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International Business: We all benefit when global business leaders share lessons learned from their failures

Published: Friday, Jan. 14 2011 7:00 a.m. MST

In this Jan. 7, 2010, photo, attendees look at the Bing display at the Microsoft exhibit at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Associated Press

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The Parker Pen Company has long advertised reliable fountain pens that will not cause embarrassment by leaking in pockets. The company’s slogan was once “Avoid embarrassment — use Parker Pens.” Unfortunately, when Parker Pen decided to enter the Latin American market, it translated the slogan into Spanish as “Avoid pregnancy — use Parker Pens,” apparently using the false cognate “embarazar” or “embarazo.” Talk about embarrassment!

Author David A. Ricks, in his book Blunders in International Business, applauds the Parker Pen Company for being “open and refreshingly frank” about the cause of this incident. He wisely notes, “All firms have at one time or another made mistakes. If more firms would be as helpful as the Parker Pen Company, then we would all more clearly understand the causes of these errors and avoid them in the future.”

Admitting a mistake can be difficult. Publicizing a mistake so that everyone else can learn from it requires even more courage. Companies that chart new territory and pioneer new ideas are bound to encounter bumps along the road, but they become leaders when they share their hard-earned knowledge with others. We all benefit when international businesses are not afraid to share painful lessons learned.

The Parker Pen Company has since done much to help others learn how to avoid similar language-related gaffes. Ricks gives additional examples of how Parker has successfully adjusted its marketing to be sensitive to Spanish language variations in Latin America. The company’s former vice president of worldwide marketing, Roger E. Axtell, published the book Do’s and Taboos around the World. This is certainly an example of true leadership in global business.

Microsoft is often singled out for various intercultural blunders, but let us be honest about the reasons why: Microsoft is liable to occasionally commit various intercultural blunders either because of its massive size or because it is the first to introduce certain products in many languages. Furthermore, few companies are as recognizable as Microsoft and few companies come close to doing international business on the same level as Microsoft. Trailblazers are almost certain to run into trouble now and again.

Fortunately, Microsoft, like the Parker Pen Company, also shares much of what it has learned over the years. The software giant shares international technical tips in the “Go Global Developer Center,” linguistic resources in the “Microsoft Language Portal” and cultural tips via other avenues. Tom Edwards, former head of Microsoft’s geopolitical product strategy team, openly relates some of the international blunders that led to the creation of his team and the tightening of controls surrounding international releases.

Before Edwards joined the software giant, India banned sales of a Microsoft product containing a large map that excluded the disputed territories of Jammu and Kashmir from Indian borders. The company had to recall more than 200,000 copies of its Windows 95 operating system software because a few pixels were colored according to United Nations standards instead of Indian standards. “It cost millions,” said Edwards.

In a later instance, after a Muslim linguist “went ballistic” over a product evaluation, Edwards recommended Microsoft destroy 75,000 copies of a game that used chanting of the Quran in its soundtrack. Unfortunately, when some senior managers failed to listen to Edwards, the Saudi government saw the original game, banned it and demanded an apology.

Microsoft is now much more thorough when entering other countries. Before releasing the Bing search engine in more than 50 countries and more than 30 languages, Microsoft senior vice president Yusuf Mehdi says the company “underwent a comprehensive process,” including extensive customer research and consultation with language specialists.

Such preparation for Bing’s international release revealed an interesting challenge in China. Chinese characters that sound like “Bing” can mean “sick” or have other negative connotations. For this reason, Mehdi told the New York Times that Microsoft added an extra character, changing the pronunciation to “Bi-ying” that shifted to an improved meaning of “certain to respond” or “ready to answer.”

Hiding behind confidentiality and non-disclosure policies is certainly more comfortable than transparency. However, the most effective global leaders often teach the rest of us about not only personal successes, but also personal blunders, warts and the like. Such candid examples make a leader’s advice much more believable. Furthermore, such lessons provide us not only a checklist of “dos,” but also a checklist of equally important “do nots.” Next time someone candidly shares painful global lessons learned, we would do well to thank them and share our own, too.

Adam Wooten is director of translation services at Lingotek. He also teaches a course on translation technology at BYU. E-mail: awooten@lingotek.com . Follow him on Twitter at AdamWooten..

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