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  • Writer's pictureLiz Yin

Localization in China: 3 Steps to Enter the Market in 2023

Three entrepreneurs working at a chinese Startbucks

Wehther you represent a multi-million corporation or a start-up, when it comes to expanding business to China market, brand localization is almost always the first step of your international marketing journey.

“Studies show that 75% of consumers prefer to buy products in their native language. Another 86% of localized marketing campaigns performed better than English-only versions.”

What is Brand Localization in China?

Localization is a process of taking a brand or product and adapt it to the new market to create an experience that is relevant to the local audience.

China is a market with unique culture, policies and languages that are completely different from the western markets. International marketers need to know that brands in China must be “built for China”. Businesses operate in China without adapting to its local cultures will almost destine to fail.

While localization can be easily misunderstood as simply translating brand names and slogans, it goes far beyond that. Brand localization in China means that you need to fully understand the Chinese culture and adapt your brand positioning, brand name and content so it is relevant to your Chinese target audience.

Should You Localize Your Brand for the China Market?

When it comes to brand localization, there's no one-size-fits-all approach. The level of localization also varies from brand to brand. For some brands, a complete product adjustement and marketing strategy change is needed in order to meet the unique needs of the Chinese customers; For others, simply adapting the communications messages for the market would be enough.

How to Localize Your Brand for the China Market?

Whether you are a B2B or a consumer brands, the first step to dermine your localization strategy is always conducting market research. By understanding your market size, ideal customers and their demographics and behaviors, you'll gain a better understanding in terms of how much should you localize your brand to the Chinese market.

Follow these 3 steps to localize your brand for China market more effectively.

1. Localize your brand positioning

Localizing brand positioning is a critical part of the global marketing strategy, it entails adapting global brand positioning to meet the needs of local consumers. A successful brand positioning in western markets won’t necessarily work in the Chinese market due to the differences in customer background and behaviors.

Having a clear local brand positioning will not only differentiate your brand from local competitors but also gain trust and brand recognition among Chinese consumers, even though sometimes it means compromising the “global standard”.

Green chinese shampoo with aloe vera

Take a consumer brand as an example: Garnier—a mass-market cosmetics brand under the L’Oréal brand, is a typical example of a brand failing to find a clear brand positioning in China. Garnier was introduced to Chinese consumers in 2006. For the longest time, it positioned itself as a mid-range brand just as its global branding strategy. However, its not cheap and "local" enough to compete with the low-end brands and not luxury enough to compete with international premium skincare brands. After several years of struggling with finding the right positioning, L’Oreal decided to pull it back from the China market to focus on the other brands.

Garnier failed due to one big mistake - instead of trusting its local team and partners on positioning, its global team insisted on a positioning strategy used for other western markets that doesn’t fit into the China market. The internal conflict between its local and global team also forced the brand to change directions 5 times, which eventually drove the brand out of the market by both local and international competitors.

On the other hand, a brand with a well-defined and clear brand positioning will more likely be trusted and welcomed by local consumers. In 2016, Shanghai Disney Resort was opened as the very first Disneyland in China. The planning team, after gathering important local insights and researches, realized that the rising new middle-class consumers don’t just want to a replicated global brand, but something built uniquely for them.

Disney show in china

With that, it defined a localized positioning - “authentically Disney, distinctly Chinese” and had it well translated into Chinese - “原汁原味迪士尼,别具一格中国风”. Based on this localized positioning, Chinese elements are incorporated into everything in the resort from the park decoration, hotel themes to musical shows. The clear and localized brand positioning made Disney a huge success in attracting Chinese consumers from all across China.

Defining a brand positioning for China market requires a deep understanding of the local cultures and consumer habits, and studying of your target audiences and competitors. But these efforts will pay off as you prevent yourself from wasting investment in marketing for your brand only to find your brand positioning is not relevant to the local consumers.

2. Localize your brand name, OR NOT?

Very often I get clients ask me, “do I need to localize my brand name or not?” The answer is “it depends”.

If you have a simple, short and easy-to-pronouce English brand name and you can’t find a good Chinese name that relates to your brand, you may not need to localize your brand name. For example, brands like H&M, Zara, LG and smart, all kept their English name because of their name simplicity.

But if you have a uncommonor a longer English brand name, we always suggest to localize it into Chinese.

If you look at brands that have long-term success in China, it comes without question that they all have Chinese names. This is because as business scales, a catchy Chinese name will help you reach more local consumers, build trust and awareness much easier.

CocaCola logo localized for the Chinese market

A “textbook” example of a good Chinese name is “Coca Cola”. The brand name is translated as “可口可乐” in Chinese, which literally means “delicious and happy”. Not only that the name relates to a positive connotation, it also sounds very similar to its original English name, making it more authentic to its original brand name. Even until today, the name “可口可乐” still resonate with Chinese consumers, and the brand became a symbol of happiness and enjoyment in the Chinese soda market.

Just as a good Chinese name can make the brand more attractive to local consumers, a bad one can hurt a brand too.

Warsteiner, a German premium beer initially localized its name as “沃斯乐”, which is a transliteration of its English name. However, the name “沃斯乐” literally pronounced as “I am dead” in mandarin Chinese.

This oblivious mistake not only made the products undesirable among Chinese consumers but also jeopardized its brand reputation by associating it with something very negative or even tabooed in Chinese. Even though Warsteiner quickly realized this mistake and changed its name, the first impression the brand left on its consumers is irreversible.

When localizing your brand name, follow the below rules:

1. It speaks to the core value of your brand

2. It's explicit and easy to understand

3. It MUST address a positive connotation

4. It should be concise and no longer than 4-5 Chinese characters.

5. Check trademark availability

Last advice I would give is - localize it earlier than later. It will save you a lot of money and efforts by building awareness with both Chinese and English brand names at the begining rather than introducing them seperately.

3. Localize your content

Unlike the rest of the world where English is commonly used language. In China, 96% of Chinese population don’t speak English well. That’s why it is so crucial to have your content localized in the language they understand.

However, content localization is much more than just translation, it’s a process of adapting your content to make it relevant to the local audiences. It's important to understand their preferred language and tone, and their media consumption habits. Sometimes content localization can mean changing the context completely or creating new content to cater to the local consumers’ needs. It can also mean changing the visual presentation of the content.

When localizing your content, the website is usually where you want to start with. It is the first impression to Chinese audience and should be prioritized. After that, you can start developing localized social media content, ads, videos and blogs., etc.

One important piece of advice in terms of content localization is, NEVER use Google for our website translation.

While Google might be able to get the basic content translated right, it could also translate content into something really awkward or even culturally offensive, which will hurt your brand.

When it comes to content, always advise your local team or PR agency in China. This is very important as China has very strict advertising policies, brands against these rules will pay high price. For example, words such as “best”, “NO.1” or “most effective” are considered as inductive and are prohibited from using in social media, online ads and print ads.,etc. Some media platforms and e-commerce such as TikTok, iQiyi, Taobao also have their own policies for advertising.

Final thought

When it comes to brand localization, international marketers need to take time to learn, study, and understand the local culture, market, and consumers. Global marketing team also need to trust their local team and partners in order to achieve sustainable growth in China.

Ready to localize your brand?

Brand localization can make your brand more relevant to the Chinese consumers, build trust and awareness in the market. At Tribe China, we help brands to develop and execute successful brand localization strategy without losing its global brand authenticity.Contact us to see how we can help you!


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