5 Times Businesses Screwed Themselves By Not Understanding Other Cultures

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by Jordan Breeding

Thanks to globalization, there’s no escaping large companies. Coke is everywhere in Africa, those dumb North Face jackets have sparked riots in South Korea, and if an American so much as whispers the name of a country they may want to visit, a McDonald’s automatically bursts forth from the ground there.

Even though many of these companies' products don’t seem like they’d need much explanation (“it’s a slab of processed cow meat with cheese that’ll kill you if you eat it more than once a year”), surprisingly not every culture shares the same values or opinions as Americans. If they’re not careful, those minor differences can doom companies to local irrelevance almost before they finish unpacking the 2,000-piece chicken nugget fryer.


Blockbuster Is Too Prude For The Germans

If there’s one thing Germans love more than their beer, it’s their porn. They contribute the 5th highest amount of Pornhub traffic of any country ... and for movie rental companies like Blockbuster, not acting on that fact led to their extinction in Germany.

Obviously, these days you’re about as likely to ride an actual Hippogriff as stumble inside an operating Blockbuster. Yet at their peak, Blockbuster had over 9,000 stores across the planet. Back in 1995, while they were building up to that number, they took a stab at expanding their stores into Germany. The problem was that Blockbuster had always billed itself as a family-friendly store, and Germany didn’t just want a place that rented out A Goofy Movie. They wanted Goofy snuggled up against the latest and greatest ‘90s porn.

"But seriously, it's also all the other locations."

See, in ‘90s era Germany, more than a third of all video rentals were pornographic. This was a $400 million a year market, but Blockbuster believed that surely their wholesome approach would attract morally upstanding German families looking for a more respectable place to peruse the latest films. Of course they were dead wrong. After just two years of flaccid sales, Blockbuster was forced to shut down its German locations. All of them.

Nestle Aggressively Sells Baby Formula To Poor Countries And Gets A Massive Boycott

On the surface, it’s hard to find a less offensive company than Nestle. Their logo is a bunch of happy birds in a nest, the mascot for their chocolate milk is a chipper rabbit, and they once killed so many babies they sparked a worldwide boycott. Wait, what?

See, along with thousands of different food items from dog chow to grilled potato flavored Kit-Kat bars, Nestle is a massive peddler of baby formula. In a first-world country like America, feeding babies a formula in lieu of traditional breast milk isn't that uncommon. Breast milk is still preferable, but if used correctly and hygienically, formula is a fine substitute. In underdeveloped countries, it’s an entirely different story.

In 1974, the anti-poverty charity, War on Want, released a delicately titled report called “The Baby Killer.” For the previous two decades or so, Nestle had vigorously marketed their formula to underdeveloped countries, without thinking about the possible negative effects. Because of the low standard of living, children that drank baby formula, exclusively, in unhygienic conditions were dying in droves. Even if they didn’t die, children often suffered from extreme malnutrition and disease that carried through their entire lives.

"This is a good start, but can we make it less subtle?"

Nestle’s ignorance made their aggressive marketing stunts seem even more egregious. Apparently, they’d send unlicensed women dressed in nurse uniforms to encourage locals to essentially give up breastfeeding and instead buy their product. The “nurses” would offer incredible deals and other gimmicks to ensure women would make the switch to formula despite, again, those bottles being a hotbed for disease. All across the world, Nestle advertised like crazy in the poorest, most vulnerable communities, exploiting locals' desire to become more “modern” and similar to first-world countries. Again, we’re pretty sure they didn’t realize they were causing baby deaths in droves, but at the same time, maybe somebody should have done a little research first?

Once the report was released, countries all across the world boycotted Nestle. Furthermore, the World Health Organization developed a strict code of advertising to stop companies like Nestle from advertising in the way they had been. The company responded by starting a global mail campaign that basically said people should chill out and focus on clean water for those dumb poor people. Classy.

Fiat Finds Out That The Chinese Hate Richard Gere

Tibet and China aren’t exactly friends. Although ostensibly a part of China, for decades many Tibetans have demanded the country become independent. Unsurprisingly, China’s official stance is, “Nope,” and so both sides continue to hate each other to this day. It’s gotten so bad that Marvel felt pressured by Chinese audiences to change the race of Doctor Strange’s The Ancient One from Tibetan (like in the comics) to whatever the hell Tilda Swinton is.

So when Fiat ran an ad in Italy, starring Richard Gere driving one of their cars from Hollywood to the Potala Palace in Tibet, Chinese audiences were pissed. Not because the ad included shots of Tibet, or because that was a geographical impossibility, but because it included Richard Gere, himself.

You can make your own gerbil joke. We're not doing it.

Now for most of us, the name Richard Gere either conjures up memories of Pretty Woman or literally no mental picture at all, because who cares about Richard Gere? But for Chinese people, Richard Gere is basically an enemy of the state. He's known for many things, probably, but in China he’s largely known as a Tibetan independence advocate. Why he cares so much isn’t entirely clear, but he’s spent nearly three decades demanding that Tibet be free, even going so far as to demand America boycott the Beijing Olympics back in 2008. What we’re saying is that for anybody who knows Gere well enough to hire him to drive a fancy car (please return our calls!), surely they’d be aware of his love for Tibet, and that Chinese people aren’t particularly down with to clown with Gere.

While the ad ran exclusively in Italy, there are a lot of Chinese people in the world, including Italy, and it quickly got out that Fiat hated all of them, personally. The outrage eventually made its way back to actual China, and the bulk of its citizens angrily claimed they would never buy a Fiat. As you might imagine, this ran quite a bit counter to Fiat's expansion plans for the country.

Fiat was forced to apologize and return every single VHS tape of American Gigolo.

McDonald's Realizes That People Don't Like Their Scripture Thrown In The Trash

Whether you love or hate McDonald’s, few people would liken the consumption of a sausage McMuffin to a religious experience ... though the resulting bowel movement might be enough to send you to the afterlife prematurely. So maybe McDonald’s should have anticipated a little backlash when, during the 1994 World Cup, they decided to print a passage from the Koran on nearly 2 million disposable bags for British customers in the United Kingdom. The phrase, written in Arabic, was, "There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his Prophet.”

It’s sacrilegious enough co-opting scripture to hawk the lunchmeat version of cheeseburgers to soccer fans, but the bigger issue was how the bags were used. Unless you’re a lunatic, you probably tend to chuck your McDonald’s bag in the trash after you’re finished licking the salt and grease from the inside. But in this ultra-specific instance, that also meant throwing away Islamic scripture. According to one of the heads of the United Kingdom Action Committee on Islamic Affairs, this would easily be equatable to “desecration.” Sort of like a McRib.

Harvested from only the finest free range hot dogs.

The Saudi ambassador to Britain quickly reached out and asked for McDonald’s to stop printing those bags, and they basically said, “Okay but, like, not until we run out of them.” Weirdly, everybody seemed relatively on board with that plan.

Maybe worst of all, the entire incident led to the LA Times running an article with the headline: “Saudi Flags on Burger Bags: A Big MacStake” which is a sin in pretty much every religion.

Wal-Mart Doesn't Understand That You Can Be Too Helpful In Germany

In America, Wal-Mart has benefited from its dedication to being friendly and upbeat (at least as upbeat as any octogenarian greeter can expect to be), but this approach doesn’t work as well in other, more reserved countries. When Wal-Mart made its foray into the German market in 1997, they did so thinking that Germans were basically just Americans with funny accents. But by 2006, they’d left the country entirely.

There were numerous issues with Wal-Mart’s approach in Germany, but a lot of it comes back to the way Germans interact with each other. It’s a lot less cheery than Americans are used to. For starters, Wal-Mart employees are told to smile at customers, but this is so uncommon in Germany, that most male shoppers actually believed they were being flirted with. Secondly -- and this is a weird one -- Wal-Mart bosses force their employees to line up in a formation and do "the Wal-Mart cheer" before their shifts began. As you might imagine, that might not exactly conjure up a ton of positive comparisons in that country.


As a final nail in the coffin, Wal-Mart employees insisted on helping customers shop. Germans were not at all excited about a chipper, blue-vested helper following them around the store. Ironically, despite being known for cutting costs wherever possible, Wal-Mart’s overhead was actually significantly higher than most German-equivalent stores, because German stores don’t hire anybody to help you find that 60oz tub of Nutella. They just trusted you to find it yourself.

Eventually, like that clingy emotional leech you used to date in high school, Wal-Mart attempted to make the necessary changes, but it was too late. By the time they took effect, Wal-Mart had already failed.

Like this article? Check out "5 Common Things Americans Don't Use (And Why)" and "5 Times Gaming Got People In Actual Legal Trouble".

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