5-Step Guide for Marketing Localization in China

November 20, 2022
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By Shelly Salomon

Globalization has enabled ambitious brands to create awareness and enjoy commercial success in the lucrative Chinese market. However, the truth is that going global means acting local. If you think about it, this oxymoron actually makes perfect sense – penetrating a new market always forces a new market strategy, which applies to all business functions. Specifically, taking a misinformed marketing approach could result in missing a business opportunity, sometimes with irreversible consequences.

If you are considering to enter the Chinese market or if you are already doing business in China and need to revisit your marketing strategy – this post is for you.

Why Might Western Campaigns Fail in China?

The Chinese market confronts international brands with a considerable number of challenges, from size and heterogeneity to variation in regulations enforcement. Furthermore, attention to local culture is another equally important (but often forgotten) challenge to face when entering the Chinese market. Truth is, cultural ignorance may impede smooth and long-lasting growth in China, even for big worldwide brands.

One of the most memorable fiascos is Dolce & Gabbana’s 2018 campaign, which featured a female Chinese model being instructed by a male voiceover on how to eat Italian dishes using chopsticks. The ad sparked fury among the local audience, blaming the brand for racism and stereotyping. The campaign was immediately shut down, but the damage has been done, and the local audience hasn’t forgotten it even four years later.

The lesson to be learned from this incident is that international brands doing business in China, who overlook local cultural norms, are doomed to lose. Cultural sensitivity is synonymous with marketing localization, especially when drawing a marketing strategy for an alien market such as China’s.

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Five Tactics to Tackle Marketing Localization in China

Dolce & Gabbana’s example is one of many other marketing catastrophes by international brands in China. If you want to ace your marketing localization strategy and aren’t sure where to begin, start with the following five steps:

1) Know your target persona

Audience research refers to exploring who the ideal customer is, what are their needs, pain points, thoughts, resources, etc. Only with this knowledge, you can strategically tailor your unique messaging. Sometimes, international brands might realize that local Chinese consumers disapprove of what is considered “needed” or “desired” in the West. For instance, for three decades, American feminine hygiene brands have failed to enter the Chinese market with the tampon product due to traditional taboos regarding women’s bodies, among other things.

2) Identify the right marketing channels

Forget about email or Facebook marketing in China. Instead, capitalize on popular local social media channels such as WeChat, Weibo, Zhihu, and Douyin. Growing a brand presence where the audience is present and most appreciative is an absolute must, especially in markets where the competition with local brands is so fierce.

Read more on digital marketing for B2B companies in China

3) Pay attention to nonverbal communication

Nonverbal communication includes visual assets and design elements, such as imagery, color choice, aesthetics, etc. Poor or effective implementation of such components that also align with Chinese’ preferences, can either drive success or cause unfortunate situations. For example, in 2019, the Spanish brand Zara published a photo of a freckled Chinese model in a promotion campaign for a new lipstick. The photo provoked fervent debates in local social media, accusing Zara of “uglifying” China and ignoring China’s beauty standards.

4) Embrace language wisely

When starting a business in China, it is recommended to translate foreign names into Chinese, simply because many sounds can’t be pronounced in the Chinese language. While rebranding, you want to fulfill two conditions. First, pick a name that resembles the original name phonetically and embodies the brand image. Secondly, it’s better to use Chinese characters that carry cultural meaning. Overall, word-for-word translation barely works. For instance, when Coca-Cola just entered the Chinese market, a direct translation of its local name (ko-kä-kö-la), was translated into “bite a wax tadpole.” In the face of this embarrassment, the brand re-chose four different characters (Kě-Kǒu-Kě-Lè), translated into “good taste” and “happiness”.

5) Tailor the message to your audience

Audience research helps not only in assessing a product’s future acceptance in a new market, but also in tailoring the messaging. In other words, what values and benefits of the product are the most important for the audience? For instance, Decathlon’s best-selling tent in the UK is branded as sturdy and waterproof, ideal for overnight camping; however, in China, it is branded as a family tent ideal for sun protection and short rests in the park.

Do it Right From The Start

Marketing localization allows international brands to appeal to local consumers on their terms, and thus, potentially thrive. Today, more than ever before, amidst the Guochao trend (nationalism/patriotism in consumption), Chinese consumers are highly inclined toward goods and services that infuse Chinese cultural elements. Practically, brands that fail to adopt Chinese cultural attributes would probably feel it financially.

Marketing localization in China takes much more than just text translation. Therefore, consult with a local service provider capable of providing China business support before, during, and after setting up your China business.

Shelly Salomon is a Marketing Communication Specialist and a Mass Communication grad student at the University of Florida, with over five years of experience working in and with the Chinese market.

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