As part of my package for a graduate program in global relations and business, I had to write about an event that triggered an interest in global business. I thought it might be interesting to share parts of that essay since I frequently get asked how I got started in global market.
My 30+ year global business career was triggered by an encounter with ethnocentric arrogance that pivoted a young Marine into a consulting career, helping companies understand customers’ unique needs and wants and how they can successfully reach them using the internet.
While enjoying Japanese whiskey at the Winchester bar in Hiroshima Japan in 1983 with my fellow Jarhead Gene, two engineers from Ford Motor Company got a bit loud, voicing frustration with the Japanese engineers they were working with that wanted to completely change their cars for the Japanese market.
Maybe it was due to the whiskey, but out of nowhere, I interjected, “Maybe I am just a drunk Marine” or have gone native.” Then asked, “How long have you been in Japan? and “Have you ever driven here? A lively discussion followed, starting a domino effect in my thinking about local and global markets that would alter my future career path.
Ultimately, the conversation revealed that they did not care about local conditions or the preferences of Japanese car owners. In their narrow view, the cars sold well in America, so why must we change them for Japan? This post is not meant to be a thesis as to why Ford and other American companies have historically failed in Japan but to give context as to why I was confused by their determination not to change the cars.
First, the Japanese drive on the left side of the road like the British. This means a left-side steering wheel puts you on the opposite side of the car to the road. Would Americans buy Japanese cars with right-hand drive? Except for freeways and major cities, the roads are tiny and Japan has “larger vehicle wins rules” for right-away. These narrow roads and few parking places mean you need a smaller car. My Toyota Celica, technically a small car, was a challenge to drive in many places in Japan. On top of that, the car is one of the few “personality extensions,” there are many nuances to that, from colors to features and, of course, a place to put your shoes.
Over time I realized that conversation prompted me to make mental notes of bad product adaptations for the remainder of my time in Japan and as I travel the world. These comparisons have become a minor obsession during visits to over 100 countries. I first shared a collection of these mistakes in my International Marketing class and why we must adapt. That caught the attention of another professor who invited me to participate in a research project developing decision-support software for mode-of-entry models. Interestingly, I almost failed a subsequent advanced course over arguments about these models with a professor teaching global marketing who had never been out of the United States.
Despite working many hours on these mode of entry models, my business school thesis suggested that companies could bypass the nearly one thousand market entry considerations and go direct to the consumer using the Internet. While my advisor and a few teachers criticized the paper that the Internet was just a fad and had no place in business, it sped conversation in the academic community. I was soon asked to present this radical idea as formal papers in Greece, Japan, and Russia.
In 1995, my premise of the Internet was validated with $21 million in online orders from Japan after the Kobe earthquake. The resulting press generated over 100 requests from multinational companies not wanting preparedness supplies but wanting to replicate our success of using the Internet to enter Japan and other overseas markets.
Soon after, I sold the preparedness company and started on the global digital marketing consulting journey. Multiple agencies later, my current agency helps maximize these opportunities using local market research, process improvement, and big data to mine new and bigger opportunities. Sadly, many of these “they should adjust” ways of thinking still prevail, especially from companies in advanced markets.