Your 15-Point Checklist for Asian Localization

Thinking of expanding into Asia? Strategic localization will get you there but localizing for Asia presents unique challenges. For example, linguistic complexities, cultural differences, and varying consumer behaviors can pose significant barriers for foreign businesses looking to grow here.

In this guide, we’ll describe why to localize for Asia, explain the complexity, and simplify the process with a straightforward checklist. All together, this will help you navigate Asian localization successfully, ensuring your brand connects with the diverse cultures in this region.

Why Localize for Asia?

Asia’s markets are vast and varied, home to 4.3 billion people— over half the world’s population. According to McKinsey, Asian consumers will fuel half of global consumption growth in the ten years, creating a $10 trillion opportunity for businesses who can engage them effectively. And since more and more Asian consumers are shopping online and using digital services, reaching this market is easier than ever.

The opportunities for business growth are staggering, and with a strategic approach you can capitalize on the potential for growth. Let’s look at the 15 things you need to consider when localizing for Asia. 

1.  Choose the right languages and dialects

There are over 3,000 languages spoken on the Asian continent, and many of them are especially challenging to localize for.

Selecting appropriate languages and dialects for each Asian market is crucial. For example, while Mandarin may be enough in most of mainland China, Cantonese might be a more suitable choice in regions like Guangdong and Hong Kong.

Some countries will have one primary language you can focus on, and others will have multiple. To maximize your impact, it helps to do your research beforehand. Find out where your customer support calls, sales, and web traffic is coming from. Localize for that region’s language first.

2.  Carefully consider your brand name and slogan

The way your brand name and slogan are translated can make or break your appeal to Asian consumers, yet the nature of Asian languages like Chinese and Japanese makes translating this type of content into these languages especially tricky. Each written character carries specific meanings that can unintentionally alter the perception of your brand. Many Western brands have embarrassed themselves by trying to approximate the original phonetic pronunciation of their brand name without considering how the characters used would influence consumer perceptions in the target language.

For example, when Mercedes-Benz initially began selling cars in China, the initial brand name translation was phonetically similar to “Benz.” But it was represented with characters that together meant “rush to your death.” The number of Chinese consumers this translation appealed to was understandably small. Now, the car company is known as “Ben Chi,” which means “dashing speed.”

 Often, slogans do not translate well either in a word-for-word (literal) way, again leading to misinterpretations or unintended meanings. For instance, Pepsi’s “Come alive with Pepsi” was famously mistranslated in China as “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave.” Carefully craft and test brand names and slogans alike to avoid such blunders (and the costs associated with fixing them.)

Sometimes, a complete rebrand will be necessary. For example, the branding for Poison perfume plays on the idea of “fatal attraction,” but that trope doesn’t appeal to Chinese consumers. There, the perfume is known as Bǎiàishén 百爱神, which translates to “everyone will love it.”

3.  Consider adapting your product

Products themselves might also require adaptation to suit local tastes. For example, Frito-Lay chips are a hit in China, but in localized flavors like sweet and sour, lychee, and mango to suit Chinese palates.

In another example, GE Healthcare completely revamped its ECG machines for the Indian market, producing a much cheaper, smaller model that fit in a backpack and could be used in an ambulance. With this product, they were able to reach rural patients without the means to make it to a large hospital in a major city.

To tip the odds of success in your favor, consider whether your product needs adaptation to fit local tastes and expectations.

4.  Get to know your competitors

Investigate how competitors have localized products for the same markets. How did they translate the slogan? How did they adapt their product? Which languages are included on their website? This analysis can reveal gaps in their strategies or highlight effective practices, giving you a competitive edge as you learn from their experiences.

5.  Have a mobile strategy

In many Asian markets, smartphones are the main gateway to the internet. For example, out of the top 10 countries with the highest smartphone penetration rate, five are located in Asia: Singapore (88%), South Korea (83%), Hong Kong (79%), Taiwan (78%), and China (74%).

Asian consumers use smartphones in addition to or instead of desktops for internet access, shopping, and entertainment. So, crafting a mobile-centric approach to enable Asian consumers to shop and consume information in their way is essential.

6.  Conduct buyer research

Understanding the cultural dynamics and preferences of your target demographic is vital. Find out who it is that buys or will buy your product and research their language preferences, cultural habits, product features they value, buying preferences, and overall expectations. Thorough market research can guide effective localization, global content, and product adaptation strategies.

7.  Consider price and positioning

Pricing and market positioning in Asia can differ drastically from Western norms. What might be a budget item in the US could be a luxury in another country. Align your pricing and marketing to local economic realities and consumer perceptions.

KFC has harnessed this strategy to good effect, positioning itself as a splurge for Chinese consumers instead of the cheap guilty pleasure Americans know and love.

8.  Cater to local web design preferences

Web design preferences can vary significantly between Western and Asian markets. For example, many Asian websites seem cluttered to Western eyes: packed with text, images, banners, and hyperlinks and short on negative space.

But Asian consumers expect this level of information density. It’s reminiscent of Asian offline shopping experiences, from Chinese stores packed with promotions and ads to Japanese chirashi, sales fliers that come with the morning paper. And it caters to a cultural desire to have as much information as possible before making a purchase.  No, Americans would hate it but it’s what Asians prefer and have come to expect.

9.  Be on the right social media channels.

Social media is not just a platform, but a marketplace in Asia. Around 60% of global social media users hailed from the APAC region in 2023, and 59 million new Asian social media users are expected to join them in 2024.

In Asia, social media apps have evolved far beyond being purely social. Consumers in Asia shop, purchase, read reviews, play games, and access customer support on social media channels.

The rapid expansion of social commerce requires brands to engage actively on platforms like Naver, WeChat, LINE, and others where consumers spend a significant portion of their digital lives.

Also, most shopping sites have an instant messenger client embedded to make it easy for consumers to chat with sellers.

10.  Tailor content formats

Adapt your content formats to the preferences of your target audience. In many Asian markets, visual content like videos or memes may engage more effectively than text-heavy approaches. Make sure your content strategy aligns with local consumption habits.

11.   Optimize for local search behavior

Understand and adapt to the search engine preferences and search behaviors in each market. Google might dominate in many countries, but in China, Baidu reigns supreme. Translating into Korean won’t get you much traffic unless you also optimize for Naver, the top search engine.

Also, just translating keywords is a big no, because the same terms aren’t used all over the world. Differences in terminology between countries can affect search behavior.  For example, in the U.S. we search for ‘college’ to refer to education past the high school level, but in the UK the term is ‘university’.  ‘Soccer’ versus ‘football’ is another example.

To get found by Asian consumers online, don’t just translate your home market keywords: tailor your SEO strategies to target local search habits and keywords.

12.  Plan for the technical aspects of localization

You’ll need to address the technical aspects of localization, such as adapting currency, number, date, and time formats to align with local conventions. These details enhance the user experience and prevent confusion.

For example, Uber struggles in Japan. Their poorly localized app, with Americanized name and address fields, is one of the reasons.

13.  Understand your localization needs and budget accordingly

Localization involves more than translation. For example, transcreation, where content is recreated to suit a new market, is often a better choice for brand names, slogans, and other creative copy than simple translation would be.  But know that it costs more and takes more time. 

Localization can also include services like website localization, quality assurance testing, localized product testing, international SEO, and more. Plan and budget for these comprehensive services to fully adapt your brand and offerings for new markets.

14.  Prioritize content for localization

Strategically decide which content to localize first based on potential impact and relevance. Maximize early returns on investment by starting with high-traffic web pages, key product descriptions, and critical marketing campaigns.

You can also choose to localize content of lesser importance with machine translation, speeding up the translation process and reducing costs. Content like FAQs and reviews fall into this category.  (We do not recommend MT for high-profile, highly nuanced content).

15.  Test, measure, and optimize continuously

Asian localization is not a one-time effort but a continuous process. Once your localization strategy is implemented, measuring its success and making iterative improvements are crucial.

The 5 best ways to gauge the success of your approach are:

  • Sales and revenue figures: increased sales in your new market are an indication that localization has been effective
  • Increase or decrease in customer service/support requirements decreases in support requirements can show success
  • Positive user insights: great feedback from customer support and satisfaction surveys show progress
  • Improved performance metrics: upwards trends in website analytics, sales data, and social media engagement can indicate success

This ongoing process keeps your localization efforts aligned with business goals and customer needs, fostering sustained growth.

Asian Localization Success Stories: KFC and Apple

To see what it looks like when businesses check the boxes above, let’s look at the success of KFC in China. Their localization model incorporates extensive menu adaptations, like congee for breakfast, to cater to regional tastes. Careful analysis of their fast-food competitor, McDonald’s, led them to position themselves as a middle-class, aspirational brand in China, rather than a cheap, fast-food giant. 

And of course, while the original Chinese translation of their slogan will go down in history for being horrifyingly incorrect (“eat your fingers off’ instead of “finger-licking good), they now connect with Chinese consumers using flawlessly translated and localized content. 

The results? KFC’s parent company, Yum!, is now China’s largest restaurant company and revenue from China has outpaced that of America.

And China is not the only Asian market they’ve succeeded in. In Japan, eating buckets of KFC has become a Christmas season tradition.

Apple is also known for localization strategies that tick all the right boxes. In Japan, they’ve achieved a 65% market share by recognizing and adapting to Japanese preferences for advanced technology and feature-rich smartphones, including things like infrared ports for contact sharing, cameras for QR codes, and NFC for mobile payments. They also adapted their marketing. For example, the iconic “Mac Vs PC” ads had to be toned down for the Japanese market, where criticizing rivals is considered “low class.” A direct Japanese translation would have offended, but by including well-known Japanese comedians and categorizing the brands as “office” versus “weekend” technology, they resonated with Japanese consumers.

Ready to Get Started?

There’s a lot to consider with Asian localization and it’s tricky to get it right, but you don’t have to do it alone. With over 30 years of experience in Asian translation and localization, we can help you design the optimal strategy to make sure your brand resonates here. Contact us to get started.