Motor Swilling Forbidden

Motor Swilling Forbidden: The International Language of Business Models, by Mark Chussil






“Motor swilling forbidden” is printed on my smoothie-maker and I have no idea what it means. Perhaps I’m not supposed to drink the motor rapidly or disrespectfully; perhaps I should be genteel and contemplative, if you please. Although the consequences of disobedience are unclear, “forbidden” sounds foreboding. In these days of GPS, RFID, and heightened orange security, I’ll just leave the motor alone and wonder in my quiet moments what motor-swilling pleasures I am foregoing.

The words are English and the writer knew what he or she meant to communicate, but English speakers won’t get the message. Of course we can infer or guess, but then we replace the writer’s context with our own.

And so it is with business models. People talk of business models with certain words and meanings in the USA. People may use similar words in France, Malaysia, Brazil, South Africa, and so on, but with different meanings. We may translate the words — motor, swilling, forbidden — but we may not understand each other.

For instance, “price leader” is imprecise even in English to English speakers. Does it mean the company first to change price, the one with the lowest price, the one with the highest price, the one whose price everyone else copies, or something else? The benefits of price leadership and price followership are similarly unclear.

What happens when strategists from other countries are involved? In some countries or industries prices are set cooperatively or by the government. The price leader may be a person, not a company, and that person may be friendly, neutral, or antagonistic to business. Motor swilling: forbidden. Price leading: forbidden, forgiven, given.

It’s not so different with other business-model vocabulary words. Low-cost producer, for instance. Is that a good thing? Does it mean squeezing your suppliers, improving your processes, cheapening your products? Depends on your perceptions of what customers want, how you should treat your workers, which suppliers you should choose, what you think bosses and investors want, and much more.

We can see the effects of different business-model languages. For example, we see different work rules in different countries, which reflects different views of what’s fair and desirable. (I once suggested a weekend business meeting with a client in a European country. They were shocked and, upon reflection, I was envious.) Notice the differences among cars: there is variety among American cars, and among Japanese cars, and among German cars, yet it would not be difficult to discern the nationality of a car even if all identifying badges were removed. In effect, business-model languages are cultural differences that go beyond whether you shake hands or kiss cheeks. We translate the words — price, leader, low, cost, producer — but that’s not enough for us to understand each other.

We live in a period of globalization. Barriers have come down due to technology, prosperity, and policy, and the effects are about as massive as can be on this spinning blue ball where motor swilling is right out. (There we go with language again. Americans don’t use “right out” but the British do. Did I use it correctly? Right on!) With those lower barriers we come in contact with customers, competitors, and suppliers whose language of business models differs from our own. If we translate “low cost” as “affordable” and our new market translates it as “cheap and shoddy,” we might find it hard to get distributors. If we translate “successful” as “net income this year” and our new competitor translates it as “10% market share within 10 years,” we shouldn’t expect them to pack up and go home at the first annual loss. Toyota’s recent ascension (over General Motors) as the biggest car-maker in the world is the triumph of a business model, not a car model or marketing campaign.

When we think of being the price leader or low-cost producer in another country (or even in another industry), we bring with us our whole linguistic context. When we encounter someone else’s actions or negotiations, we encounter their linguistic contexts, which we interpret using our own. If we want to develop strategies that give us the outcomes we desire, if we want to predict how our competitors will act and react, a rich translation of business models is sine qua non.

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