Sunday, 10 August 2008

Culture and new products

I recently came across this open letter from Osamu Higuchi to Google, about the arrival of "Streetview" into Japan. [Translation by Chris Salzberg.]

It's a great reminder that despite convergence between countries, there remain significant differences and if your new product hasn't been developed from an international mindset, it may not be as popular as you thought.

Japanese life is full of advanced technology and Osamu Higuchi is no ageing luddite:

Now, let me start by saying that I actually really like Google (everybody likes them, no?). While I was involved in the creation of the Japanese Infoseek, I always felt envious of Google, a company that presented, as their vision, a dream that we were never able to attain. This was the dream that “if all the information and knowledge scattered all over the world on the Web could be organized in an orderly way, so that anybody could access it whenever they needed to, then the world would undergo a major change”. This was a dream that Google managed to realize.

His basic objection to the "Streetview" system on Google Maps is:

The residential roads of Japan's urban areas are a part of people's living space, and it is impolite to photograph a stranger's other people's living spaces.

And he notes to back this up that:

In the United States, and particularly in the case of people living on the west coast, the boundary line between private space and public space, both in terms of actual ownership and in terms of the way people think, is in the boundary line between the public road and privately-held land.


For people living in urban areas in Japan, though, the situation is quite the opposite. The residential street in front of a house, the so-called “alleyway” (roji/路地), feels more like a part of one's own living space, like a part of the yard.

His request to Google:

Could you please remove the residential roads of Japan's urban areas from Street View?


Should Google do so? Am I contending that you cannot at all release a product that challenges the boundaries in a culture?

Clearly not. However, "Streetview" has been released in Japan, as in many parts of the world, silently. This is quite normal for Google products, which slip quietly out of the labs, with little fanfare. And if it is not a success, or has to be modified after attracting a lot of bad publicity, Google are rich enough not to care.

However, if your reserves and cashflow aren't Google sized, it's worth remembering that just because your new product is accepted in your home market, does not mean it will be so everywhere.

What can you do?

1) Consider carefully how the product might not fit with the culture of the people who will be buying it, before you try to sell it to them.

2) Think carefully about possible modifications. Do not try to change the soul of the product, but if a small adjustment can make it more acceptable, you'll reap the rewards in acceptance.

3) If no change is possible without disturbing the core proposition of the product, ask yourself whether any resulting bad publicity will outweigh sales revenue through damage to your brand (possibly affecting sales of other products.)

4) If you are going ahead with no changes, then you should prepare a communications campaign alongside your product introduction, aimed at easing the cultural objections. Perhaps you can persuade people to view your product as an exception to the unspoken rules, or at least deflect the debate from your product to the cultural values that are in play.