Volume 36, Issue 1, January 2001



Bleeps, Bloops and Blunders

What Happens When Your Sure-Fire Invention Turns Belly-Up in Another Country?

by Rene Bergero

We are all familiar with, or at least aware of, some spectacular cases of big company marketing blunders. One often-cited example involves GM and Latin America. GM had just introduced a new car model and management was perplexed by lack of sales for this product line. The word finally got back to the corporate office that the name chosen for this new model, Nova, translates to “won’t go” in Spanish. Now, would you buy a car that won’t go? You can almost understand how this could happen at a company as massive as GM, but it also happens to small, entrepreneurial firms as well.

Mistakes Do Happen
Several years ago, while in another occupation, I was assisting an Australian wire and cable manufacturer in selling an “idiot-proof” set of car-battery jumper cables. These patented cables were designed so that you could not possibly hook them up the wrong way, (negative to positive). They worked great too, except for one tiny flaw: the Australian company had not taken into account just how much colder winters in the United States are compared to its own. Consequently, the insulation material was not able to flex when the temperature dropped below 20 F. When left in a car overnight, the jumper cables would not unroll. The insulation actually would crack. This is a rather serious problem that caused some spectacular short circuits. As we who live in the Midwest know, there is a direct relationship between low temperatures and dead car batteries. Unless the insulation material was changed, these jumper cables would not have a chance. Well, it turned out that fixing this problem would raise the product completely out of the target price range. Disappointed, and after much expense, the Australians withdrew from the U.S. market.

Learn from Mistakes
These oversights, while amusing in an anecdotal way, illustrate the importance of tailoring your product to your market. This may involve only minor changes, like a name, or changes so significant that they may not be worth the expense.
The first step involves understanding what can kill the product from the outset. You can either spend a lot of money on consultants, or do a little digging on your own to answer this question. Let’s focus on the latter. Try to get hold of newspapers, magazines or even the “Yellow Pages” from the country in question. At the very minimum, you will get some idea of what your competitors are calling the products they sell. Also keep in mind that sometimes color selection can be critical. In some Asian cultures the color white is associated with death, so if you’re selling “White Knight Cleaner” you might want to consider a color change.

Most countries set up some sort of consular and/or trade mission presence in major U.S. metropolitan areas. There is a very good chance that the kind of information needed for this type of analysis will be available. Once you have a short list of potential names, contact a student association at one of your local colleges whose members are from the region or country in question. These organizations have names like “Latino Students Association” and should be easy to find. Talk to the organization’s president. Tell him or her you’ll sponsor an event (or just offer to buy the group pizza and beer) in exchange for the organization’s input on the names selected.

Once you know that the name is alright, use the Australian battery jumper cable experience as your example to find all possible factors that may differ significantly between your plant and the final destination. Even storage conditions could be significant. As an example, I have seen many instances where glass cases are stored outdoors, exposed to the elements and stored only with a flimsy tarpaulin cover. How would your product fare under these conditions?

Spending a little time and money to know your market will be well worth the effort.


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