Breaking the Largest Language Barrier
- by Ryan Frankel
Corporations are notorious for being culturally insensitive when entering new markets (this list of ads makes it hard to defend them). As a small or midsize company, these blunders are your foot in the door to earning part of the $3.3 trillion private consumption market share that corporations are either overlooking or alienating through cultural insensitivities.
Good companies pick their spots and ensure their focus is on the customer experience. Kraft did this when they went to China and rejiggered the Oreo in China. Intuit failed at this the first time they tried to go global. Rather than focusing solely on launching every social media platform and pushing messaging to Chinese customers, Kraft elected to listen to local customers and integrate that feedback into products and messaging. Intuit assumed that merely translating the language was enough in the mid-1990s. Diane Hessan, the President and CEO of Communispace, summed it up nicely when she said that Intuit “neglected to tailor its product to the nuances of the ethos, culture and native languages of consumers abroad.”
Today, Intuit has a strong presence in China, and Kraft is selling the country’s number one cookie. If you’re a small or midsize business, you can’t afford to risk Intuit’s mistakes and you likely won’t be able to scale as fast as Kraft. You’re better off focusing on the first step to cracking the China code: embracing the language.
The Chinese language is one of the most complex languages on the planet. Depending on how one defines a dialect, anywhere from seven to several dozen dialects are spoken across a population of 1.3 billion. To navigate this complexity, companies typically approach Chinese language barriers through online channels, offline channels or a combination of the two.
Localizing online content into other languages can be done quickly, and search engine optimization is often less competitive outside of the U.S. For instance, TravelClick offers cloud services designed to increase bookings and promote hotels and has found success (to the tune of 43 percent growth from 2009 to 2012) localizing its websites into multiple languages, including Mandarin.
Localizing through technology often works well for software companies, but if you don’t fit the software mold, scaling online might not translate to scaling offline.
ALFA International bypasses reaching the online Chinese customer altogether and instead leverages a network of more than 10,000 lawyers worldwide to navigate cultural barriers. When I asked Richard Hetke, CEO of ALFA International, about distributing its legal services in Mandarin, he said, “The most important criteria to dealing with Chinese customers is being sensitive to their culture and language.” Hetke went on to explain that, as a network of small and midsize law firms, ALFA members know their limitations and rely on their partner firms on the ground.
“Through the power of partnerships, we’ve been able to deliver the services of larger international firms more cost-effectively without sacrificing quality of service,” he explained.
Finally, there are the companies that need to match their online approach to China with their offline approach to China. East-West Property Advisors (EWPA) works with high-net-worth clients in China and provides comprehensive information on the real estate markets across the U.S. EWPA deals with language barriers in nearly every client interaction, beginning with the website and ending with an in-person signing. EWPA’s CEO, Sam Van Horebeek, explained that “because buying international real estate requires a deep understanding of both the buyer and the seller, we aim to hire highly capable bilingual individuals who can balance the pressure of Chinese demands with New York real estate negotiations.” A job ill-suited for the novice native speaker or someone faint of heart.
What do you think? Are there more or less complex ways to enter Chinese markets? Is breaking through language barriers the only way to crack the China code or are there other ways?
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Forbes.