Lost in Translation: How NOT to Market in China
If you’re looking to reach China’s massive luxury goods market, you can’t just translate your ads into Chinese. Of course, good translations are very important and can help avoid unfortunate mistakes like that time Pepsi accidentally claimed to bring dead people back to life. But translations alone simply aren’t enough to be successful. The key to an effective communications plan for business opportunities abroad is cultural sensitivity.
China’s consumers have unique feelings about social status, relationships and even leisure activities that necessitate a tailored approach to advertising. If you don’t take the time to understand and then incorporate these tastes into your messaging, you will alienate your audience and eliminate ROI. You will also end up featured as a “Chinese Marketing Fail” on a fine blog like this one. On that note, here are three examples of brands that screwed up launching campaigns in China:
When eBay came to China in 2004, the brand hoped to take customers away from e-retailer Alibaba which at the time was helping small companies run online businesses. In an effort to dominate the market, eBay launched aggressive campaigns, even signing exclusive rights with major web portals that would block their competitors’ ads. It was a savage move that didn’t pay off and the reason they say “know your audience.” Because Alibaba executives recognized that China’s small business people preferred watching TV over surfing the Internet during their downtime. So they invested heavily in television campaigns promoting their new auction site, Taobao. These efforts soon made Taoboa a household name, allowing it to heavily outpace its American counterpart and forcing eBay to wave the white flag in 2006.
2. Home Depot
With home ownership on the rise in China, entering this market seemed like a no-brainer to Home Depot. But six years later, they managed to evict themselves. The company failed on several fronts including a lack of marketing that targeted Chinese women, who often make the final decisions about home décor purchases. Home Depot also greatly overestimated these consumers’ desires to “do it yourself,” a major messaging point in much of the brand’s advertising. Because manual labor is considered the trade of lower-class citizens, this was off-putting to new home buyers. By ignoring these important aspects of local culture, and trying to make middle class Chinese people do their own renovations, Home Depot never effectively connected with this audience.
Despite spending a whopping $432 million on marketing, Groupon failed in China and it wasn’t because the people there didn’t want to pay deeply discounted prices for concert tickets and hair removal services. They already had successful group-buying sites. Groupon was unable to bite into that business due to a lack of cultural understanding reflected in many aspects of their downfall, from their inability to steal executive talent away from competitors to their difficulty trying to build vendor partnerships. Not only did they scare off prospects during sales pitches by demanding much higher percentages than typical of the market, they also insisted on using mass email campaigns to target business owners because this had worked for them when expanding into Europe. But because Chinese small business owners do not typically read such marketing emails, Groupon’s efforts in China fell flatter than an unstuffed dumpling.
Chinese consumers can differ greatly from those in America. Ultimately, if your organization wants to capitalize on advertising opportunities in China, you’ll make efforts to understand the needs and preferences of its citizens. Because as even some of the biggest U.S. brands like Pepsi have learned, cultural sensitivity can make or break a campaign…especially when you promise to reincarnate your consumers.