China and Localization: Top 3 Considerations for Global Brands

Screen Shot 2014-01-07 at 9.53.47 AMGavin Grimes is Senior Director, China, at Welocalize. He is based at Welocalize’s offices in Beijing. Having lived and worked in China for five years, he shares some insights on what global brands must consider when conducting business with China.

The population of China is over 1.35 billion. Since September 2013, it is officially and comfortably the largest country in the world ( and it has the largest share of the total online population.  Around one-fifth of the world’s population, over 1 billion speakers, report some form of Chinese as their first language. In a report by independent research firm, Common Sense Advisory, “Business Globalization in 2020”, December 2007, it states that, in terms of biggest countries by GDP, “economists predict that by 2020, China will have moved up to second place behind the US.”

20_Forbidden city_3Global brands and companies looking to tap into this giant economy have to take their translation and localization strategy seriously. We have all seen and heard funny stories about how brands have got the messaging wrong when advertising and marketing to China. YouTube is full of bad translation examples.  Brand preservation is key for global companies, so localizing your brand is no laughing matter if you’re serious about expanding your reach into China.

Global brands must consider the following when developing their localization strategy to tap into the Chinese market: China’s unique languages, culture and censorship. These three factors can present challenges for today’s global organizations.

LANGUAGE:  China has 292 living languages! The languages of China being the languages spoken by China’s 56 recognized ethnic groups.  Chinese Mandarin has more than 1,917,000,000 speakers. But will we ever go beyond Mandarin and start considering the language of the Central or South Eastern China like Wu, Gan and Xiang, Min, Hakka and Yue? Let’s see.

22_SignsCULTURE: The Chinese culture is over 5,000 years old. There are many established customs and traditions which will remain, no matter how much they look to the west to do business. How the Chinese view religion, family, humour, color, symbolism, food – all differs from western culture. For some western companies trading in China, straight translation and localization will not work. Global marketers need to transcreate to make sure content carries the correct messaging and evokes the right emotion. Companies also need to have presence on the ground, staffed by local people to handle the workflow of their Chinese operations. Managing remotely does not always work and the same applies for localization. You need local, experienced expertise.  Here’s a nice set of illustrations that shows some of the differences in Chinese and Western culture:

CENSORSHIP: Censorship is big challenge. China has strong government censorship policies. A lot of western websites and products are blocked in China. For a Chinese native living in China, to translate content for a particular company, a learning curve is necessary before they translate because they may not have had access to this type of content before. They must fully understand the content and brand identity before translation begins. An alternative solution is to find talent outside of China, for example, Chinese natives living in the US.

As a westerner living in China, the use of virtual private network (VPN) is essential for everyday Internet access  to censored content; however, even VPNs are starting to be targeted by government censorship policies.

LANGUAGE, CULTURE, CENSORSHIP. Make sure you consider these before conducting business with this beautiful country.