How to Localize Packaging for the Chinese Market
Corporate Branding Team
No matter your brand’s situation, marketing to local consumers in China is challenging.
In our recent piece on the 5 best and worst Chinese branding adaptations, we gave a few historical examples of huge miscommunications between brands and consumers – like Mr. Muscle being translated semantically into 肌肉先生 [jīròu xiānshēng], a direct homophone of “Mr. Chicken”. Thankfully, most brand blunders are corrected quickly by the internal branding teams and in 2016 these large-scale oversights are rare.
Now we see issues of brand localization happening at the tangible level; specifically, in struggling to effectively localize a product’s packaging. Here we will share some insight from Labbrand’s presentation at the Food and Beverage Innovation Forum 2016: challenges you may not expect during packaging localization.
Package localization in China is like a wedding dance: the visual identity is the newlywed couple dancing on stage, catching the eyes of the audience, enveloping them in a beautiful display. The dance can be a fiery, jaw-dropping salsa, or it can be an elegant and refined ballroom dance, but no matter the style there is always a shining diamond – the verbal identity – which nobody can take their eyes off. Together they create something striking.
But how large should the diamond be? What cut is best suited? Some brands choose to show local verbal identity in an understated fashion. Evian 依云, one of the world’s premium water brands, chooses to focus on its Latin name to remind consumers of the natural source at Evian-les-Bains in France. The Chinese name 依云 (to sit on a cloud) is shown only lightly on the side. Conversely Nestle Pure Life shows the full Chinese name 雀巢优活 (Nestle Outstanding Life) exclusively to speak natively with its expansive target of families in China. The signature lockup leaves no trace of a foreign brand.
Evian Nestle Pure Life
In this article, we will go into the elements of effective package localization, analyzing several cases through their Visual and Verbal Identity components. These components can each be divided into three areas: Chinese Culture, Brand Idea, and Category Positioning.
There is no one style of dance that is universally better. A young couple may choose an energetic and lively dance that fits their personality while an older couple’s dance could be entirely different. The newlyweds must discover what works best for them. What does the audience want to see? More importantly, what do the newlyweds want to show?
We can define a Visual Identity on localized packaging as the combination of logo, color palette, photography style, graphic style and fonts. How a brand optimizes this combination is oftentimes the difference between being idolized and ignored.
As foreign brands try to connect, there are a few obvious routes to be taken that align with traditional Chinese culture, such as identifying with the Chinese New Year holiday during the first quarter of the year. Color palettes of red and gold are common across FMCG brands for these promotions, as well as revamped graphic styles that highlight popular elements like gift-giving or the new year’s Chinese zodiac animal.
Smirnoff Nutella Häagen-Dazs
Expressing your brand idea on a localized packaging is a major opportunity for communication. In China, there are 3 types of visual identity codes that international brands can focus on:
- Aesthetics: the “code of beauty” has evolved to become a substantial factor in effective design. Like the dress of the newlyweds it can stir an awe-inspiring and powerful emotion just by how it looks. Nongfu Springs 农夫山泉last year released limited-edition glass water bottles with a white scale color palette and simple, elegant design that naturally attracts the eye.
- Interaction: designers can also prime for interaction – that is, using visual language to describe the moment of use. Notice how the graphic style and font of Dove 德芙 describe the silkiness that floods forward with a bite of Dove chocolate.
- Sharing: the ultimate goal for an FMCG brand is to be shared, whether on digital or in person. The bright and playful color codes of Xiaoming Tongxue 小茗同学 pair up with an expressive cartoon to create an example of local packaging you may even want to take a selfie with.
Nongfu Springs Dove Chocolate Xiaoming
But each category is different, and what works for the ready to drink (RTD) tea industry will not necessarily work for a brand selling spirits. Mapping out the category’s competitors, saturation points, and white spaces will allow you to develop distinguishable local packaging.
Northern Lights’ local packaging shows us how to draw upon category best practices: its Chinese name 需洋渔 is understated below its large foreign name to emphasis product origin; its color tones are comprised of blue and white with a wavy-style window to remind of fresh ocean; it draws upon professional photography style to show healthful creations.
No matter how beautiful a dance is, it means more with the diamond ring. The cut, clarity, carat of the ring can reflect a local flair or a foreign taste, and when made correctly this gemstone can form an emotional bond with whoever is watching.
The Verbal Identity on localized packaging is comprised of a brand’s local name and tagline, and can either steal the show or scare shoppers away.
Some characters in Chinese draw distinctly positive associations because of historical significance, or because they are part of a multiple-character phrase with positive associations, or because there is a distinct cultural inclination towards the meaning. Cadbury 吉百利 leverages the characters for “auspiciousness” in its Chinese name, while Bud’s Ice Cream 八喜 combines the lucky number 8 with one of the two characters that comprise “happiness”.
Cadbury Bud’s Ice Cream
The Verbal Identity’s role in expressing the brand idea is meant to last, and as such a company must choose carefully its local name. For international F&B brands entering the market, there are 3 types of verbal codes we can focus on:
- Aesthetics: while being aesthetically appealing is subjective for a verbal identity, there are certain names that universally succeed in piquing interest, such as the 茶π brand – combining the Chinese word for “Tea” with the symbol for the mathematical constant. The uniqueness and individuality of this gem catches eyes and turns heads.
- Interaction: priming the customer for the moment of interaction is a simple way to bring out emotional benefits in a brand name. Here, Chips Ahoy 趣多多 reminds the consumer of enjoying the cookies again and again.
- Sharing: Coca-Cola has perhaps the most famous example of how to locally design a package for sharing, by leveraging first trending subcultural nicknames and then popular song lyrics. A lesser known example is KFC, who created custom messages on their family buckets for different target sub segments, including “movie lovers”, “brothers”, and “new generation”.
ChaPi Chips Ahoy! KFC
In a given category, Chinese names tend to revolve around similar language codes. Mapping out where there is heavy saturation among verbal identities can allow you innovate around the edges.
Pepsi 百事可乐 operates in the well-known carbonated beverage category, in which many brands follow Coke’s lead by translating “Cola” to 可乐 [kělè] back in the 40s – a phonetic similarity that can be roughly translated to “allow happiness”. But as Verbal Identities in the category look increasingly similar, Pepsi MAX leveraged a loud and intense local translation to allow for greater differentiation: 极度 [Jídù], which directly translates to “the extreme”. The Visual Identity assists in the emphasis on 极度 with a bold typeface and lockup.
Like the groom slipping a gemstone onto his bride’s finger, Verbal and Visual Identities must complement each other; the flow of one must be reasserted by the other. They must be synchronized from the first step forward. When designing a localized packaging, we must always consider the importance of Leveraging Visual & Verbal Together.
BelVita Breakfast Biscuit is a best practices case of this. The Verbal Identity refers to slow baking with sustained energy, and implies sunny mornings and clear skies with a bright, energetic tone. The Visual Identity uses high-caliber photography, a friendly font, and a bright color palette to catch the eye of the consumer and drive home a healthy, balanced, and positive message.
Overall, we can say there are 4 other takeaways that can be useful regarding packaging localization in China.
- The balance between Chinese and Alphabetic brand name on packaging: There is a growing trend towards usage of Chinese language even on imported product or foreign brands locally produced in China. Finding the fine balance between Chinese and Alphabetic names is a question that must tackled for new packaging development.
- The impact of Chinese culture: leveraging the Chinese culture for visual and verbal codes is a necessity. It is the single most powerful lever for your brand’s success.
- Designing for sharing: Brands are always meant to travel, but digital has made this possible in a way never imagined before and opened new possibilities for design’s role in the sharing process.
- The power of beauty: After a century that reached the apex of rationalism, visceral beauty is again in vogue and growing. Investing in aesthetics pays off.
How is your brand localizing its packaging?