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Avoiding the pitfalls of global marketing
Journal of Commerce / September 16, 1998

By Larry Luxner

WASHINGTON -- In the 1970s, Chevrolet introduced its Nova compact car to the Mexican market, but decided not to change the brand name. Sales never took off, since in Spanish "no va" means "it doesn't go" -- a detail the GM folks forgot to take into account.

Likewise, Parker Pen Co. made a fool of itself in Latin America, when its message "use Parker and avoid embarrassing situations" was translated into Spanish as "use Parker and avoid getting pregnant."

Those two examples illustrate the need for global marketers to understand how to do business in foreign cultures, a central theme of Paul A. Herbig's new Handbook of Cross-Cultural Marketing. Published by The Haworth Press Inc., this 375-page volume ($59.95 hardcover, $29.95 paperback) is an interesting compendium of do's and don'ts for both U.S. and foreign executives contemplating doing business outside the borders of their own countries.

Among other things, the book explains how to sensitize marketing approaches to the cultural norms and toaboos of other societies, while taking into account other cultures' language, work schedules, tastes, religious beliefs and lifestyle choices.

For example, Herbig discusses the importance Latin Americans place on personal connections. He gives the example of an unidentified U.S. company that made a slick presentation to a potential South American client in which it "clearly demonstrated its superior product and lower price." The Swedish competitor, on the other hand, took five days to get to know the customer, discussing everything but the product itself. In the end, the Swedish manufacturer won the order -- even though its product cost more and was less attractive.

"In Latin America, social relationships must be developed before doing business; if companies do not do so, they will alienate clients and end up with nonexistent sales," he writes. "Prospects will want to discuss their company, its needs and its philosophy with you and learn similarly about your company, its values and you. Evidence of being simpatico is important. The process of building personal rapport could take months of years and naturally results in a slower sales cycle."

He adds: "Latins complain Americans are too boastful; they become irritated and resistant to American sales pitches. Latins typically find the Americans too direct, too impersonal and pushy, while Latins to the Americans seemed unable or unwilling to stick to the point. To the Latin, the relationship is the important part. The details of the equipment are less important than the relationship established."

Doing market research is often much more difficult in Latin America than in the United States. That's largely because telephone surveys -- the method most commonly employed in the U.S. -- often fall flat in Latin America since few households have phones. Also, focus groups in Latin America often disappoint, since as many as nine out of 10 respondents won't show up even if they have promised and you have reminded them. When they do show up, writes Herbig, Latins -- wishing to be polite -- have a tendency to tell interviewers what they want to hear, rather than what they really think about a given product or service.

While Herbig's book discusses cross-cultural marketing throughout the world -- including Western Europe, the Balkans, the Middle East and Japan -- much attention is devoted to Latin America and the U.S. Hispanic market, an area the author knows well. Herbig is a professor in the management and marketing department at Texas A&M International University in Laredo, Tex.

Despite increasing globalization, companies often have to tailor-make products to Latin markets if they want to stay in business. Levi Strauss & Co., for instance, specifically developed its tight-fitting, curvaceous Femina jeans for the Brazilian market, while Campbell's sells soup in Mexico in cans large enough to serve four or five people, because Mexican families are generally large.

The U.S. Hispanic market -- with over 20 Spanish-speaking subgroups -- also has its own idiosyncracies and nuances of language. Breakfast drink Tang advertises itself as jugo de china in Puerto Rico, though orange juice in the rest of the Spanish-speaking world is called jugo de naranja.

Likewise, Campbell Soup Co. acquired a Puerto Rican manufacturer of canned pinto beans called Casera Foods and heavily marketed the products in Miami and New York. Casera prospered in New York, but didn't do nearly as well in Miami, where the largely Cuban population prefers black beans instead.

Interestingly, writes Herbig, "Campbell's found that Brazilian housewives determined their self-esteem by their homemaking abilities: the importance of making soup from scratch eliminated any value of a soup from a can."

Not all of Herbig's examples are accurate. For instance, he writes that "the award-winning Budweiser commercial using frogs to croak out the brand name, used coqui (clams) in Puerto Rico rather than frogs because Puerto Ricans view frogs as unclean." This is nonsense: a "coqui" is a frog, not a clam -- and is such a beloved creature that coquis are even featured on Puerto Rican license plates. In fact, islanders often say they are "as Puerto Rican as the coqui."

Nevertheless, Herbig's Handbook of Cross-Cultural Marketing offers lots of useful and interesting tidbits. As the book jacket says, it gives executives hands-on strategies and advice for delving into different markets, using techniques that are respectful of individual cultures, and avoiding fiascos -- like those of Chevrolet or Parker Pen -- that can occur "if you don't take the initiative to get to know the culture of your new marketplace."

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