China represents a massive market, and its importance to businesses looking to extend their global reach is equally large. Indeed, China represents the world’s second-largest economy overall (behind only the US) and the fastest-growing economy by GDP. It is also the world’s most populous country: there are approximately 1.2 billion Chinese speakers worldwide, and 750 million of them are online. But before you start localization for the Chinese market, there are a few key things you ought to know.
1. Be aware of the seven varieties of Chinese
From a linguistic standpoint, Chinese is highly complex and impressively varied. Though Mandarin by far boasts the largest number of speakers (roughly 917 million), there are seven distinct varieties of what is referred to in the West generally as Chinese, with each variety featuring further regional subdivisions.
Aside from Mandarin, there is Yue (including the Cantonese dialect), Min, Wu, Xiang, Gan and Hakka, all unique to the point that some dialects are mutually unintelligible. To complicate matters further, different regions pair their spoken dialects with one of Chinese’s two distinct writing systems, which are likewise highly differentiated. For example, the Taiwanese generally speak their own version of Mandarin Chinese, but largely write in Traditional Chinese characters. This is in contrast to China, where Mandarin is the official state language and Simplified Chinese the official writing system. In Hong Kong, conversely, Cantonese is the most widely spoken Chinese variety, while Traditional Chinese is the de facto writing system.
This vast variety of spoken dialects means a maze of different vocabulary, pronunciation and even grammar rules from one place to the next. As a result, it is imperative that localization be custom-tailored to each target market so consumers feel the content was made just for them. If you’re having trouble securing a budget for all seven, consider starting with Simplified Chinese and Mandarin.
2. Know the culture
The challenges of marketing do not end with Chinese dialects. Along with the language, Chinese culture—business and otherwise—is unique. Just like anywhere else in the world, marketing campaigns should always take into account local sensibilities and sensitivities vis-à-vis language and its cultural backdrop. As one example, branding is extremely important in China for a number of reasons.
Some well-known brands are so popular that China has something known as the queuing phenomenon, meaning people are quite willing to stand in line for sometimes hours for the chance to purchase a brand deemed a must-have. They are also ready to pay a premium for these recognized brands. In fact, where consumers in many Western countries are likely to look for a discount, Chinese consumers tend to focus on a brand’s credibility, even when this means paying more. Keep in mind that not only is China’s middle class on the rise, they are also the group most likely to make purchases digitally, so targeting this demographic should include a large digital presence.
3. Consider micro-localizing
When branding for the Chinese market, it is best to treat China more like a continent than a country in the sense that what is familiar and/or relatable in one region may not work in another. Apart from the obvious need to use high-quality translation localized to the specific region or city you are targeting, you will want to do your homework to home in on appealing brand names and slogans.
It is crucial to ensure your marketing materials contain elements that will resonate with your target market, whether in terms of regional slang, mentions of local landmarks or phenomena or even photos of local people and places. On the other hand, some Chinese consumers, particularly more affluent ones, may specifically seek foreign products in order to avoid being unwittingly sold counterfeit products originating in China. Thus, in some cases, it behooves a company to spotlight, rather than lose, its foreign identity.
In short, you need to find the balance between brand identity and local appeal and adjust your branding accordingly.
4. Don’t forget legal factors
When localizing for China, legal requirements can come into play as well. For instance, the People’s Republic of China has long maintained a formal directive that Mandarin is the official spoken language, and that it is written using Simplified Chinese. This obviously means any marketing materials designated for mainland China would need to be in compliance. Moreover, any brand names or slogans you are considering will need to be cross-checked in all relevant dialects for any trademark or domain issues.
5. Engage in effective in-market research
Any successful entry into China means getting to know the playing field before the game and being open-minded and responsive to what you find. This is true regarding everything we already mentioned: the specifics of the dialects you will be localizing into, consumer preferences and sensibilities, potential legal issues and cultural considerations.
Rather than guessing, businesses are strongly advised to research their target markets thoroughly, making use of case studies and even focus groups to determine what is likely to work for a given product or service. Talking to the general population helps, too: some companies even interview people on the street or offer handouts to gauge consumer response before deciding what products or services to launch in a given market. The power of effective strategic decision-making is as important in China as anywhere else, but only when you are armed with relevant and specific data can you steer your campaign to success.
6. Leverage local technology
Homing in on relevant linguistic issues is surely key, as is awareness of customer experience issues specific to Chinese consumers. But identifying, leveraging and optimizing for local web and social media platforms is equally important.
You will want to view your digital presence as a central component to your entry into the Chinese market. This means, for instance, optimizing for China’s top search engine, Baidu, which has a whopping 70% market share in the country, as well as to runner-up Leiden. It’s essential to know that many of the search engines popular in the West are not only unpopular in China—they’re officially banned.
Similarly, you will want to target Chinese, rather than Western, social media platforms, such as Qzone, Renren and P1. It is also a good idea to establish a presence on consumer forums, which are still quite popular in China even though they have tapered off in the West. Some of the more prominent forums include Baidu’s own Tieba, Sohu, Sina and 163. Identifying where you should be online just as much as on the ground can make or break your entry into Chinese-speaking markets.
7. Learn from past successes and errors
It is also helpful to look at some examples of foreign businesses that entered Chinese markets and what impeded or made their success possible. Dunkin Donuts’ first foray into China in 1994 did not gain traction, despite a launch campaign that included free donuts for passersby. Modifying the recipe to a less sweet version alongside the incorporation of locally popular flavors like melon and mochi boosted Dunkin Donuts’ performance, but it was not until the company overhauled their entire concept that things really caught on. Ultimately, the company found it could attract greater business by switching out the generic fast-food-chain feel of its stores for a café style, likely due to the Chinese perception of coffee as a worldly, sophisticated beverage choice that reflects one’s cosmopolitanism in an essentially tea-drinking culture. This realization, however, took the company a full 11 years!
Another example is IKEA. When they first launched in Shanghai in 1998, they found that many Chinese shoppers were using their in-store display furniture to relax or even take naps. At first, they attempted to nip the phenomenon in the bud by instructing store employees to make the rounds and ask these loiterers to move along. However, the company eventually identified this behavior as part of the Chinese consumer mentality—shopping is viewed not just as a means to an end, but as a form of leisure in itself. Ultimately, IKEA embraced the phenomenon, even setting up model furniture displays in airports and malls, inviting passersby to use them freely.
It comes as no surprise that navigating a new market is always a challenge, but localizing to a business culture characterized by vast linguistic variety, highly individual consumer behaviors and unique societal and political backgrounds is indeed a daunting task.
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