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02 June 2018

What is localisation?

Most companies operating abroad are likely to have heard the term localisation. Even though the word itself may be familiar, there are many misconceptions about what localisation actually is, what it entails and the impact it can have on a company’s success.

Commonly defined as “a process of adapting an existing product or content to a specific language and culture”, the overall aim of localisation is to create the impression that something has been produced with a target market specifically in mind, no matter the language, culture, or location.

Localisation - Serica Consulting - Business in China
Translation vs Localisation

All too often the differences between translation and localisation are misunderstood. Translation is the act of rendering a text from one language to another, making only the most necessary changes, in order to preserve the original meaning. This works well for technical documents such as contracts, medical information and instruction manuals where the source and target language employ fairly interchangeable terms and terminology.

However, this method’s accuracy melts away when translating persuasive or creative content. This is because direct translation doesn’t factor in the cultural differences and the nuances of language. For example, translating directly into Chinese, no matter how precisely, won’t generate any impact with Chinese consumers. What may have been deemed persuasive and evocative in the former gets lost in the divide between the two. The only way for it to maintain this resonance is to employ localisation.

This process utilises the unique aspects of a given culture and language to craft a message that is relevant and persuasive to the target audience. By prioritising these elements, it enables companies to make their brand, products and services more accessible, connect with consumers on a personal level and ultimately boost sales.

In this article, we will explore the fundamentals of localisation – language and design – both of which are vital steps for any company wanting to enter foreign markets. A general rule is that the greater the difference between the source and target culture, the more in-depth the process must be. With that in mind, we will be focusing on localising for the Chinese market, arguably the most complex and fragmented in the world.

Language Localisation

The main goal of language localisation is to make the text feel like it has been written natively for the target market. Key elements to focus on during the procedure include: adapting to the regional use of language (i.e. Traditional vs Simplified characters), assessing the use of puns, proverbs and idiomatic expressions, and formatting. Here is a basic example:

“One can’t have one’s cake and eat it too” is a common English proverb dating back centuries. This directly translates to “吃蛋糕而保持蛋糕是不可作的”, which sounds strange. Therefore, it must be adapted to its local equivalent. In this case, “又要马儿好,又要马儿不吃草” (yòu yào mǎ er hǎo, yòu yào mǎ er bu chī cǎo) which means “You want a good horse, but won’t give it grass to eat.”

To form a deeper connection with the reader requires you to take complex cultural nuances into account. Considering the strength of adjectives used, how abstract or specific the language must be, avoiding cultural sensitivities, using the proper measurement standards and expressions, as well as using local references to reinforce the message are all of great importance.

For example, if you wanted to demonstrate your expertise in China, your text must be very clear and precise, explaining everything point by point, which has resulted in most marketing materials using very strong and direct adjectives, avoiding subtlety and room for interpretation.

But in countries, like Britain and the United States, where people have been exposed to marketing and advertising for their entire lives, that style is perceived as too crude, patronising and pushy. Equally, if the British and American approach to persuasive language were translated into Chinese, it would fall at the other end of the scale, being perceived as unprofessional and insincere.

Design Localisation

Design Localisation is another aspect of reshaping content that is an essential part of entering a new market. Promotional materials, presentations, product packaging and other visual content all need to match the taste and trends of the target audience.

On the surface that includes colour association, cultural symbols, different spatial arrangements, colour association, layout etc., but it also needs to incorporate cultural norms, too. To give a basic example, most western countries use a knife and fork as the logo for food, whereas east and south-east Asian countries the default logo for food is a bowl of rice or chopsticks.

Localisation - Serica Consulting - Business in China - Design

Going deeper, design localisation must take different aspects of aesthetics into account – a facet of culture that has not been affected by globalisation as much as others. Tastes for art and beauty are shaped by the environment in early childhood; it is closely linked to sentiment, highly subjective and almost impossible to learn from people outside that specific culture.

For example, in traditional Chinese paintings, the focus is often not on what is depicted but on what is covered by mist or clouds, which to a western eye would seem empty.

Localisation - Serica Consulting - Business in China - Painting

The reason for this difference in perspective is that East Asian cultures are more contextual and holistic when compared with Western cultures, which are more linear and focused on what you can see, as opposed to feel.


To succeed in complex foreign markets like China, companies must utilise localisation to merge into its needs and desires. But how far should you go to localise your products and services? Do you adapt your existing brand, products and services or start again from scratch? The answer is entirely dependent on your target market, brand identity and the type of product or service you are offering.

Reaching that goal, of a transformation that sees both a recognisable core and character retained but re-expressed in a way that captures a whole new audience can be an enormous challenge. To negotiate it, the direction needs to be shaped from two sides: those with the knowledge of what is being reimagined and the natives who have the experience to know the idiosyncrasies of the market.

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