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Lars Perner, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Clinical Marketing
Department of Marketing
Marshall School of Business
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, CA 90089-0443, USA
(213) 740-7127

Consumer Psychologist Facebook Forum

Product Issues in International Marketing

Products and Services.  Some marketing scholars and professionals tend to draw a strong distinction between conventional products and services, emphasizing service characteristics such as heterogeneity (variation in standards among providers, frequently even among different locations of the same firm), inseperability from consumption, intangibility, and, in some cases, perishability—the idea that a service cannot generally be created during times of slack and be “stored” for use later.   However, almost all products have at least some service component—e.g., a warranty, documentation, and distribution—and this service component is an integral part of the product and its positioning.  Thus, it may be more useful to look at the product-service continuum as one between very low and very high levels of tangibility of the service.  Income tax preparation, for example, is almost entirely intangible—the client may receive a few printouts, but most of the value is in the service.  On the other hand, a customer who picks up rocks for construction from a landowner gets a tangible product with very little value added for service.  Firms that offer highly tangible products often seek to add an intangible component to improve perception.  Conversely, adding a tangible element to a service—e.g., a binder with information—may address many consumers’ psychological need to get something to show for their money.

On the topic of services, cultural issues may be even more prominent than they are for tangible goods. There are large variations in willingness to pay for quality, and often very large differences in expectations.  In some countries, it may be more difficult to entice employees to embrace a firm’s customer service philosophy.  Labor regulations in some countries make it difficult to terminate employees whose treatment of customers is substandard.  Speed of service is typically important in the U.S. and western countries but personal interaction may seem more important in other countries.

Product Need Satisfaction.  We often take for granted the “obvious” need that products seem to fill in our own culture; however, functions served may be very different in others—for example, while cars have a large transportation role in the U.S., they are impractical to drive in Japan, and thus cars there serve more of a role of being a status symbol or providing for individual indulgence.  In the U.S., fast food and instant drinks such as Tang are intended for convenience; elsewhere, they may represent more of a treat.  Thus, it is important to examine through marketing research consumers’ true motives, desires, and expectations in buying a product.

Approaches to Product Introduction.  Firms face a choice of alternatives in marketing their products across markets.  An extreme strategy involves customization, whereby the firm introduces a unique product in each country, usually with the belief tastes differ so much between countries that it is necessary more or less to start from “scratch” in creating a product for each market.  On the other extreme, standardization involves making one global product in the belief the same product can be sold across markets without significant modification—e.g., Intel microprocessors are the same regardless of the country in which they are sold.  Finally, in most cases firms will resort to some kind of adaptation, whereby a common product is modified to some extent when moved between some markets—e.g., in the United States, where fuel is relatively less expensive, many cars have larger engines than their comparable models in Europe and Asia; however, much of the design is similar or identical, so some economies are achieved.  Similarly, while Kentucky Fried Chicken serves much the same chicken with the eleven herbs and spices in Japan, a lesser amount of sugar is used in the potato salad, and fries are substituted for mashed potatoes.

There are certain benefits to standardization.  Firms that produce a global product can obtain economies of scale in manufacturing, and higher quantities produced also lead to a faster advancement along the experience curve.  Further, it is more feasible to establish a global brand as less confusion will occur when consumers travel across countries and see the same product.  On the down side, there may be significant differences in desires between cultures and physical environments—e.g., software sold in the U.S. and Europe will often utter a “beep” to alert the user when a mistake has been made; however, in Asia, where office workers are often seated closely together, this could cause embarrassment.

Adaptations come in several forms.  Mandatory adaptations involve changes that have to be made before the product can be used—e.g., appliances made for the U.S. and Europe must run on different voltages, and a major problem was experienced in the European Union when hoses for restaurant frying machines could not simultaneously meet the legal requirements of different countries.  “Discretionary” changes are changes that do not have to be made before a product can be introduced (e.g., there is nothing to prevent an American firm from introducing an overly sweet soft drink into the Japanese market), although products may face poor sales if such changes are not made.  Discretionary changes may also involve cultural adaptations—e.g., in Sesame Street, the Big Bird became the Big Camel in Saudi Arabia.

Another distinction involves physical product vs. communication adaptations.  In order for gasoline to be effective in high altitude regions, its octane must be higher, but it can be promoted much the same way.  On the other hand, while the same bicycle might be sold in China and the U.S., it might be positioned as a serious means of transportation in the former and as a recreational tool in the latter.  In some cases, products may not need to be adapted in either way (e.g., industrial equipment), while in other cases, it might have to be adapted in both (e.g., greeting cards, where the both occasions, language, and motivations for sending differ).   Finally, a market may exist abroad for a product which has no analogue at home—e.g., hand-powered washing machines.

Branding.  While Americans seem to be comfortable with category specific brands, this is not the case for Asian consumers.  American firms observed that their products would be closely examined by Japanese consumers who could not find a major brand name on the packages, which was required as a sign of quality.  Note that Japanese keiretsus span and use their brand name across multiple industries—e.g., Mitsubishi, among other things, sells food, automobiles, electronics, and heavy construction equipment.

The International Product Life Cycle (PLC).  Consumers in different countries differ in the speed with which they adopt new products, in part for economic reasons (fewer Malaysian than American consumers can afford to buy VCRs) and in part because of attitudes toward new products (pharmaceuticals upset the power afforded to traditional faith healers, for example).  Thus, it may be possible, when one market has been saturated, to continue growth in another market—e.g., while somewhere between one third and one half of American homes now contain a computer, the corresponding figures for even Europe and Japan are much lower and thus, many computer manufacturers see greater growth potential there.  Note that expensive capital equipment may also cycle between countries—e.g., airlines in economically developed countries will often buy the newest and most desired aircraft and sell off older ones to their counterparts in developing countries.  While in developed countries, “three part” canning machines that solder on the bottom with lead are unacceptable for health reasons, they have found a market in developing countries.

Diffusion of innovation.  Good new innovations often do not spread as quickly as one might expect—e.g., although the technology for microwave ovens has existed since the 1950s, they really did not take off in the United States until the late seventies or early eighties, and their penetration is much lower in most other countries.  The typewriter, telephone answering machines, and cellular phones also existed for a long time before they were widely adopted.

Certain characteristics of products make them more or less likely to spread.  One factor is relative advantage.  While a computer offers a huge advantage over a typewriter, for example, the added gain from having an electric typewriter over a manual one was much smaller.  Another issue is compatibility, both in the social and physical sense.   A major problem with the personal computer was that it could not read the manual files that firms had maintained, and birth control programs are resisted in many countries due to conflicts with religious values.  Complexity refers to how difficult a new product is to use—e.g., some people have resisted getting computers because learning to use them takes time.  Trialability refers to the extent to which one can examine the merits of a new product without having to commit a huge financial or personal investment—e.g., it is relatively easy to try a restaurant with a new ethnic cuisine, but investing in a global positioning navigation system is riskier since this has to be bought and installed in one’s car before the consumer can determine whether it is worthwhile in practice.  Finally, observability refers to the extent to which consumers can readily see others using the product—e.g., people who do not have ATM cards or cellular phones can easily see the convenience that other people experience using them; on the other hand, VCRs are mostly used in people’s homes, and thus only an owner’s close friends would be likely to see it.

At the societal level, several factors influence the spread of an innovation.  Not surprisingly, cosmopolitanism, the extent to which a country is connected to other cultures, is useful.  Innovations are more likely to spread where there is a higher percentage of women in the work force; these women both have more economic power and are able to see other people use the products and/or discuss them.  Modernity refers to the extent to which a culture values “progress.”  In the U.S., “new and improved” is considered highly attractive; in more traditional countries, their potential for disruption cause new products to be seen with more skepticism.  Although U.S. consumers appear to adopt new products more quickly than those of other countries, we actually score lower on homiphily, the extent to which consumers are relatively similar to each other, and physical distance, where consumers who are more spread out are less likely to interact with other users of the product.  Japan, which ranks second only to the U.S., on the other hand, scores very well on these latter two factors.