Related topics

Adapting or Blundering: U.S. Tastes Sometimes Tough Hurdle For Importers

April 29, 1990

NEW YORK (AP) _ Foreigners keep hearing Washington say America is the most open-minded market in the world. For the other side of the story, ask the importers of the Japanese ″Fair Lady″ sedan, ″Red Kremlin″ Soviet perfume and ″Pschitt,″ the French soft drink.

Overseas companies wooing U.S. consumers with items ranging from cars to clothes to food have discovered their brand names sometimes are considered mushy, goofy or vulgar. Some must be altered or scrapped because they won’t sell, victims of cultural gaffes and increasing undertones of protectionism.

″Some companies have all kinds of problems adapting,″ said Gene Milosh, president of the American Association of Exporters and Importers, a 1,200- member group of mostly importers.

Marketing goofs work both ways: American sales pitches abroad also have blundered. Perhaps the most notorious was the attempt to sell the Chevrolet Nova in Latin America, where ″no va″ means ″it doesn’t go.″

But the flood of imports into this country in recent years has focused more attention on how foreigners repackage, rename and alter goods to exploit American tastes.

Japan’s Nissan, for example, renamed its Bluebird sedan the Stanza and the Fair Lady sports car as the 300ZX.

″Fair Lady doesn’t evoke performance-oriented images. You could even say it’s wimpy,″ said Don Spetner, spokesman for Nissan Motor Corp. USA in Los Angeles. Bluebird ″has a very feminine, almost weak connotation.″

The first ″Z cars″ arrived in U.S. ports in the 1970s with the Fair Lady label on them, Spetner said, and the company’s American marketers quickly decided consumers wouldn’t buy the car unless the name were changed.

″They ran around peeling off the labels and replacing them with ’240Z,′ the name of the car’s prototype,″ he said.

In another instance, a Japanese soft drink failed to appeal to American taste buds even though the name was changed.

The drink, Pocarisweat, is a citrus-based beverage popular among Japanese athletes and was test-marketed in California as Pocari during the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Keva Moore, spokeswoman for importer Ohtsuka Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd. in Rockville, Md., said the drink still didn’t catch on because it was too salty.

A Soviet perfume called Red Kremlin was unsuccessful in America during the 1970s, even though it was popular at home, said Milosh. The name suggested an image of Soviet bureaucrats, he said.

Americans also would not be crazy about the French soft drink Pschitt, the Japanese coffee creamer Creap or the Finnish product to unfreeze car locks called Super Piss, said John Murphy, chairman of Interbrand-Novamark Group, a product consulting firm in London.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries avoided likely embarrassment when its New York office advised against naming a shape-memory plastic as Diary, said Eiji Ushioda, the company’s manager of U.S. marketing.

Company officials in Tokyo wanted to use an English word that in some way referred to the company’s three-diamond logo and described the malleable plastic’s chief attribute, but diary ″sounds like diarrhea,″ Ushioda said.

The company decided to stay with the technical description, Shape-memory Plastic Polymer.

Cultural barriers can hurt a product’s image. The French company Pernod- Ricard has faced difficulty marketing a peach-flavored champagne, Carlton Brut Peche, which has sold well at home, said Lisa Donoughe, public relations manager for the subsidiary Austin Nichols Co., Inc.

The champagne is named after a famous hotel in Cannes that the French link to movie stars and the city’s annual film festival, ″but when I think of Carlton, I think of cigarettes,″ she said.

Some manufacturers have learned to tone down their colors. Dahurries, Indian rugs sold in many import stores, initially were sold in the original bright colors but Americans wouldn’t buy them, said Predaap Laroia, director of the Indian Trade Development Authority.

″They really took off″ in America when they were produced in pastels and with geometric designs, Laroia said.

Marimekko, the Finnish textile and paper products firm known for its primitive ″Bobu″ car design, discovered Americans want softer, dustier shades and less-avant-garde patterns.

They are also particular about color and pattern coordination, even calling the company for advice, said Donna Burson, U.S. creative director for Marimekko, Inc.

″They want to know that it goes,″ she said.

Another concern many companies have is keeping the foreign image out of the product when possible, partly because they worry about about negative reaction as a result of rising protectionism in this country.

John Ferries, president of the ad agency DMB&B International, said if the product seems more exotic because it’s foreign, ″the shtick is added,″ but if it’s a common household item, ″you’re stretching the benefit.″

Unilever, for example, manufactures well-known products ranging from Dove soap to Ragu spaghetti sauce. Marketing experts say most consumers aren’t likely to know that they’re buying something made by an Anglo-French company.

David A. Ricks, business professor at the University of South Carolina, said he’s seen many examples of protectionist-conscious advertising, although many companies deny it.

″They say they’re not foreign because they’re registered as an American company - their subsidiary is U.S. They’re just keeping a low profile,″ he said. ″Some people will only buy something made in the U.S., some that’ll buy for that reason alone, and no company wants to be out of the running.″

ICI, a British-based chemical giant, recently launched a TV ad campaign portraying the the company as ″a known entity in the U.S., that we are an American company,″ said spokeswoman Cathy Trideni for ICI Americas in Wilmington, Del.

She denied the ads were made out of concern for protectionist backlash. ″We are pounding the streets to show we are global.″

In contrast, some Japanese manufacturers want to use their real names now that most Americans have grown used their products, said Hiro Shibuya, president of the ad agency Dentsu, Burton & Marsteller.

Japan’s Matsushita, for example, began selling a basic transistor radio in America as Panasonic and kept the name to market other products, but it has considered replacing the label with the company name, Shibuya said.

He criticized the idea. After establishing product identification, Shibuya said, ″why change it? It’s stupid.″

Update hourly