Global Software
Dave Taylor
Intuitive Systems

Chapter 5 -- Pitfalls

Although much of internationalization is serious and complex, with millions of dollars riding on making the correct decisions at the correct times, there is nonetheless an amusing side. Companies that have tried to break into the international market (and foreign companies that have entered the U.S. market) have committed an almost infinite number of gaffes, from product naming to packaging, to advertisements, to even the location of manufacturing plants.

It is important to remember, however, that while these stories can be quite amusing, they demonstrate the exceptional difficulties facing a company moving into an international market. Further, as with any report of failure, companies prefer to brush these experiences under the proverbial rug rather than admit to any failures, so ascertaining the veracity of some of these tales is very difficult, as will be seen in the similarities between anecdotes.


The first, and perhaps most well known story is that of Chevrolet introducing their "Nova" automobile in Spanish speaking countries. Stories have it that the car sold very poorly because 'nova' means "doesn't go." In actuality, 'nova' means nothing in Spanish at all; 'var' is the verb 'to go' in Spanish, so "no va" is Spanish for "doesn't go". 'Nueva', however, means 'new', so many people have in fact suggested that the original Chevrolet name for the car was tied in with the Spanish nueva, or new.

That explanation seems unlikely, given the astronomical meaning of 'nova' in English. On the other hand, that meaning itself strikes one as a curious name for a car; 'nova' is defined as "a star that suddenly becomes more brilliant and then gradually fades," not an obviously good name for an automobile. The confusion is particularly illustrative.

Indeed, articles have been written on the strange apocryphal story of "nova" being interpreted as "doesn't go" in Spanish speaking countries. David Garrison, a professor of Modern Languages at Wright State University, notes that "Spanish speaking persons easily recognize 'nova' as a word relating to Spanish 'nueva', meaning new." Donald Ball, however, a professor of International Business at the University of Texas Pan American, makes no note of 'nueva' in his book, noting that "nova" and "no va" are pronounced differently anyway. Further, he notes that Pemex, the government-owned oil monopoly in Mexico, offers an unleaded petrol called "nova."

The theory of naming comes into play again too here; Ball states in his endnotes that "Most native Spanish speaking people connect nova with the star or with nuevo, which is probably what General Motors had in mind." Again, though, it seems difficult to believe that the car is named in the U.S. for a word that is 'similar to' a couple of different words in Spanish.

Finally, Juan Jorge Sch”ffer, Associate Dean of the Mellon College of Science, points out that 'nova' as "doesn't go" is clearly an anecdote, because the idiomatic translations for "doesn't go" would be "no marcha," "no funciona," or "no camina."

Similar to much of internationalization, there are glimmers of truth in the story, yet upon further examination, it is difficult to see how much is misunderstanding within the market, and how much is more of a misunderstanding of the marketplace. David Rickes, however, notes that General Motors did in fact change the name of the automobile to "CaribČ," with a resultant increase in sales.


International marketing is often more subtle than simply getting things to fit into the local marketplace. An example of this is the question of which side of an automobile the steering wheel should be on. Many analysts believe that it is vital for the wheel to be on the same side as the rest of the vehicles in the country (e.g., on the left in the U.S., on the right in England and Japan). Yet most Japanese who buy a Mercedes or BMW prefer the steering wheel to be located on the left -- or wrong -- side, because it is a status symbol. Further, according to Japanese reports, Honda quickly sold out of U.S.-made Accords that were brought into Japan, even though the steering wheels were, again, on the wrong side. In fact, a Japanese writer reported that the automobile "captured the hearts of young people with its left-hand steering wheel and luxury interior, unlike other cars found in Japan."


Naming of products is another spot where marketing can get in the way of success in a foreign marketplace. Just as French names add prestige to U.S. products, notably perfumes, foreign companies will often give U.S.-sounding names to their own products. Visitors to Japan, for example, are amused by a pre-moistened hand towelette called "Pocket Wetty", a lawn fertilizer called "Green Piles", "Cow" brand shampoo, "Shot Vision" televisions, a soup mix called "Kitchy", "More Ran" tea cakes, "Creap", an artificial coffee creamer, and even "Trim Pecker" trousers.

Some take a turn to the bizarre too; "Calpis" is not, as Advertising Age gleefully points out in an article on the subject, a bovine urine, but rather a popular Japanese soft drink. And "Nail Remover" isn't something to aid torturers, but rather a way to remove nail polish instead. Further, while "Taverna" might be an acceptable name in European countries for an eatery, it is surprising to find it used in Japan, as "taverna" translates, roughly, to "Do not eat."

When the Japanese beverage "Pocari Sweat" was brought to the United States the import company learned this cultural lesson firsthand. While the connotations of sweat in Japan are not a detriment in Japanese marketing -- since the Japanese believe that it represents a healthy, hard working body -- the connotations proved a significant problem in the U.S., and the manufacturer was forced to drop the second word before the product was successfully marketed in the U.S.


Another interesting situation is when a company anxiously spends considerable time and money to ensure that not only are their products appropriately named for each of the foreign markets they compete in, but that the company name itself is free of negative implications in any marketplace. Perhaps the most well known example of this is the series of name changes that Standard Oil have gone through in their decades of business. After concluding that Standard Oil sounded too much like a U.S. company, they changed the corporate name to "Esso." Esso, however, has some significant negative connotations in the Japanese market: it translates phonetically to "stalled car."

Using modern technology, Esso spent great amounts of money studying the language and slang of dozens of languages, enabling them to feed the data into a computer which then generated inoffensive non-word names suitable for an international corporation. This list of words was then given to numerous linguists who ascertained that "Exxon" was the best of the choices. Ironically, Exxon is similar to an obscure obscenity in Aluet Eskimo.

Richard Carr of the Carr Group notes that for all the effort spent by Exxon to devise a pristine name, they then changed their advertising slogan from "the sign of happy motoring" to "the sign of the double cross." The company has again revised their slogan, however, since 'double cross' has significant negative connotations in English.


Vehicles seem to be particularly prone to difficulties in naming for the international market, as has already been shown with the Chevrolet Nova. In the U.S., Daihatsu sells a vehicle called "Charade," which clearly has more negative connotations than positive in U.S. culture. "Cressida," a high-end Toyota sedan, is an allusion to the character of the same name in a Shakespearean play Troilus and Cressida. Problem is, in the play the character of Cressida is quite perfidious.

When General Motors Europe (Opel), introduced their popular European Corsa into the UK, they changed the name to, ironically, "nova"; research indicated that "corsa" was too close to "coarser," which was viewed as a detriment to successful sales.

Mitsubishi Motors of Japan tried marketing their popular Pajero car in the Spanish market but were baffled by their lack of success. The reason? Pajero is slang for "masturbation." The name was, well, withdrawn.

In a similar way, Fiat, a sporty Italian auto manufacturer, found that they had to rename their "uno" when selling it in Finland. "Uno" means garbage in Finnish.


Another common gaffe with software in particular is the use of obscure references or jargon to the confusion of the customers. An employee of Tandy Computer Corporation relates a tale of this nature; upon shipping a Unix system to Germany, it seems a customer there tried to rewind a tape. A slip of the finger resulted in them typing "rewund" rather than "rewind," however, and they got the error message "cannot grok rewund." Confusion and chaos ensued; no reference to grok was found in the documentation, English-German dictionaries had no entry for the word, and the European headquarters for Tandy Corporation had no idea either, being staffed with Europeans. The problem was ultimately escalated to the point where engineers back in Texas at Tandy headquarters saw it, to their amusement. In fact, 'grok' is a bit of computer jargon introduced by Robert Heinlein in the science fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land, where grok means "to understand fully and completely."

Another example of this can be illustrated through considering a recent advertising campaign from Data General Corporation. As shown in figure 5.1, the idea of the campaign was to poke fun at their competitor Sun Microsystems, with its popular "pizza box" profile Unix workstation. Instead, they ended up with an advertisement that is difficult to understand, and certainly would be baffling to those not having grown up in a culture that had pizza "to go," in the omnipresent flat cardboard boxes.

[Data General Pizza Box Advert]
Figure 5.1 Data General advertises via pizza, But delivery is cold?


Graphical interfaces are also prone to some confusion. In particular there are numerous stories about how the Apple Macintosh "trashcan" icon (a cylindrical bin) confused Britons; it looked much more like their postal boxes than a waste bin, and one can imagine the havoc ensuing when they delivered electronic mail to the box. In the same way, Sun Microsystems found that the icons they had for their electronic mail package under SunView -- a graphical interface -- confused those not in the U.S., who had never seen mail boxes on posts with small flags indicating whether new mail had arrived or not. (Further, the metaphor is incorrectly implemented anyway; physical mailboxes in the United States often have flags that are raised as a sign to the postal carrier that there is outbound mail therein. When mail is delivered, the flag is then lowered, giving an easy way for people to ascertain at a glance whether the mail has been delivered or not. On the computer, however, the meaning of the raised flag is reversed; a raised flag on the mailbox icon indicates that mail has arrived, not that it is queued to go out.)

The Free Software Foundations' GNU Emacs editor has a commonly used iconographic representation with graphical interfaces that represents a small (Western) kitchen sink. Why? Because the programmers and the user community have a running joke about how the editor is so powerful and complex that it is "everything but the kitchen sink." Needless to say, this type of graphical representation can prove tremendously confusing to users unaware of the joke, let alone those that are from a different culture and language completely.

Using animals for product imagery is fraught with dangers too. A U.S. deodorant found great success in the U.S. with their witty advertisement showing an octopus using the product under each of its eight "arms." When translated and shown in Japan, however, it was a flop, quite vilified by the locals; the Japanese consider octopus to have eight legs rather than eight arms.

In a similar manner, a U.S. marketing firm found that while a deer was a sign of masculinity in the U.S., it conveyed a slightly different image in Brazil, where "deer" is Brazilian slang for homosexual. In a similar manner, another company erred when it chose an owl as part of its promotional efforts in India. Problem is, Indians view the owl as a symbol of bad luck.


Product names that translate into obscenities represent a surprisingly large category of internationalization gaffes, many of which tend more to slang or colloquialisms than more formally defined words. For example, a while back Rolls Royce was planning on adding a new vehicle to their successful Silver Cloud line, tentatively named the "Silver Mist." Things were fine until someone pointed out that in German "mist" means manure.

Similarly, a Prime Computer engineer relates the tale of the renaming of their technical publications due to an unfortunate set of letters for the French market. Documents from Prime are denoted with a specific alphanumeric identifier in addition to a title, the identifiers indicating what type of release the document is associated with. For example, "IDR5595" might refer to "Initial Document Release", or "FDR48" would indicate "Final Document Release". Everything was fine until a Major Release Document was sent to France, much to the amusement of the locals; MRD was pronounced as merdé, which translates to "shit."

Indeed, when Toyota Motor Company released their popular MR2 sports car in France, they encountered the same obscenity; MR2 was pronounced as "el merdeux,", which loosely translates to the phrase "hey little shit man,", a famous joke in France for years!

A member of the Multics group at Honeywell relates the story of how they were completing an on-line conferencing system called "continuum," with a abbreviated name of "con." Bull of France, however, a firm that often marketed Honeywell products overseas, sent an urgent plea back to the development group when they heard about the product; "con" in France refers, rather crudely, to a particular portion of the female anatomy. The program was therefore renamed "forum."

This type of mistake can occur with products imported into English speaking countries from foreign corporations too. In particular, Olivetti of Italy introduced a product in the 1970s by the awkward name of "Square Holes in Tape." The acronym didn't work too well in English and the product promptly was given a different name in the English speaking market.

Canadians often encounter bizarre product names, since their products are required to be labeled in both English and French. In particular, people report boxes of cookies whereupon the English phrase "without preservatives" has been translated into the French "sans préservatives", which means "without condoms".

Speaking of prophylactics, in England a well known brand is called Durex. Australians, however, are used to Durex referring to cellophane -- or Scotch -- tape, so one can imagine the look of consternation when an Australian visiting England innocently walked into a chemist (drug store) and asked if they had any Durex with Father Christmas pictures on it, for a package he was wrapping to send home to Australia.

In the U.S., "BS" often is used as shorthand for "bullshit." In Australia, however, bulls (and steer) aren't as commonly a part of the cultural mythos as in the U.S., so instead they refer to rats (in particular, it is reputed to refer to kangaroo rats which are extremely common there) with the acronym "RS". Companies unaware of that are surprised when products are met with amusement by the local community. An early example of this was the Hewlett-Packard calculator line, where a key labelled "R/S" was a source of some chuckling in Australia (R/S is the "run/stop" key). More recently, IBM has been quickly renaming their RISCstation/6000 computers, since the original name of "RS/6000" was not too popular.

In Taiwan, a popular toothpaste used to be called "Darkie," a name that is clearly quite inappropriate for English speaking markets. Recently, they renamed the product to "Darlie", though the corporate logo remains a grinning black minstrel.


In the United States, perfumes typically keep their exotic, French names, but that can sometimes backfire. Yves St. Laurent found that out when they introduced a fragrance into the market called "Opium." It was believed to be in poor taste to name the fragrance after an illegal, and dangerous drug. The original French slogan for the product only exacerbated the situation: "Pour celles qui s'adonnet à Yves St. Laurent" or "For those who are addicted to Yves St. Laurent." When introduced into the Asian market further difficulties were encountered, as the Chinese viewed the use of the word "opium" as a racial slur.


A more general case of being unaware of foreign cultural traditions often also leads to amusing and bizarre situations. Gerber found this out in the African market rather the hard way; in many parts of Africa, because there are so many languages spoken, the custom is to illustrate the contents of a product on the label, ensuring customers are aware of what they're purchasing. Not knowing that, Gerber was quite surprised when their line of baby food products did so poorly; yet one can only imagine the horror an African must have experienced seeing a small glass jar with the picture of a baby on the label.

Japan has always been a fertile marketplace for U.S. entrepreneurs, often without sufficient research into the cultural differences there. In the early 1980's, for example, a baking firm spent a considerable amount of time inventing and perfecting a cake mix that could be made in the traditional Japanese rice cooker, an extremely common household appliance in Japan. Trials were quite successful, with people praising the company on how tasty and easy to make the cakes were. When introduced, however, no-one would purchase the product. Why? Rice, and the rice cooker, have a special significance in Japanese culture, and the Japanese were aghast at the possibility of sullying their rice cookers with another food, regardless of how tasty.

IVAC Corporation of California produces intravenous infusion pumps -- to deliver intravenous drugs to hospital patients -- and electronic thermometers. In the mid-1980s, they introduced a product into the market called "neomate," targeted at neonatal intensive care. In Spanish, however "neomate" translates approximately into "fresh kill", so, needless to say, they chose a different name for the Spanish product.


A particularly well known example of the difficulty in packaging a product for the overseas market was encountered by CocaCola Corporation when they introduced their flagship beverage into the Chinese market. Choosing glyphs in Chinese that sounded similar to the English words Coca Cola, they ended up with a product with the rather peculiar name of "bite the wax tadpole." (Other versions of this indicate that the translation was "beat the dead fish," a phrase sufficiently similar that they could both well be true.)

Their arch rival, Pepsi Corporation, has also proven prone to similar mistakes; the marketing slogan "Come Alive with Pepsi" was first translated into the Chinese phrase "Pepsi brings your dead ancestors back to life," a rather poor approach to selling soda. The same slogan was also translated into an interesting German approximation; "Come out of the grave with Pepsi."


Sometimes internationalization mistakes are more subtle, violating basic cultural mores and values. Ashton-Tate found this out the hard way when they introduced their FrameWork I and II PC software products into the Scandinavian market; the tutorial that was shipped with the program was humourously entitled "SpyMaster," and included students applying to "Spy School." What had gone over quite well in the U.S. market was flatly rejected by the Swedish, and eventually Ashton-Tate shipped FrameWork into Sweden without any tutorial at all.

Even within a corporation, information can be difficult to prepare for the international market. Nancy Foy, in her book on International Business Machines, relates the tale:

One Asia/Pacific veteran told of a visitor from headquarters who asked "How do you like the training stuff we are sending out from New York these days?"

"Some of it is okay"

"What do you mean 'some'? We are putting a lot of work and money into that stuff. Do not you appreciate it? How about our September selection of aids for the Fall Kickoff Meeting?"

"First of all," responded the weary countryman, "the word in English speaking countries out here would be 'autumn', not 'fall'. And below the equator, it is coming up to spring, not autumn. Finally, the word 'kickoff' relates to a uniquely American sport."


When Lotus first translated their best selling 1-2-3 spreadsheet package for the Japanese market, they found that they had to remove all beeps from the program; audio feedback upon making a mistake was viewed with a great deal of hostility by the Japanese who didn't want to broadcast to the entire office when they had made a mistake. The same translation yielded another cultural error; Lotus 1-2-3 Japan not only allowed users to add the common imperial date (or Emperor's Reign), but they also allowed users to change the name of the Emperor too. The Japanese were appalled, because the existence of this feature signified that one was planning for the Emperors' death, a concept fraught with cultural taboos.

Cultural differences can occur at any point in international product marketing, as two tales from Ferranti International Controls illustrate. In the first, the U.S. company was trying to sell automation systems to the Soviets and found difficulties with the translator. In particular, an engineer describing the remote telemetry equipment and the accompanying "infant mortality" caused the translator to look quite somberly at the engineer and ask "what do dead babies have to do with computer systems?" to the great amusement of the U.S. nationals present. To simplify, the engineer rephrased it as "setting a flag in the operating system on power failure", which gained a puzzled question from one of the Russians present; "Flag?"

More recently, Ferranti was working with a client in Venezuela on a power control system. The president of Ferranti ended a sentence rather emphatically by noting "And that is all we provide, period." Later, one of the Venezuelan engineers came up to the president and asked discretely whether people from the U.S. often used references to a woman's menstruation when swearing.

The Unix operating system, being primarily developed by researchers at Bell Labs, then significantly enhanced by a variety of U.S. university students, is full of curious cultural anachronisms that are not understood by non-technical U.S. residents, let alone foreign speaking cultures. Unix has countless references to "daemons", "killing processes," "zombie processes," "parent and child processes," and so on. With this nomenclature, it is easy to believe anecdotes such as the one relating that the first translation of "a child process was killed" (which means that a process spawned by the current process was terminated) into Japanese resulted in the more horrifying error "we just murdered your first-born child."


Cultural differences encompass more than just language translation and iconographic variation. A number of anecdotes refer to cultures that read from right to left, as opposed to the Western left to right ordering. In particular, billboards and advertisements that attempt to demonstrate the value of a particular product can backfire quite dramatically.

Consider a billboard that had three pictures:

The consequences of reading that in the opposite order to what the advertiser anticipated are clearly disastrous for the product in question. A similar billboard was used for a headache remedy in the Middle East, with the illustrations being a sad man with a headache, a man taking a pill, and a smiling man without a headache. Again, not too successful.

Interestingly, another aspect of billboard advertisements in the Middle East is that they often demonstrate that the company is not familiar with the local environmental conditions more than anything else; because of the extreme heat, many billboards deteriorate to a point where the advertisement is unreadable within two or three weeks, especially during the hotter summer months.


A significant difference between cultures is the role that women have in cultural and social activities. Indeed, the differences can sometimes become dramatic and unacceptable for the local market. In particular, the Canadian state of Quebec created an advertising review board to ensure that women were appropriately portrayed. The group has issued a number of "awards" for sexism since its formation. In 1981, for example, Sony and La Place stereo jointly created a television advertisement where a big busted woman, with her nipples clearly showing through her T-shirt, roller skated while listening to her Sony tape deck. The review board found that because there was absolutely no connection between the product and the image being shown, the advertisement was inappropriate and offensive.

Another "award" from the review board was given to the U.S. giant Proctor & Gamble for an advertisement featuring their household cleaning product "Mr. Clean". In the TV advertisement, a young girl is shown cleaning up her brother's mess as he watches, without any attempt to assist. The board noted that it reinforces stereotypes that are unacceptable in Quebec, including that housecleaning is solely womens' work, and that women should serve men.


A U.S. company that hired an Arabic speaking translator to help it prepare a product for the Arab market was surprised to find out -- after the fact -- that the translator had mis-translated the electronics phrase "dummy load" to the Arabic term for "false pregnancy." In a similar vein, another company hired an exchange student from Indonesia for some translation work. Unfortunately, the student did not understand computer terminology, and in particular did not understand the word "software." The result? The word was translated as "underwear", which no doubt made for amusing reading.


The international market for commodities, goods, and technical products is quite varied, with the different cultures and languages offering not only the opportunity for new sales, but the chance to make some embarrassing and awkward gaffes. While there is an amusing side to the tales related in this chapter, the lesson to be learned is that international marketing is much more than the simple translation of a program into another language, or the documentation into a different format.

Properly localized software applications, just like properly localized automobiles, toasters, beverages, and magazines, reflect the values, ethics, morals and language (or languages) of the nation in question. Similarly, properly internationalized applications are those where the development team has a sufficiently broad understanding of their own culture to be able to isolate and remove not only the language, but culturally specific items.

After all, mistakes are amusing, but not when you and your company are at fault.


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