China has the biggest e-commerce market on the planet – with forecasts to reach a mammoth $1.8tn in 2022. Therefore, appealing to this huge demographic could be immensely lucrative.
The definition of "localization" is one of the most important buzzwords for the entry of foreign brands into China. But despite the different characteristics between different regions and city levels, the localization of most brands leads China to become a large unified market. China's cities are in themselves immense markets. The GDP of Shanghai is close to Thailand's value and the population is larger than that of Australia.
Brands from all parts of the world are finding themselves more and more alongside increasingly chic domestic brands, which are also courted by Chinese consumers. Every day an estimated 160 new products are added to China's shelves, competing for the share of an ever more indifferent consumer and contributing to the world's most competitive market.In such fierce competition, the most high-performing brands focus on much more targeted messaging, positioning, channels and even product development.
The majority of brands localize uniquely for one of these markets to succeed in competition. However, localising a product to the Chinese market has been historically tricky. With a culture and language so different to the European and American, there've been plenty of blunders when introducing products to the super-nation.
Here's 3 made by some of the most famous brands in the world:
Beloved fried-chicken franchise, KFC , tried to make their mark in China in late '80s but their poorly-localised marketing left a bad taste in the mouth. In the Western world, they're famously branded with the slogan: 'Finger-lickin' good'. Yet, the marketing for their inaugural Beijing branch translated to: 'Eat Your Fingers Off'. Needless to say, they didn't get off to a good start. Nevertheless, KFC's become a hit in China – with over 5,000 outlets across the country. They even have specialised menu times, like rice congee, matcha ice cream and tree fungus salad. That's more like it.
The German car maker has a questionable rap sheet when it comes to their Chinese marketing. When they introduced the brand to China, they did so with the name 'Bensi'. This may seem like an innocuous alternative to 'Benz', but it actually translated to 'rush to die' in Mandarin. They soon sorted it out, but it's never going to be easy to come back from that. More recently, they caused outrage with an Instagram post, after quoting the Dalai Lama. The so-called spiritual leader of the Tibetan people is widely considered by the Chinese as a separatist, looking to tear the country apart. Such (accidental) political insensitivity can lead to serious PR, and thus financial, problems. This is why every company needs an expert of the culture involved to make sure all marketing materials are properly localised.
Pepsi and Coke
Pepsi has long battled with Coca Cola to dominate the drinks market. Their bid to take over the Chinese market didn't get off to a good start, when their slogan “Pepsi Brings You Back to Life” was translated to “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave”. This is particularly offensive in a culture where ancestors are considered so sacred. Coke also had teething problems with their localisation – when their brand name was interpreted as “bite the wax tadpole”. Both brands are performing much better now, but only because of the research and effort to put into accurate localisation.
These are just three examples of many blunders that brands have made in not only China, but all around the world. To avoid being left red-faced or, even worse, out-of-pocket, it's essential to pump resources into adjusting your product properly to foreign consumers.