Lost in Translation

 Lost in Translation

In spite of the oft-repeated statement that the world is flat, and that it is a borderless world, one cannot become flippant when entering a region like the East that has diverse cultures and norms quite different from the West.

Let me start off with a few examples.

Tex-Mex. For many years, this cuisine hasn’t done very well in Asia (although it is changing as the Millennials are more adventurous and travel widely) because of its heavy use of shredded cheese and beef. Many Asians feel nausea when too much cheese is used.

Cinnamon-related bakeries
. A few of these have come to Asia but most Asians (Singaporeans and Hong Kong people) find the buns overly sweet.

Themed restaurants that are popular in the West may find an unenthusiastic audience in Asia because of the lack of connection. For example, a café that revolves around a popular TV comedy series (décor that mimics the sitting room setting; the café where the key characters congregate often…) might not find a big enough following to sustain its business.

Lost in translation? Translating the Western name into the local language can be a tricky exercise. A sandwich chain had to choose different Chinese characters for another part of the country because the earlier Chinese characters sounded ‘unhygienic’ in the dialect of the other region. Another example is branded fashion; Hermes translated Chinese characters which were not those used (or understood) more frequently by the end consumers.

Face (or giving face; or saving face) is a subtle but very important factor in many parts of Asia. It is unwise to correct an Asian in front of his subordinates for sure. There are still many Asians who laugh off something not because they are flippant or irresponsible but as a way to ‘save face’—to ward off that moment of embarrassment.

Using of the finger/fingers. I have seen hand gestures made unwittingly by friends from the West that are considered very rude. A folded hand slamming against the other palm is a no-no. Pointing at someone with a finger is analogous to accusation or warning. And never use a finger to urge someone to come towards you. Use all fingers and wave gently inwards.

Silence is a form of wisdom (Lao Tzu). Many Asians (China, Korea, Japan, etc) do not speak up or voice their opinion immediately, but this is not because they are ignorant. They believe that a cool mind and a cool disposition is important as these will help them avoid mistakes. Speaking against the authorities is not as common in Asia. Rightly or wrongly, being steely patriotic is considered by most as a virtue.

Other examples gleaned from the internet:

* A cologne for men pictured a pastoral scene with a man and his dog. It failed in Islamic countries as dogs are considered unclean.

* Proctor & Gamble used a television commercial in Japan that was popular in Europe. The ad showed a woman bathing, her husband entering the bathroom and touching her. The Japanese considered this ad an invasion of privacy, inappropriate behavior, and in very poor taste.

* An American business person refused an offer of a cup of coffee from a Saudi businessman. Such a rejection is considered very rude and the business negotiations became stalled.

* A golf ball manufacturing company packaged golf balls in packs of four for convenient purchase in Japan. Unfortunately, pronunciation of the word “four” in Japanese sounds like the word “death” and items packaged in fours are unpopular.

* Mountain Bell Company tried to promote its telephone and services to Saudis. Its ad portrayed an executive talking on the phone with his feet propped up on the desk, showing the soles of his shoes – something an Arab would never do!

Clearly, understanding the target market is important whether one is trying to sell in a province or on a new continent. Do note that Asia is not a homogeneous region. With some relatively straight-forward desk research it is possible to get to grips with obvious differences such as language issues, distribution methods or the types of advertising media that are available, but stepping outside one’s own cultural frame of reference is not always easy. We are all the centre of our own universe, and prejudices and pre-conceptions can cloud judgement.

In many of my lectures around the world, I have talked about using the letter ‘C” when listing considerations before accessing a new market: Culture (religion, palate); Consumer (ability to spend; affinity to the concept and brand); Contract (local laws and regulations); Competition. Circumstance (PEST), and so on…

Yes, the world is flat and unless a government deliberately blocks foreign brands from entering, every country will get a chance to have as many franchise brands as their people want. The key question is: are the sellers (franchisors) and the buyers (franchisees) fully aware of what they are getting into?

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