U.S. Commercial Service Discover Global Markets Business Forum Series 2014 Greater China New York City October 7 to 8Next week, on October 7 and 8, the U.S. Commercial Service will hold an event in New York City called “Discover Global Markets: Greater China Business Forum.” The forum is designed to give businesses information that they will need to succeed in exporting to China.

Many businesses are anxious to take advantage of the Chinese market with its population of 1.26 billion, its exploding middle class, and its growing number of extremely affluent upper-class consumers. But jumping into the Chinese market without adequate preparation and brand localization can be a recipe for disaster. There are a number of factors to consider before you venture into the Chinese marketplace.

Cultural differences are significant

Even very large multinational companies have lost big in the Chinese market because they assumed they could simply translate their existing marketing campaigns and transfer their Western business models to China. Home Depot lost a huge investment in China by marketing its “do it yourself” products to a culture where labor is cheap and “doing it yourself” is only for those without enough money to hire others to do it.

McDonald’s opened drive-thru restaurants in China in the last decade in an attempt to compete more successfully with KFC. The problem is that the Chinese had no experience with the concept of a drive-thru and often would purchase their food at the drive-thru, take the food inside, and eat it there. This went on for years and McDonald’s had to undertake a huge training and marketing campaign to teach both their employees and their customers how to use a drive-thru.

KFC restaurant in old, ornate Chinese buildingOne of the reasons McDonald’s was racing to catch up with KFC was because KFC did such a good job of localizing for China, considering cultural preferences and values in exporting its brand. KFC’s restaurants and menus in China look very different from what we are used to. Their restaurants are larger and have hostesses to greet customers. The menus are more extensive and include items developed specifically for the many regional variations in Chinese cuisine. In other words, KFC customized its Chinese operations to meet Chinese consumers’ expectations, tastes, and preferences.

Marketing materials need more than translation

Anything that communicates your brand—packaging, building design, websites, ad campaigns, and marketing collateral—needs more than simple translation. Content needs to be adapted for each particular market. Here are some tips to guide your localization campaign:

  1. Establish standard transliterations for your brand names and use them consistently. Since Chinese characters have meanings as well as sounds, you will want help in choosing characters that approximate the English sound, while also carrying a positive message that relates to your business. (See our earlier post “Lost in Transliteration” for more information.)
  2. The text of your materials also needs to be adapted to appeal for the local market. Sometimes complete transcreation is called for. Professional in-country copywriter/translators can customize your marketing messages to meet local preferences.
  3. Replace graphics with images that Chinese customers can relate to: Chinese people, familiar landmarks, and typical everyday objects.

Colors have well-recognized meanings in Chinese. In your packaging, print and digital designs incorporate colors with positive associations in the Chinese culture. Red is the traditional bridal color symbolizing good luck, happiness, and long life. Many designs for China incorporate red to highlight important text and accentuate prominent images. Other good colors are gold (wealth, completeness), yellow (nourishing, supporting, warm, good faith), and green (growth, balance, calmness, harmony). As in the United States, green is often the color used by banks.

Traditionally Chinese websites have featured a wealth of bright colors and/or lots of information, like the ones below:

screenshot of Chinese website heavy on red

Screenshot of home page from Chinese site selling microwaves

Screenshot of home page from Yoho e-commerce site

Screenshot of home page from Yoho e-commerce site stuffed with information and graphics

This may be changing for, at least for high end e-commerce sites, which are trending towards less color saturation and less information on a page. The increased use of mobile phones in China requires a less cluttered presentation, and graphics-heavy sites are still a problem for most of the mobile devices in use in China.

The online landscape is very different

When it comes to search engine optimization and social media marketing, the usual players in the U.S. (Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter) are sitting the bench. Many are banned from operating in China. In fact, broad Chinese censorship is something you should consider in making copy choices.

The major search engine that you have to optimize for is Baidu, which has about a 70% market share, followed by Leiden.com, owned by Qihoo 360. (However, Leiden is gaining on Baidu. According to CNZZ, a Chinese research firm, Leiden handled about 25% of China’s Web search traffic in January 2014 while Baidu’s share fell to 58.3%.) The rules for content optimization are different. For instance, Baidu reportedly still considers meta keywords in its ranking system.

Different social network sites should be considered as well. Here are some of the most popular networking sites:

  • Qzone (most widespread)
  • Renren (often compared to Facebook)
  • P1.com (formerly P1.cn, an exclusive network of affluent clients who must be invited by other members to join)

Use of these traditional sites has been on the wane as younger Chinese have started to move on, first to microblogging sites similar to Twitter: Sina Weibo (which added an English interface last year) and Tencent Weibo ) (which has had an English version since 2011).

More recently, mobile chat has become all the rage in China led by the mobile app Weixin QQ, known internationally as WeChat and similar to What’s App. In fact, P1.com, moving away from its principle of exclusivity for this purpose, has introduced a mobile app that targets Sina Weibo users.

Finally, in place of YouTube, the Chinese use video sharing sites like Youku Tudou (by far the largest), iQiyi, and PPS.

In-country researchers can help you do keyword research and point you towards the social platforms that make the most sense for marketing your products or services.

The Chinese marketplace has a lot of potential and a lot of pitfalls. As you plan to enter China, get help and advice. Cultural consultants, marketing researchers, and a language partner experienced in dealing with the issues concerned are all important investments if you want to maximize your success.

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