Akio Morita, the visionary co-founder of Sony, liked to tell a story about recognizing opportunities and shaping them into business concepts.
Two shoe salesmen … find themselves in a rustic backward part of Africa. The first salesman wires back to his head office: “There is no prospect of sales. Natives do not wear shoes!” The other salesman wires: “No one wears shoes here. We can dominate the market. Send all possible stock.”
Morita, along with his co-founder Masaru Ibuka, was a genius at creating consumer products for which no obvious demand existed, and then generating demand for them. Sony’s hits included such iconic products as a hand-held transistor radio, the Walkman portable audio cassette player, the Diskman portable compact disk player, and the Betamax videocassette recorder.
Products Lost in Translation
As the following case studies will illustrate, many companies haven’t had Sony’s luck in launching products that can stir up demand.
In each case in point, deeply ingrained cultural attitudes affected how consumers failed to embrace products introduced into their respective markets.
Case Study #1: Nestlé’s Paloma Iced Tea in India
When Swiss packaged food-multinational Nestlé introduced Paloma iced tea in India in the ’80s, Nestlé’s market assessment was that the Indian beverage market was ready for an iced tea variety.
Sure thing, folks in India love tea. They consume it multiple times a day. However, they must have it hot—even in the heat of the summer. Street-side tea vendors are a familiar sight in India. Huddled around the chaiwalas are patrons sipping hot tea and relishing a savory samosa or a saccharine jalebi.
It’s no wonder, then, that, despite all the marketing efforts, Paloma turned out to be a debacle. Nestlé withdrew the product within a year.
Case Study #2: Kellogg’s Cornflakes in India
The American packaged foods multinational Kellogg’s failed in its initial introduction of cornflakes into the Indian market in the mid ’90s. Kellogg’s quickly realized that its products were alien to Indians’ consumption habits—accustomed to traditional hot, spicy, and heavy grub, the Indians felt hungry after eating a bowl of sweet cornflakes for breakfast. In addition, they poured hot milk over cornflakes rendering them soggy and less appetizing.
Case Study #3: Oreo Cookies in China
When Kraft Foods, launched Oreo in China in 1996, America’s best-loved sandwich cookie didn’t fare very well. Executives in Kraft’s Chicago headquarters expected to just drop the American cookie into the Chinese market and watch it fly off shelves.
Chinese consumers found that Oreos were too sweet. The ritual of twisting open Oreo cookies, licking the cream inside, and then dunking it in milk before enjoying them was considered a “strangely American habit.”
Not until Kraft’s local Chinese leaders developed a local concept—a wafer format in subtler flavors such as green-tea ice cream—did Oreo become popular.
Idea for Impact: Your expertise may not translate in unfamiliar and foreign markets
In marketing, if success is all about understanding the consumers, you must be grounded in the reality of their lives to be able to understand their priorities.
- Don’t assume that what makes a product successful in one market will be a winning formula in other markets as well.
- Make products resonate with local cultures by contextualizing the products and tailoring them for local preferences.
- Use small-scale testing to make sure your product can sway buyers.