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International Business: Marketing in Asia by the numbers: Numerology affects international business

Published: Friday, Nov. 18 2011 7:00 a.m. MST

Numbers also factor into intercultural gift exchanges, flower giving and fingers in a hand gesture. Unfortunately, as meanings change from one market to another, knowing the meaning of a number in one country is not always enough to keep a marketer out of trouble.

“The number seven is a particularly tricky number,” explains author David A. Ricks in his book Blunders in International Business. “It is considered good luck in many countries, but bad luck in others. It even has magical connotations in parts of Africa.”

U.S. consumers share some of these superstitions as was evident recently on Nov. 11, 2011, when the U.S. echoed the booms of increased weddings in China and scheduled Caesarean-section births in South Korea. Still, many Americans who consider themselves less superstitious may find it difficult to understand how strong connotations can be associated with a number and cause a culture to avoid it whenever possible.

Perhaps U.S. citizens will better understand an aversion to certain numbers, based on tradition, when they consider diverse connotations associated with the Japanese symbol called the manji. The manji is the mark of 10,000, is a metaphor for good fortune, is frequently displayed on Buddhist temples and also means “temple.” However, some Westerners participating in the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, felt very uncomfortable seeing or displaying this symbol because it looks very similar to the Nazi swastika, which is reversed left to right and tilted 45 degrees. Though the symbol is a positive one in Japan, a Japanese company would be wise to avoid using it in marketing campaigns meant for the U.S.

As with all the potential cultural differences cited in this column, chances are no one will be able to memorize every potential numerical pitfall in every country. However, a simple awareness that misused numbers can lead to serious business blunders may suffice to keep us vigilant and motivate us to seek out the appropriate expert help when entering new international markets.

Adam Wooten is director of translation services at Lingotek. He also teaches a course on translation technology at Brigham Young University. Email: awooten@lingotek.com. Follow him on Twitter at AdamWooten.

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