Following are some painful, albeit sometimes humorous, examples of international business fiascoes. Rather than coming from a lack of preparation, many mistakes are caused by incorrect assumptions about the local business and cultural environment.
Chevy Nova in Puerto Rico – In the 1970's General Motors launched their popular Chevy Nova model in Puerto Rico confident that it would be a hit there just as it was among Hispanics in the USA. But sales were disappointing until a local salesman pointed out that "Nova" in Spanish means "doesn't go" or "won’t work" (ˇNo va!). So they changed the name to "Caribe" meaning "Caribbean" and sales soared.
Wal-Mart in Argentina – In their early days, this now extremely successful global retailer made some colossal and avoidable mistakes or rather assumptions. For the sake of worldwide consistency, they insisted that overseas stores run the same seasonal promotions as in the US. The Argentinean Wal-Mart buyer complained to us that she had just received a large shipment of winter gear, such as parkas, skis and mittens, for a mandated November promotion but was having trouble moving the merchandise. No one at the Bentonville, Arkansas headquarters remembered that, in the Southern Hemisphere, the seasons are reversed. November is the start of summer in Argentina.
Visiting Brazilian Distributors – A Sales Director for a Chicago-based Foodservice equipment manufacturer met with a potential Brazilian distributor at a local trade show. A meeting was set up with the Brazilian company's key decision makers flying into Chicago for the occasion. Advised that their guests did not speak fluent English, a Spanish language interpreter was hired for the meeting. At the end of the meeting, the Brazilians politely thanked their hosts but afterwards never returned their phone calls or emails. You see, they speak Portuguese in Brazil, not Spanish, and the Brazilians were offended that their hosts did not know that.
A Latin American Business Lunch – A Canadian Sales Manager, eager to develop his export business, met with a Latin American retail buyer at a Miami trade show. The meeting seemed to go extremely well so he suggested they meet later for lunch at an upscale steak house. The lunch meeting also seemed to go well. So well, in fact, that the buyer insisted on picking up the tab - then he was never heard from again. Just because a Latin American offers or even "insists" on paying the bill, it does not mean he wants or expects to. He probably expected his host to insist even more and win the "battle for the bill".
Got Milk? - The Milk Advisory Board decided to bring their successful ad campaign to the growing US Hispanic market by translating their slogan into Spanish. Unfortunately, the literal translation of "Got Milk?" was interpreted by some Spanish speakers as a question about lactation.
Avoid Embarrassment - A Parker Pen ad campaign showed a close up photo of a man’s dress shirt with a leaking pen in the front pocket. The slogan read: "Avoid Embarrassment – Use Parker Pens". However, in Latin American markets the word "embarrassment" was literally translated into the Spanish word "embarazo". Technically this is correct however it more often means "pregnancy". Their slogan "Avoid Pregnancy – Use Parker Pens" did cause embarrassment indeed -- for the company.
Pilsbury in Japan - Eager to introduce this legendary brand into the Japanese market, Pilsbury researched traditional Japanese cakes, developed tasty mixes and confirmed with focus groups that Japanese consumers liked their products. But after expensive advertising and promotional campaigns were launched, the product just sat on the shelf. Finally a Japanese assistant reporting to one of the Tokyo-based American managers sheepishly explained that fewer than 10% of Japanese homes had ovens. No one said anything earler because in Japan, as in many other cultures, to point out the error of a superior is considered disrespectful.
Anchor Hocking in Spain - This famous US glassware manufacturer set up a warehouse in Amsterdam to distribute their products throughout Western Europe. Contrary to the warning from in-country sales reps that European consumers only wanted beverageware in the 4-8 oz. size range, their giant 22 oz. tumblers were the biggest seller. Feeling vindicated they tripled their large tumbler inventories but ended up having to liquidate most of it. Only later did they discover that the 22oz. tumblers were being sold in Spain as ice cube buckets.