MT Expert's Ten Top Tips: Communicating for Success in China

How do you get your message right in the world's fastest-growing economy? Here are ten top tips.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The remarkable rebound of China is helping to drag the world out of recession – and it’s another reminder that before long, the world’s largest economy is quite likely to be Chinese-speaking. So any businesses with international aspirations may, at some point, want to consider how they should adapt their marketing messages for a Chinese audience. MT asked Dr Kevin Lin of KL Communications for his ten top tips on how to get it right.

1. Make it strategic
A huge amount of what we call international business today will soon be business with or related to China. All this will need to be supported by marketing and communications in Chinese - from branding, literature and website creation to presentations, exhibitions and advertising. Communications in Chinese is an economic imperative, no longer just an issue of cultural awareness. It requires strategic thinking.

2. Understand the underlying challenge
The Chinese culture is well documented, but not the Chinese language. It is fundamentally different from the ones using Roman letters, because there are no links between how a word is said and how it is written. In English, by looking at the word London, one is able to say Lon don. But in Chinese, there is nothing Lon don about the two characters used to write its name. You either know how to read them or you don’t. It’s a minefield. Most critical of all, Chinese grow up to recognize, understand and remember characters, and do so much faster than Roman letters. Even when they’re fluent in English, they are more perceptive in Chinese.

3. Benchmark your brand against the best

Coca-Cola’s Chinese name sounds like its English name. Whichever language is spoken, you know it’s Coca-Cola being talked about. Three of the four Chinese characters used in the name contain the indicator of ‘mouth’ – highly suggestive of the product’s application. Collectively, the name says ‘palatable and joyful’. Also, the styling of the characters is highly reminiscent of its corporate logo – so you don’t have to be able to read Chinese to recognize Coca-Cola.  Does your brand name in Chinese also SOUND close to the corporate name, deliver a SENSE of what you stand for and represent the STYLE of the corporate logo?

4. Customise your message
Copy and messages developed by your UK team rarely, if ever, address Chinese aspirations or situations. Instead, their content is often irrelevant to or even unsuitable in China. For instance, Scotland promotes itself as ‘the best small country in the world’ – so unwittingly, Scotland has developed a strapline that can’t be translated into Chinese. There’s also the visual dimension too. As Chinese uses square shaped characters that look more compact in print, the layout, font and effects designed for English text are usually unsuitable for Chinese. Simply replacing English words with Chinese characters produce unprofessional looking brochures or web pages (of which there are plenty in China).

5. Make your website Chinese-friendly
This means much more than having Chinese content. People who don’t speak English well struggle to even type in a web or email address correctly in English. So they may never get to visit your website or send that email enquiry. Few of us in the UK can imagine how difficult it is for a non-English speaking Chinese to give an email address like enquiry@marksandspencer.com to another non-English speaking Chinese over the phone. It’ll be a long and painful conversation. There are two potential solutions - use a domain name with Chinese pronunciation or Chinese characters.

6. Leverage PR
Many Chinese journalists, including those at leading media organisations in China, know very little about the UK and often write about us in stereotypes. So UK company news that won’t make it into newspapers here (because the UK public won’t be interested) can win successful coverage in China. What’s more, news in China is not necessarily what’s currently happening. Often, it can also just be stuff that hasn’t been reported before in the particular media. The thousands of newspapers, magazines, radio channels and TV stations in China are all hungry for stories. Providing a good story to a leading outlet can give you continuous coverage for weeks.

7. Drive your agencies
Few UK creative agencies have Chinese speakers at decision-making level in their offices. Many, including those with a significant presence in China, don’t have a structure for using their Chinese experts. Their involvement is often at a much later stage of a campaign and even then, they’re often used as second opinions only. You need to include in your instructions to your agencies clear requirements for Chinese input – from conceptual stage right through to the execution of a campaign. You also need to specify the level and depth of such input. Remember, they may not be able to make a judgment if their decision-makers don’t understand Chinese. In 2004, Nike had its advertising campaign banned by the Chinese authorities for insulting Chinese culture. That campaign was conceived and created in English, and translated into Chinese later.

8. Tap into local talent
Earlier this year, YSL broke new ground in communication in Chinese. It used a two-part Chinese proverb to name its latest version of Opium. Part one was very feminine. Part two described the desire of men. Together, they sold the fragrance as if it was designed for the proverb. Not only that, by printing the Chinese phrases calligraphy-style onto bottles sold in the West, YSL also enhanced the brand of Opium. This level of sophisticated communication in Chinese is only possible by tapping into the creative talent in China. In contrast, ‘You’re worth it’ by L’Oreal has become ‘You (the product) is worth owning’ in Chinese – a mistranslation.

9. Build in-house capacity
Communicating successfully in China doesn’t mean you need to be fluent in Chinese. But you need to know what the challenges are, what the issues are and how to manage your resources. This means building up your capacity to design, manage and assess your communications in Chinese. There are few ready-made solutions. A one-off culture workshop or a few people learning a few Chinese phrases are no more than starters. The main course has to be systematic development. One key ingredient has to be fast-tracking Chinese speakers to positions of influence. Would you leave key decisions in your English marketing campaign to a team that didn’t understand English?

10. Go back to basics
When M&S launched its store in Shanghai, much of its clothing range was too big for Chinese customers. Often, Western companies fail to apply the basics in business and communication in China. Here at home, we bend over backwards to win customers. But talking to your Chinese customers using foreign concepts and languages forces them to bend over backwards. Communicating successfully in China is not about becoming Chinese, or trying to speak Chinese. It’s applying the same principles, but in the Chinese context. It’ll require thinking outside the box. It’ll mean extra effort. It’ll cost money. In 2006, Google paid $1 million to buy back its Chinese domain names, which would originally have cost $20 to register. Which would you rather do?


Dr Kevin Lin is the MD for KL Communications, a UK-based Chinese communications company. The lead Chinese interpreter for the Foreign Office, Dr Lin set up KL Communications in 2000 and specialises in the interpretation of the business culture between China and the UK.

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