Last Updated on November 8, 2023
Brand localization in China involves many considerations that extend beyond simple translation. It includes language refinement, cultural acumen, and adapting to the values and inclinations of Chinese citizens.
And since engaging with Chinese customers involves dealing with its distinctive nuances, the only way to succeed in your localization efforts is to have a profound understanding of the market.
In this article, we’ll delve into the pivotal facets foreign companies must grasp for a successful entry into the Chinese market and the challenges they must overcome because of China’s Great Firewall censorship.
What is Brand Localization in China & How Does It Work?
Brand localization refers to tailoring a brand’s message and identity to resonate more effectively with local customers in China. When applied to the Chinese market, brand localization proves invaluable for international brands aiming to establish rapport with local consumers, fostering awareness and familiarity in new markets.
Several of these strategies focus on addressing the distinctive preferences of Chinese consumers through local insights and incorporating cultural elements to shape the brand’s product offerings.
Localization also means international brands must customize marketing strategies through Chinese social media platforms and other online channels.
Other than that, collaborating with local KOLs and adopting a brand name in the local language will make it easier for Chinese internet users to find foreign companies amidst strict censorship policies in China.
While all of that sounds easy in today’s modern world, treading the path of localization requires caution, as excessive adjustments can potentially dilute the brand’s identity. On the other hand, inadequate localization might lead to products falling short of Chinese consumers’ anticipations.
For international companies, striking the right balance between localization and preserving their global identity is a challenge that’s hard to overcome.
Brand localization examples for the Chinese New Year
Why Should You Localize Your Brand For The Chinese Market?
As you may already know, globally recognized and iconic brands can opt for partial localization, adapting only the pivotal aspects of their operations to suit Chinese customers. However, it’s worth noting that this approach is only viable because they have already cultivated a reputation and identity beyond China’s borders.
For smaller or lesser-known brands aspiring to make a mark in the Chinese market, embracing and implementing comprehensive localization strategies is more complex than you think. Here are the primary reasons why foreign brands must go through this process:
1. Navigating the Challenges of the Great Firewall
The Great Firewall is an integral part of the Golden Shield Project launched by the Chinese government in the late 90s. With this state power, the local Ministry of Public Security can block certain content or false information on online platforms that may affect the welfare of Chinese society.
Through the Great Wall policy in Mainland China, the Chinese government can use censorship technologies to subset information across the internet inside specific regions. Because of this, internet use in the country can be different from most of the world.
According to a South China Morning Post article, the GFW project scans the data going in and out of China’s online landscape, ultimately slowing down internet traffic. This censorship often leads to IP blocking certain foreign websites that don’t align with the online policies established by the Ministry of Public Security and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The proxies scan for sensitive words, preventing users from finding restricted content within a local search engine. So, if your website contains these terms, chances are your webpage won’t appear in the local search results.
One of the perks of localization is avoiding the use of the target keywords prohibited in the Great Firewall system. While Chinese consumers can use VPNs or other circumvention tools to access restricted IP addresses, VPNs not approved by the central government are considered a threat to national security, and the user may face jail time.
Localization is a cost-effective way to reach more Chinese customers without circumventing the Great Firewall policies. It also shows genuine respect for the country’s sovereignty and national security measures.
2. Transcending Linguistic Boundaries
While Mandarin boasts the largest number of speakers (approximately 1.118 billion), did you know there are seven other types of language variations collectively referred to as Chinese in the West?
In addition to Mandarin, these variations include Yue (which incorporates the Cantonese dialect), Min, Wu, Xiang, Gan, and Hakka.
This vast array of spoken dialects results in a varied vocabulary, pronunciations, and even grammatical rules from one locale to another. Consequently, effective localization must be meticulously tailored to each target market, ensuring Chinese consumers perceive the content as crafted specifically for them.
Besides that, the reality is that Chinese consumers tend to patronize brands that speak their language (quite literally). Remember that a global mindset doesn’t thrive in China as people are more connected to their roots and traditions.
Chinese consumers buy goods for very different reasons than Western consumers. They buy them based on credibility and authenticity. That’s why the most successful brands in China are brands that localized themselves to the Chinese market. In other words, brands that hit home with their messaging and branding activities.
Should budget constraints arise in addressing language barriers, the best approach is to seek expert translation services for Simplified Chinese and Mandarin.
3. Complying with Legal Requirements and Regulations
Besides overcoming language barriers and comprehending the intricacies of the GFW project, complying with industry-specific regulations and legal mandates is of utmost importance.
A notable example of this pertains to the active probing of the Chinese government that all written marketing materials and other content should use Simplified Chinese characters.
Crafting brand names or slogans to localize your marketing campaign should include a meticulous review of various dialects to ensure these elements do not override any existing trademark data or domain in the country.
For example, Apple Incorporated received active probing from the local government due to intellectual property issues. The dispute is over the trademark of Apple devices being called the “iPhone” name. They resolve the case through settlement and confirming the ownership of the brand.
The localization process helps you avoid legal problems and ensures your brand works well across different parts of China.
Conducting comprehensive research is necessary to guarantee alignment with Chinese laws. It can save your brand from hefty penalties or being barred from running a business within the country.
Benefits Of Adapting To Local Digital Channels
Although the world has become smaller in the modern Internet age, China remains a closed book. From having a unique culture to communicating using a set of dedicated platforms, the Chinese market is a different ball game altogether.
It’s not a secret that China has more than 1.03 Billion active social media users, and most Chinese consumers also prefer online shopping just as much as the rest of the world. Because of these statistics, it’s not too farfetched to say that investing in digital marketing strategies can boost a foreign brand’s presence in China.
Contrary to common misconceptions, the Great Firewall implemented by the Chinese government does not hinder a foreign company from executing a successful business inside China.
Here are the top Chinese social media platforms and online channels you can localize your brand in to reach as many local internet users as you can:
With over a billion active users, WeChat is a powerhouse all-in-one online app for brand promotion in China. Its multifaceted features enable businesses to engage with customers through messaging, content sharing, e-commerce, and more.
Utilizing WeChat’s versatile ecosystem is a strategic move for creating personalized brand experiences that resonate deeply with a vast and diverse audience. The app has different features foreign marketers can use to amplify the brand’s Chinese elements to attract local consumers, like mini-programs and advertisements.
Since the Great Firewall prevents using Google in China, Chinese consumers are more accustomed to searching for internet data in Baidu. As China’s predominant search engine, Baidu is pivotal in brand visibility. Optimizing content for Baidu’s search algorithms enhances discoverability and drives organic traffic.
Leveraging Baidu’s advertising platform can further elevate a brand’s reach and engagement by strategically positioning it before users actively search for relevant products or services.
However, succeeding in Baidu requires more than mere presence. Understanding the intricacies of Baidu’s algorithms and user behavior is crucial for achieving prominent search rankings and garnering user trust. Brands must craft high-quality, localized content that resonates with Chinese consumers and addresses their needs and interests.
- Little Red Book
Driven by user-generated content (UGC), Little Red Book is an interactive hub popular among females and millennials.
Foreign brands targeting these demographics can leverage this platform to curate immersive experiences, encourage UGC, and create a community-driven narrative that resonates authentically.
Little Red Book’s unique blend of social media and e-commerce provides a seamless path for users to discover, discuss, and purchase products.
Brands can capitalize on this by showcasing their offerings and facilitating genuine interactions and conversations around their products.
- Douyin (TikTok)
Douyin, recognized worldwide as TikTok, has established itself as a hub for content marketing and live streaming.
As a place for short-form video content, this platform provides a dynamic avenue for brands to exhibit creativity, engage audiences, and cultivate impactful interactions beyond traditional advertising.
With a demographic skewed towards the younger generation, Douyin offers foreign brands a window into the online behavior and purchasing inclinations of China’s Gen Z. This presents a valuable opportunity for brands to gain insights into the preferences, trends, and aspirations of a significant consumer segment.
With a significant user base mainly of young individuals, QQ is a viable alternative to WeChat, particularly for brands looking to connect with younger audiences.
Much like Douyin, tapping into QQ’s platform allows brands to cultivate a youthful and vibrant brand identity that deeply connects with this dynamic demographic’s digital preferences and behaviors.
Youku is a dedicated platform for longer video content, providing an ideal arena for educational materials and immersive storytelling experiences.
For brands, Youku’s technological capabilities offer a means to educate their desired audience, share comprehensive insights, and amplify their visibility by weaving captivating narratives that resonate profoundly with viewers.
It’s a strategic avenue for fostering engagement and brand resonance in the Chinese market.
- Baidu Tieba
Since Reddit is also part of the GFW project that the Chinese government implements, brands who want to access and execute localized strategies in forums and niche discussions can use Baidu Tieba.
With its substantial user base numbering millions each month, brands can leverage Baidu Tieba to immerse themselves in these online spaces. This engagement fosters meaningful connections and brand loyalty within tightly-knit communities with specific interests and passions.
Toutiao’s role as a news platform presents foreign brands with the opportunity to seamlessly integrate advertising and lead generation within the daily news consumption of its users.
By leveraging Toutiao, international brands can access a dynamic platform that facilitates engagement with audiences through custom-tailored content that aligns precisely with their interests. This avenue offers a distinct channel for brands to connect with Chinese consumers in a relevant and impactful manner.
- Meituan Dianping
Meituan Dianping serves as a bridge between consumers and local businesses, making it a prime channel for brands seeking to tap into the location-based advertising landscape in the country.
Through this online channel, businesses can reach audiences with specific interests like restaurants, hotels, and entertainment options. The particular purpose of the app is to provide access to helpful data for foreign marketers to launch effective ad campaigns.
- Tencent Video
Tencent Video’s technology-driven approach to content makes it a fertile ground for influencer marketing through live streams and captivating video content.
Brands can seize the opportunity to collaborate with local influencers, co-creating compelling and resonant content that resonates profoundly with the platform’s devoted audience.
Like Quora, Zhihu provides a platform for brands to cement their thought leadership and share in-depth, long-form articles.
Considering Zhihu’s substantial influence on search engine rankings, brands can strategically leverage its SEO-friendly environment to bolster their authority and enhance visibility in specialized domains.
This platform becomes a powerful avenue for brands to establish themselves as credible sources of knowledge and insights.
Primarily embraced by a female user base, Meitu emerges as an ideal channel for lifestyle and beauty brands to engage specific segments of female consumers.
Meitu provides a platform where brands can effectively heighten their visibility through product reviews and captivating content crafted to align with the preferences of this particular audience.
Renowned for its technology-centric content, Bilibili emerges as a bridge connecting brands with younger Chinese consumers.
Geared towards users under 25, Bilibili offers brands a vibrant arena to establish their presence and cultivate meaningful connections with the tech-savvy youth demographic.
With an impressive daily user count surpassing 347.3 million, Kuaishou stands out for its remarkable user engagement and dynamic algorithm.
Brands can harness the interactive nature of Kuaishou to foster more profound relationships with their intended audience, propelling heightened brand associations and fostering authentic engagement that resonates.
Despite the Chinese government barring access to popular Western online channels, the 75% internet user penetration rate in China’s population signifies that the censorship policies will not hinder a foreign brand’s success in the local market.
Source: Penetration rate of Internet users in China 2008-2022 (Statista)
Understanding The Cultural Differences
As previously mentioned, the Chinese market stands apart from the Western norm. For example, in China, people tend to go for authentic products even if they come with a higher price tag. This purchasing behavior differs from other places where consumers often seek cheaper alternatives to their favored items.
Additionally, Chinese consumers lean towards making group decisions over individual ones. The buying choices within the country are shaped by their social circles, underscoring the need for brands to appeal to communities rather than individuals.
Apart from all the technical data you need to consider in localizing your brand, you must remember that maintaining a positive internet reputation is crucial in the Chinese market. While a good image is vital for business anywhere, it holds exceptional significance in China, where consumers actively prefer brands associated with favorable public relations.
Dolce & Gabbana made a huge mistake with their “DC Loves China” marketing campaign in 2018, with videos showing a Chinese model — wearing a red D&C dress — struggling to use chopsticks to eat giant-sized portions of a pizza, a cannoli and spaghetti.
Chinese social media users labeled the videos as racist and disrespectful to Asian women. The backlash was so severe that it led to a “Boycott Dolce” campaign and products removed from a wide range of platforms.
Not all Chinese consumers may be willing to experiment with or invest in brands with a hit-or-miss record on the internet. So, brands can significantly benefit from focusing on reputation management to keep consumers from turning away due to a few bad reviews.
Brand Localization Strategies for Foreign Companies in China
The potential for China’s consumer market is massive. When creating strategies for establishing your brand in China, here are some tips to bear in mind:
When entering a foreign market, it pays to rebrand a company and launch with a native identity. That’s true for the Chinese market, too. For instance, Puma is recognized as Biāo Mǎ in China, while Rolex is known as Láolì Shì. Both these brands have fared well in the Chinese market. So, you can consider adopting a Chinese brand name as part of your core rebranding strategy.
That being said, it also pays to stick to your foreign identity. The Chinese markets are notorious for counterfeit goods. Consumers with spending potential will instead import goods directly rather than buy from local outlets if they are concerned about quality. So, adopting a Chinese name or maintaining a foreign identity should strictly be brand-specific.
Coca-Cola’s logo displayed in Chinese on cans in China
Dialect and transcreation
As previously stated, Mandarin is a blanket term for the language spoken by the people of China, but there are seven different varieties of the language. While other regions are familiar with different dialects, most consumers are comfortable with Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese.
So, if you want to communicate with your target audience effectively, you must study your market and design your communication to suit the people of specific regions. As general advice, it is always wise to use Simplified Chinese for mainland China and Traditional Chinese for Hong Kong and Taiwan.
With the Great Wall censorship still in effect in the country, one of the initial steps to gain traction in China’s internet space is to localize your company website.
Always remember that Chinese internet users don’t have the same digital access as the rest of the world. So, if you want to establish your online presence, you must ensure that your domain name and hosting are appropriately configured for the country you intend to advertise in.
And while website localization is more than translating web content, the fact of the matter is only 6% of Chinese people speak English. Since your website is part of your brand’s authenticity, your potential Chinese audience expects content that will directly cater to them and their language preference.
It’s also an excellent way to avoid internet censorship in China, as most search engines prioritize websites in Chinese. Whether for website content or other strategies, we don’t encourage using Google for translation.
Although a helpful communication tool, Google Translate doesn’t always generate accurate translations. Some of it can turn awkward or even offensive, which can get you in trouble with the internet censorship in the country. You can check out our website localization guide to learn more about this process.
Localize Your Brand’s Marketing Strategies
Viewing marketing as an operational function is one notable outcome of the evolving contrast between how marketing is perceived in China and the West.
While Western marketing revolves around brand communication and storytelling, Chinese marketing increasingly centers on practical aspects such as CRM, on-ground feedback, and customer recovery.
Building customer connections is critical in this new landscape, so foreign brands must focus on social listening and local data before crafting new marketing strategies.
Optimizing The Brand’s Market Positioning
Adjusting how your brand is perceived is a vital part of localization. It means tailoring your worldwide brand image to fit the preferences of local customers in China. Remember that what works as a successful brand image in Western markets might fail in China due to the differing customer behaviors and backgrounds.
Creating a clear local brand positioning not only sets you apart from local rivals but also builds trust and familiarity with Chinese consumers, even if it means deviating from a “one-size-fits-all” global standard.
For instance, consider the brand Garnier, a mass-market cosmetics line by L’Oréal. Did you know that it encountered difficulties when it entered China in 2006?
Despite being mid-range globally, it couldn’t compete as it wasn’t budget-friendly enough for local low-end brands and not luxurious enough for premium international skincare competitors. After struggling to find footing, L’Oréal withdrew Garnier from China to focus on other brands.
Garnier’s misstep stemmed from not heeding local insights, and that’s the lesson new foreign brands must learn when entering the Chinese market.
Crafting a brand positioning for the Chinese market demands a profound grasp of local culture, consumer habits, target demographics, and competitors. Executing strategies based on actual data can be rewarding, as they prevent wasteful marketing investments by ensuring your brand’s image resonates with local consumers.
Your Trusted Brand Localization Partner In China!
Since China is such a closed market, it is challenging to gauge what is on the inside, especially if you have yet to gain experience with the market.
To fast-track your brand’s success and simplify the launch, consider working with an experienced digital agency that knows the ins and outs of branding in China.
Sekkei Digital Group has been helping brands establish their presence in China since 2008. Not only do we know the people, but we also understand the common pitfalls that come with the launch.
If you would like to benefit from our knowledge and expertise, contact us, and we will begin strategizing for you immediately.