America's Newest Weapon in Vietnam? Furniture

By , Columnist

American ships lie off the coast of Vietnam, each carrying hundreds of thousands of tons of our latest ordinance to be dropped on the country -- furniture. As Ashley Industries, America's largest furniture manufacturer and retailer, prepares to launch an assault on the country in the form of two HomeStores, other American businesses prepare their attacks as well.

But in now rapidly developing Vietnam, this time the battle will be commercial - not unlike the Japanese invasion of America with electronics and automobiles after WWII. But will the Vietnamese buy into four-poster colonial beds? Time will tell.


And considering America's current trade deficit, export industries are an excellent idea for the country. For those non-economists in the house, a trade deficit happens when the value of what a country imports is higher than the value of what it exports. According to Warren Buffet, "Right now, the rest of the world owns $3 trillion more of us than we own of them." In the chart above, see the dark red countries and the dark green countries. Red equals trade deficit and green means trade surplus. A quick look says simply that China owns more of us than we own of them.

But hopefully, that will change, once America gets its international chops - in time. On the Ashley business in Vietnam three advertising agencies are chasing the account: one from America, one from England, and another from Japan. But the American agency is run by a Philippino, the English one by an Indian, and the Japanese, of course, by a Japanese. This cultural petri dish will be a challenge for an American client with a short track record in overseas development.

In Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding Diversity in Global Business, Fons Trompenars and Charles Hampden-Turner explain, "As U.S. organizations continue to explore overseas business opportunities, they will be challenged to adapt to the new market's local characteristics, legislation, fiscal regime, sociopolitical environment and cultural system." This means essentially that China is not Vietnam, Vietnam is not Malaysia, and Malaysia is not Japan; Asia is only really Asia in the minds of economists and map makers. But economists and mapmakers don't make cultural decisions, people do - and that's only the beginning of America's learning curve.

The Japanese advertising manager chides his staff for not speaking English in a staff meeting, but then later, in private, complains that he hates having to speak English to do his job. And Americans have trouble jumping this cultural divide as well. As the old joke goes:

Q: What do you call a man who speaks three languages?


Q: What do you call a man who speaks two languages?

A: Bilingual.

Q: And what do you call a man who speaks one language?

A: American.

For America to succeed in an export-driven environment, businesses will need to understand that things do not always happen as they do in America.

"I like the red one," says the Vietnamese husband viewing the sofa. "We'll take the blue one," says his wife to the clerk. Only a few things are exactly like they are in America.

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David has spent most of his career in advertising. That alone should call his writing skills into question. David currently writes the Wild Wild East Dailies from Saigon but has trouble seeing the forest for the trees because it's a jungle out there.

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