By Melissa Mitchell
A company trying to market green toilet seats in Iran may as well flush down the drain any notions of turning a profit.
"In some Islamic cultures, a green toilet seat would be considered sacrilegious," according to Surya Vanka, a UI industrial design professor who has created a computer program called "ColorTool" to aid manufacturers and designers competing in the global marketplace. Vanka said the same green toilet seat may well sell easily in other parts of the world, but in certain Middle Eastern countries, it would be sure to offend local sensibilities. That's because the color is associated closely with the prophet Mohammed, who wore a green turban.
Transference of an intended product message or concept from culture to culture can be derailed by various factors -- language, religion and custom often play a part. But color often plays a role as well, said Vanka, whose area of expertise is cross-cultural design.
"In many countries, especially those with traditional cultures, the meaning associated with colors is dramatic, not subtle," he said. And often those meanings translate at opposite ends of the spectrum. For example, in the United States, white almost always has a positive value; the "good guys" wear white hats, and so do brides. But in India and China, "white is often the color of mourning," Vanka said.
While the green toilet seat is a purely hypothetical example of what can go wrong when manufacturers fail to take cultural values into consideration before entering international markets, it's not a particularly farfetched one. Vanka's research has turned up a number of similar, real-life marketing faux pas. Take, for instance, the Japanese manufacturer who tried to sell black scooters in Vanka's native country, India. "They were having difficulty because in India, black is considered inauspicious; mothers were telling their sons they couldn't have a black scooter because they associated black with death. Sales actually improved after other colors were introduced."
In another case, Vanka said a Canadian airline changed the colors of its fleet. But after airline officials learned that the new color combination connoted bad luck in certain South Asian cultures, they switched back to the original colors. And then there's the U.S. chewing gum manufacturer whose product wasn't turning much of a profit in China. After changing the color of the wrapper from green to pink -- a color that symbolizes good luck for the Chinese -- consumers bit and kept on chewing.
By arming their designers with the ColorTool program, savvy manufacturers may be able to avoid such costly errors the first time around. Although much of the information documented in the program is previously published research in disciplines such as anthropology, Vanka believes his tool is the first to organize it in a single, easy-to-access, hypertext source. After beta-testing ColorTool this fall in his classroom, Vanka plans to publish the program on CD-ROM.