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International Products Get a Localized Makeover

It costs a lot of money to take a product global. It costs even more if you have to recall it because of cultural blunders. Take the American software giant, Microsoft, for example. The company had to re-write one of its programs for India, when it forgot to include Kashmir on a map. How can companies avoid geopolitical gaffes? It's possible. Take the board game industry, for example.

The world has embraced some of America's most popular board games, such as, Scrabble, Monopoly, and Trivial Pursuit. A board game called Cranium is a relative newcomer - just 6 years old. But Cranium company co-founder Richard Tait is on a crusade to take his line of products global. He says, "Whether you're an 8 year old kid in America or an 8 year old kid in Finland, putting on decoder goggles and solving clues is fun."

Cranium games are already available in such far-flung places as Finland, Great Britain and Spain. Mr. Tait's formula for global success is to create games that are as local as possible.

"I know personally being Scottish and looking at the British game, when you're sculpting beans on toast, or impersonating Sean Connery…that's a great British moment," says Mr. Tait, "and I know that playing those games, people are going to have a different response and more fun."

Whit Alexander, Mr. Tait's business partner, says another result is more profits. "The market potential is phenomenal," he says. "We've gone from a situation at Cranium a year, [or a] year- and- a- half ago, where international was maybe 10% of our business to this year, where it's going to be 20% of our business overall., Sso you've got to do it. You're just leaving money on the table if you don't."

Cranium is not the only game company to realize this. Trivial Pursuit is available in 17 languages, and Monopoly in 26. In fact, localization has been going on for much longer than most of us realize. "I wouldn't be surprised if back in the days of the Silk Route," says Urlich Henes, a business analyst with the Madison, Wisconsin- based Localization Institute, "that Chinese traders came back from Europe and said 'Well, if you can just make this garment in a deeper shade of purple, we can sell a lot more in Italy,' which is in essence what localization is about."

Mr. Henes says the modern-day field of localization took off in the 1980's with the software industry. Companies like Microsoft and Lotus translated screens and user manuals into dozens of languages, including Arabic and Chinese. But the business analyst says the early efforts were ugly, like building a house without thinking about the plumbing. "You have to go in and tear up the walls, the floors, and re-install plumbing," says Mr. Henes, "a very messy, costly, lengthy exercise that often was not completely satisfactory when everything was done."

For Microsoft, oversight and ignorance on geopolitical issues has cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars. Cranium's Whit Alexander learned these hard lessons first-hand. "I actually started the geography product unit at Microsoft and did the maps for the first version of the Encarta encyclopedia," says Mr. Alexander. "I've got a few scars and war stories from those days. Kurdistan definitely comes to mind as one." Microsoft sales representatives in Turkey were arrested when authorities there learned an Encarta map referred to Kurdistan, a violation of Turkish law.

At Cranium, Mr. Alexander avoids maps whenever possible. "We have this very rigorous editorial process," says International product manager Adam Tratt. "We develop questions and we check them with 3rd party editors and then we play them with real customers and make sure they're laughing really, really hard. And then we adjust bugs and fix any issues that come up and we test again to make sure people are still having really, really big laughs and that's how you do it."

It's a process that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But today more toy companies are deciding that localizing their products is worth it today, because they can market them at low cost through multi-national retail chains like Toys- R- Us and Walmart.

Cranium distributes its games in a dozen languages in 20 countries, mostly in Europe. Asia is likely to be the next frontier.