Cultural Differences

Now for something totally different and unrelated to the booze business…

My last posting on vodkas from around the world stimulated a lot of conversation about Americans doing business internationally. My friend Ernie Speranza, a toy industry executive and former head of marketing at Toys R Us told me the following story that I want to share with you.

“Ah, the fun of working for an international company. While not as much fun as the spirits world, the international toy world had its share of strangeness too.

We (Toys R Us) were opening our first store in Saudi Arabia and the night before we opened the authorities came in and told us we could not open because of the packaging for Bathing Suit Barbie. It seemed they were concerned that people could not handle such an obscene display of western flesh…. or plastic.

We then had to work into the night using black magic marker on the see-through packaging in order to hide Barbie’s breasts. Here I am, an MBA, the head of marketing for arguably the largest toy retailer in the world with 20 years experience in marketing, and I am sitting on a concrete floor in an Arab country under penalty of jail time using a black magic marker to hide Barbie’s breasts. You just can’t make this shit up.”

A new product idea — Burqa Barbie

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Getting back to the booze business, Ernie once told me a story of his experience doing business in Japan and I used his story when working with the Absolut brand owners.

Let me set the stage for you… When we started working with our Swedish partners, every now and then they would lapse into conversations with each other in Swedish. Since their command of English was as good or better than many of us, we were a bit dumbfounded and not sure what to make of it. Invariably we were told something like, “oh, please excuse us, it’s sometimes easier to share our thoughts among ourselves in Swedish.” Sure.

On one occasion I decided to relate a story my friend Ernie had told me about a trip to Japan to open the retail market there on behalf of Toys R Us.

They brought an American with them who was fluent in Japanese, and was told to not to let it be known that he was translating. His role was to quietly inform the American team of what actually was being said. The meeting was with a leading Japanese ad agency to discuss messaging, media and related topics. As the meeting ensued, the Japanese translator was giving sanitized answers to the American team’s requests and the American translator was providing the real statements.

When the Japanese ad folks were supposedly saying “good idea”, “we understand what you’re looking for and we’ll work on it” they actually were saying things like “they don’t understand the Japanese culture or people” “keep smiling and shaking your head, they will go home soon and we’ll do what needs to be done.” Ernie kept telling his translator to keep a low profile and his role will be revealed when the time is right.

After an entire morning of this, it was time to go to lunch. The agency execs were still making comments and their Japanese translator kept sanitizing their remarks. Finally, the team from the States could no longer take it. As the waiter came by to take the table’s order, Ernie whispered to his American translator, “now!”  In fluent Japanese, this American, who had sat quietly through the meetings and just taking it all in, began to order food in perfect Japanese. The agency executives turned pale and lowered their heads.

Ernie said, “Please tell them that after lunch we will start all over.”

When I told this story to the folks from Absolut, they just smiled and nodded their heads.

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