Front-page news over the last few weeks provides a basic lesson in business globalization for you and your colleagues: Whatever you do in the privacy of your own country or in business units abroad may have consequences well beyond your borders.
In September 2005 a Danish newspaper published cartoons caricaturing the prophet Muhammad in a current political context. Anger among reverent Muslims simmered until January, resulting in mass demonstrations, the boycott of Danish goods, and the torching of first Denmark’s, then other European consulates, in some Islamic countries. Editor-in-chief Carsten Juste of Jyllands-Posten’s, the newspaper that originally printed the cartoons, said that the drawings “were not in violation of Danish law, but have undoubtedly offended many Muslims.”
Erase from your mind, if you can, the specific issue and the debates about religion and freedom of speech that it inspires. Instead, concentrate on the fact that something printed in a newspaper for domestic consumption inside the usually non-offensive country of Denmark, which then inflamed passions elsewhere in the world. Furthermore, these cartoons will have a substantial impact on Denmark’s balance of trade as entire countries stop buying Danish dairy and meat products. No one expected this level of reaction. Now consider some actions by well-known companies that demonstrate the difficulty a business will have in straddling two or more cultures:
- Several well-known U.S. web portals, Google among them, acquiesced to China’s desire to exclude the Human Rights Watch website, lesbian.com, and other subversive properties. Google, famous for its policy of doing no evil, apparently sees no evil as well. “The need for information crosses all borders,” item No. 8 in the list of “ten things Google has found to be true,” is for a future release of Google’s search engine. To its credit, Google has not caved in on giving up search information to U.S. government snoopers.
Lesson: Long-established business policies may not travel well. As you begin marketing and selling your goods or services in other markets, you will encounter contradictions with your company’s mission, stated policies, and business practices.
- Earlier this year the Sheraton Maria Isabel Hotel in Mexico City, Mexico evicted a Cuban delegation that was meeting with American oil companies. The hotel, owned by the American Starwood chain, gave in to a U.S. Treasury Department demand for the Cubans to leave, citing a violation of the Trading with the Enemy Act and the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992. These U.S. laws prohibit American firms and their overseas subsidiaries from providing services to Cubans. Mexican politicians were incensed that U.S. laws were being enforced on Mexican soil.
Lesson: The long arm of the law can reach over an international border and catch you on the wrong side of a regulation.
- During Chinese New Year Hong Kong Disneyland overflowed with visitors, forcing Disney officials to close the park to any more ticket holders. In January Disney offered a discounted one-day pass good for any day in the coming six months except a number of blackout days, including Chinese New Year. Hong Kong celebrates New Year over a four-day period, but the PRC celebrates it for a full week. Disney had only blacked out the Hong Kong dates, failing to adapt its ticket policy to the needs of the 1.3 billion people right next door. Many mainlanders showed up with what they thought were valid tickets, leaving Disney with a black eye.
Lesson: Learn everything you can about your international target markets. Don’t get caught unaware by things that any schoolchild could tell you.
The web famously erased borders when it first appeared, but like other mass media, it now reflects the laws, populations, and other needs of the physical markets that it serves. That means that companies operating internationally – whether online or on the ground – will have to pick out a tricky course between what they do at home and what is permissible abroad.
Take a proactive first step in educating yourself and your company about major issues that will affect your international marketing, sales, and support plans. Talk with your colleagues about your company’s value proposition, its corporate values, and how it does business. The discuss whether the company will travel well in its current form or whether what you do and say needs some work before heading abroad. I will suggest some more detailed issues to review in future columns, but this basic philosophical “debate” is one that every executive should have early on in their international planning meetings.
A final note: If you already have some international presence, you might worry that your company’s website will appear in CNN Headline News or on the front page of USA Today for some cultural, legal, or linguistic faux pas. To help you avoid the cultural mismatch, you can sign up for a free cultural assessment of one of your international websites in return for answering a few questions about how you have structured your global website efforts. It’s worth a few minutes of your time. Click here to take the survey.
Common Sense Advisory president Donald A. DePalma, Ph. D. pens a monthly column dedicated to the internationlization of your online brand for CHIEF MARKETER. He can be reached at email@example.com.