignee in the Middle East via ship. The glasses were packed in wooden crates with hay used as dunnage to prevent breakage. Despite the company’s precautions, the glasses arrived in shards. Why? The moisture content of the hay dropped significantly as the ship carrying the crates sailed into the warmer, less humid climate of the Middle East. The hay shriveled to the point that it offered virtually no protection for the fragile cargo.
Just one last example with a lesson that’s increased in value, as recent events will attest.
A few years ago, executives with a major European-based brewer convened a meeting of its U.S. distributors in Miami, Florida, to introduce a new teaser advertising campaign that played off its trademarked Red Star logo. A significant number of the distributors were not amused, informing the visiting executives that the state’s numerous Cuban émigrés would take the logo as an inflammatory and insensitive reference to the Communist regime that so many of them had fled. The ads, wisely, were immediately shelved.
John Anderson is former vice president-international at Rubbermaid Inc. and currently senior lecturer at the University of Tennessee’s Haslem College of Business. Ruminating on his varied experiences in the international business arena, he shared some thoughts in a January 2000 interview in Industry Week magazine.
“Companies of almost any national origin and size make common, basic errors when they try to grow their international business,” he said. “These mistakes are time-consuming and expensive, and they usually stem from a combination of inexperience, ignorance, and/or ignorance.
Warning of the pitfalls of the arrogance that routinely results in failure, don’t proclaim your firm to be a global company “unless you fully understand the resources, commitment and actions required to back up that proclamation.”
Penetrating faraway markets “wisely and prudently” he concluded, “can generate growth and profits for years to come. However, half-hearted or ill-conceived globalization efforts produce nothing more than a deep hole into which you’ll pour money, time, and effort with little or no return.”
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