The Chinese Market: internationalization and cultural adaptation

The Chinese market is a giant on the world stage, with continuous growth and a very promising future ahead. Because of this, many companies are starting to internationalise toward the Asian giant. The possibilities there are endless. Nevertheless, paradoxically, the Chinese market has been one of the most difficult to successfully internationalise into. It is the example that best shows that internationalisation and cultural adaptation go hand-in-hand.

We have said it more than once: when it is time to internationalise, even more important than the technical aspects of the process – logistics, tenders, budgets… – is the linguistic and cultural adaptation to the target market. You can have everything perfectly set out on paper and still fail spectacularly at reaching your potential customers because you haven’t localised your marketing strategy to the culture of the target market. The Chinese market and culture are so tremendously different from what we can understand from a European point of view – this is a broad generalisation, which although not always a good idea, can help make things clearer – that even global brands have to make cultural adaptations.

McDonald’s isn’t spared, not even Coca-Cola. The language is, more than in any other large market, the cornerstone on which the entire business culture revolvesAnd, keeping in mind that Mandarin Chinese is a language that places the utmost importance on phonetics, you have to be very careful with how your brand could sound. A brand has to make an impression from the first moment, and to do so, the feelings that it transmits have to be good ones. Who knows, maybe the name of your brand pronounced in Chinese is horribly obscene. That is why we always put so much emphasis on the pairing of internationalisation and cultural adaptation. And translation is an essential part of that adaptation, but, what is the best way to adapt a brand to Mandarin Chinese?

Because the Mandarin Chinese writing system is based on symbols that represent concepts and not empty characters without significance, like in English, for example, you must choose if you want to maintain phonetic similarity with the original name of the brand —as long as they don’t have negative connotations–, like in the case of Volvo —沃尔沃 (Wò’ērwò) —,  or Cola Cao —高乐高 (Gāo lègāo), meaning more or less “tall, happy, tall”, which brings to mind pleasant sensations —, if you would prefer a translation that symbolises a meaning or concept related to the brand without maintaining the phonetic sound of the original, as is the case of Microsoft —微软 (Wei Ruan), which means literally “micro” and “soft”—, or if you want to start from scratch and give the brand a name that doesn’t have anything to do with the original, based, for example, on the logo. Ralph Lauren opted for the last example —三脚马 (Sānjiǎo mǎ), which means “horse with three legs”—. Whatever option you choose, you have to keep in mind that China is the third-largest country geographically. Essentially, it is enormous. Because of its size, there are very distinct cultural and linguistic varieties even within the country. This makes it necessary to find the balance that gives your brand the status that it deserves throughout the country. Investment in cultural advisory services is key in this stage.

With all this, which is just one example, we have an idea of the huge cultural difference that exists between the Chinese markets and Spanish markets. The complexity of the internationalisation process to this market is not just a question of logistics or bureaucracy, but lies in the most basic aspect of culture, the language. And, as you can see, not even the heavyweights of international business are exempt from changes to their most recognisable aspect, which is their brand. Although, this doesn’t mean that you should through in the towel, not by a long shot. China presents the perfect opportunity for companies that want to grow and expand, but, in order to reach this goal, it is essential to understand that internationalisation and cultural adaptation go hand-in-hand and that, if you don’t keep that in mind, you had better book a round-trip ticket. It must be clear that there is no process for successful internationalisation in the Chinese market without investing in linguistic and cultural advisory services.

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