Showing posts with label Localization. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Localization. Show all posts

Monday, January 27, 2014

McDonald's Offers Prosperous Chinese New Year Burgers

[Update at end]

Just over a year ago, I saw this McDonald's advertisement in Penang, Malaysia:

advertisement on a chain linked fence for McDonald's prosperity burger in Penang, Malaysia

I had written about McDonald's customizing its menu for local markets before, but this was the first time I saw the McDonald's Prosperity Burger -- a special offering for the Chinese New Year holiday. It's back in Malaysia this year, as announced on the McDonald's Malaysia website.

page for the Prosperity Burger on McDonald's Malaysia website

Adam Minter, author of Junkyard Planet, recently expressed his excitement over the Prosperity Burger's return:

He also provided a brief review:

Minter isn't alone in his opinion of the Prosperity Burger (see here and here), and he may be thrilled to hear it's available outside of Malaysia. For example, today in Hong Kong I saw an advertisement for the incomparable burger.

sign for the McDonald's Prosperity Burger in Hong Kong

The McDonald's Hong Kong website has a similar promotion.

page for the Prosperity Burger on McDonald's Hong Kong website

McDonald's in Hong Kong not only has the beef and chicken Prosperity Burgers found in Malaysia but also a pork version. Given that Islam is the state religion in Malaysia, it's not surprising McDonald's has not introduced the pork version there.

As the McDonald's Singapore website ...

page for the Prosperity Burger on McDonald's Singapore website

and the McDonald's Indonesia website ...

page for the Prosperity Burger on McDonald's Indonesia website

... show, the Prosperity Burger is also available in Singapore and Indonesia. And it can be found in Brunei as well. McDonald's does not appear to have a website dedicated for Brunei, but in an article seeming more like an advertisement the Brunei Times noted the Prosperity Burger's "highly anticipated seasonal return":
Nothing is more mouth-watering than the anticipation of biting into the Prosperity Burger’s succulent, juicy beef patty, dripping with lip-smacking black pepper sauce, topped with silvered onions on a sesame seed bun, and many Bruneians look forward to its return every year.
Bruneians (and Adam Minter) rejoice!

Despite all of these countries offering the Prosperity Burger, most Chinese in the world will still have to seek another way to celebrate the Chinese New Year. McDonald's in mainland China does not offer the Prosperity Burger.

Perhaps people there can enjoy a McDonald's breakfast hot dog instead.

Update: Links to more recent posts here about the Prosperity Burger and other Lunar New Year burgers:

Monday, July 8, 2013

Chinese Twists to American Fast Foods

One of the joys for me of living in China is trying its broad variety of local culinary delights. Since I like much of the food in China, I find it curious when I find myself less accepting of localized American food products, which seems to mostly happen with what could be classified as junk food.

For example, although I have never tried the yogurt-cucumber or tomato-beef flavored Lay's potato chips I saw advertised in Beijing, I did once try Lay's blueberry-flavored potato chips. I stress "once". They weren't really that bad, but I'm not motivated to choose them again. I'll stick with barbecue-flavored potato chips. Or if I eat Chicken McNuggets at McDonald's in China I'll typically choose the garlic-chili sauce. It's OK, but I am almost embarrassed to admit how happy I was when I once discovered a McDonald's in Changsha with some American-style barbecue sauce. It appeared to be a leftover from days long past, but I figured the sauce probably had a rather long shelf life.

To show this isn't just about barbecue sauce, in another case one day late last year at a supermarket in Shaoxing, Zhejiang province, the localized version of an American cookie caught my attention.

boxes of peach-grape flavored Oreos

It had the typical two chocolate wafers, but instead of white cream the filling was peach and grape flavored. I was curious, so I bought a box and tried one cookie. Again, I stress "one" — all I needed to realize that peach-grape Oreos were not my thing. Other Oreo flavors and versions of the cookie can be found in China as well. I have not tried them all, but someone else' review of them can be found here.

Whether it is potato chips, chicken nugget sauces, or cookies, I suspect some of these localized products would have a better chance of appealing to me if I didn't associate them with specific food items I have enjoyed long before (an intriguing issue to me). I can think of exceptions, though. For example, I prefer McDonad's taro pie, available in Hawaii as well, over its apple pie.

And no barbecue sauce is needed.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

New Potato Chip Flavors in China

When I saw the above advertisement for Lay's potato chips at a subway station in Beijing, I recalled some of my personal experiences in China trying the local flavors of items common in the U.S., whether Oreos or toothpaste. I will say more about at least one of those experiences later.

For more about Lay's attempts in China to find the perfect flavors, whether they might be cola-chicken or blueberry, see an article by Abe Sauer on Brandchannel here.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Students Selling Christmas Apples in Quanzhou, China

Tonight I met five college students at a popular shopping street in Quanzhou, Fujian province.

five female college students selling apples on Christmas Eve in Quanzhou, China

They were all selling apples in paper bags with various designs for about 10 yuan (US $1.60) each. Why? Because it was Christmas Eve.

One of the ways some Chinese celebrate Christmas Eve is to give apples to their friends. The explanation usually given is that the Chinese word for "apple", "píngguǒ (苹果)", sounds somewhat similar the word for "peace", "píng'ān (平安)", and "Christmas Eve", "píng'ānyè (平安夜)". The apple simply represents goodness, happiness, or safety, and like wearing a Santa hat, the Christmas eve tradition has no religious connotation for these students. The apple giving practice is an example of how a Western holiday has been "localized" in China.

As I spoke to one of the students, further evidence of the tradition appeared when a young woman who was selling clothing nearby received an apple as a gift from her friend.

two young woman and a Christmas Eve apple gift in Quanzhou, China

The students weren't just selling the apples to help others celebrate the holiday. They were all members of a business club at their university. Like many other students I have spoken to, they are concerned about gaining the "real world" experience they feel their school does not provide. The club helps to arrange such opportunities, even if it involves selling apples on the street and avoiding the local chengguan (城管), urban management officials whose responsibilities include cracking down on unlicensed street vendors. The occasionally appearing chengguan weren't perceived as a significant obstacle, but the students still found their job to be rather difficult. It didn't seem that many passersby needed a tastefully packaged 10 yuan apple. But at least the students had already sold 15 that night, including 7 to one woman alone.

In a later post, I will share a religious aspect to the Christmas holiday that I stumbled upon in Quanzhou. I didn't see any apples or chengguan involved, but there were plenty of police.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The New York Times in Chinese with Twitter & Facebook

The New York Times has unveiled a new Chinese-language web site at As Christine Haughney reported, the Times will not adjust its news coverage despite targeting readers in a place where there is significant censorship, mainland China:
The Times Company, which is well aware of the censorship issues that can come up in China, stressed that it would not become an official Chinese media company. The Times has set up its server outside China and the site will follow the paper’s journalistic standards. Mr. Kahn said that while the Chinese government occasionally blocked certain articles from, he was hopeful that the Chinese government would be receptive to the Chinese-language project.

“We’re not tailoring it to the demands of the Chinese government, so we’re not operating like a Chinese media company,” Mr. Kahn said. “China operates a very vigorous firewall. We have no control over that. We hope and expect that Chinese officials will welcome what we’re doing.”
Although the Times claims it will not be "tailoring it to the demands of the Chinese government" there are several signs that design changes have been made to better suit Chinese readers. One obvious example is the ability to easily share articles on popular online services in mainland China such as Sina Weibo, QQ, and Renren.

sample article from The New York Times Chinese site showing various share options

As seen in the above example (from the article here), options are also available to share on Twitter and Facebook -- notable since both of these services are currently blocked in mainland China. If either of those options are selected while behind China's Great Firewall it is not possible to post the article. It is also notable that there does not appear to be a button to share articles on Google+, an option that is readily available on the main site.

However, people in mainland China may not be the only Chinese readers being targeted with the site as evidenced by the option for displaying the text in Traditional Chinese. That is the style of characters commonly used in a number of Chinese-speaking areas outside of mainland China, such as Taiwan and Hong Kong. In those places Twitter and Facebook are freely available.

I tested posting articles onto Twitter while using a VPN in China to get through China's Great Firewall and had no problem. However, I ran into a problem when I tested the Facebook option. For any article I tried I was brought to this page:

Paulie Sharer's Timeline page on Facebook

I have never heard of Paulie Sharer, and I wonder whether his last name is somehow tied to this obvious error. A quick online search suggests that the problem is not specific to me nor the Times, but at this point there is not much more I can say definitively. Although I am sure this is not the result the Times desires, I can only imagine whether Paulie Sharer is noticing an unusual number of friend requests.

Regardless, I consider it a positive that The New York Times will be able to reach more readers in mainland China. And many will be watching to see if China later blocks the site -- just like what recently happened to Bloomberg's news site (H/T Edward Wong).

Monday, June 11, 2012

Insights and Headaches for Apple: The iPncne in China

As I mentioned before, unauthorized Apple stores are common in many regions of China. At the moment it appears that Apple will only respond to "fake Apple Stores" that take extreme measures to imitate a genuine Apple Store. A related area of concern for companies such as Apple is protecting not how their trademarks are used in stores but on products being sold.

I previously shared an example of a Chinese mobile phone that appeared to inappropriately use some of Apple's trademarks. I will call it the "Think Different Phone". It certainly is not alone in China. For another example, here is a phone I saw for sale in Yinchuan, Ningxia:

iPncne (or fake iPhone) in Yinchuan, China

It would be hard to believe that the resemblance of the apple logo and the iPncne name to Apple's trademarks is accidental. In the post about the Think Different Phone I discussed how despite their possible trademark infringements such phones can provide insights about features possibly desired in the local market. As an example, similar to the Think Different Phone the iPncne has a dedicated button for QQ -- a popular social networking service in China:

iPncne (or fake iPhone) in Yinchuan, China

But what I believe can be an even more important feature is found inside the phone:

battery compartment and SIM card holder for iPncne (or fake iPhone) in Yinchuan, China

The capability of this iPncne to hold dual SIM cards would matter to many Chinese mobile phone users. For an example of why, see my post from last year "Mobile Phones in China: Local Rates, Fashion, and Fakes".

Even for the many Chinese-designed phones not noticeably violating any trademarks, "localizations" such as the above can indicate features desired not only in China but elsewhere as well. But regardless of any insights the iPncne may provide, Apple is probably still concerned about protecting its trademarks. Even if the apple logo and iPncne name do not cross the line for Apple, I think there is something on the back of the phone that would be hard for them to accept:

back of iPncne (or fake iPhone) in Yinchuan, China

In small print below the iPncne name is written:
Designed by Apple in California Assembled in China
At least the second half of the line seems true. I have not contacted Apple for comment about the first half. I suspect their private comments would be much more interesting.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Imitators Show There is Room to Grow in China for McDonald's and KFC

In an earlier post, I discussed McDonald's localized offerings in China and shared an example of how it was providing a positive impression of the U.S. to some Chinese. Kenneth Chan, McDonald's China CEO, in a recent interview on Fortune pointed out that not only is McDonald's localizing its products and services for China as a whole but also for specific segments of Chinese consumers:
We are reinventing ourselves to adapt to the changing constituency. By the end of 2013, about 80% of our restaurants will undergo reimaging. The design will vary by areas. In business districts with many young professionals, we have kiosks for coffee and pastries. In areas with young families, we reserve places for kids to play or host parties. We also offer customer-friendly amenities like free Wi-Fi and McCafes. We want to stay relevant to the younger population and make them stay longer.
He also discussed his plans for growth:
Opening new restaurants is another top priority. In addition to opening our own restaurants, we have stepped up our franchise programs. After all, McDonald's is a franchise company. At present, 80% of McDonald's worldwide are owned by franchisees; in China, only 36 restaurants were franchised by 2011. We are working hard on this.

In addition to the conventional franchise model in mature markets like the U.S., we also implement what we call a "developmental licensee" model. In certain provinces where we don't have the capacity to reach out for many years, we are looking for licensee partners who have strong financial backgrounds and strong business experience. China had seven conventional licensees and two developmental licensees as of 2011. It's still a very low percentage and over a very short time that will change. The pace of franchising in China depends largely on finding the right partners.
Chan's comments suggest that there remain challenges for McDonald's to grow in China, even if they know of additional markets where their restaurants would be welcomed by Chinese consumers. There are many reasons to believe additional demand exists in China for McDonald's and KFC, who has a larger presence and is also localizing in China. In fact, I believe I have seen relevant evidence during my explorations of China's different regions.

For example, I saw the following restaurant at a pit stop between Guangzhou and Wuzhou, Guangxi:

McDonald's lookalike store in China with an upside down McDonald's logo

Wichael Alone's mascot in China

I am not sure what to call this restaurant since there are both "Wichael Alone" and "Michael Alone" signs. Regardless, I think it is fair to say that McDonald's served as an inspiration.

More often, I have seen stores that are very similar to KFC -- whether in Southeast China in Shanwei, Guangdong province:

CBC restaurant in Shanwei, China

Northeast China in Dunhua, Jilin province:

CBC restaurant in Dunhua, Jilin

Or Southwest China in Chongzuo, Guangxi:

KMC in Chongzuo, China

The KMC is my current favorite. Like the CBCs and other KFC-lookalikes its menu appeared to be nearly identical to a KFC menu. But the KMC went the extra distance to bring a KFC-like experience:

words saying it's finger lickin' good Inside of KMC restaurant in Chongzuo

As I pondered KFC's "it's finger lickin' good" slogan on the wall of the restaurant I sipped at a Pepsi. I then began to wonder if the Pepsi was real. The Pepsi sat untouched after that.

Although I cannot say whether such restaurants run afoul of any laws, I find it notable that wherever I see a (what appears to be) genuine KFC or McDonald's I rarely see an obvious imitator nearby. For example, at the time of my visits I did not see a KFC anywhere in Shanwei, Dunhua, or Chongzuo. Given that pattern, I suspect it is only a matter of time before KFC or McDonald's enter such markets and push out any imitators who have kindly shown that a demand exists. Even if legal action is not an option, there is good reason to believe that Chinese consumers will want an authentic experience, especially since there does not appear to be a significant difference in price (if any). Apparently, KFC agrees that authenticity will matter:

Sign inside a real Chinese KFC in Yinchuan, Ningxia

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Donuts China Style

I have commented before on how Western companies, such as McDonald's, KFC, and Dairy Queen, have localized their products for China's market. Writing for Reuters Eveline Danubrata reports about a another food localization:
Pork donuts may not be palatable to Americans or Europeans, but the parent company of Dunkin' Donuts and the Baskin-Robbins ice cream chains is catering to local tastes in China, where it aims to open another 100 stores in the next two to three years...

"Donuts are a very flexible product. You can do savory donuts, you can do donuts with shredded pork -- that's in China," Chief Executive Officer Nigel Travis told Reuters in an interview.

"We also have a range of other savory products that we have been testing and introducing country by country."
Danubrata also notes that pork donuts probably would not work well is Muslim countries due to religious rules forbidding the eating of pork. In that light, I suspect Dunkin' Donuts is not planning to introduce them in Israel as well.

In The Washington Post Keith B. Richburg also commented on donut localizations in his article about the "doughnut wars" in Shanghai:
...Chinese customers seem more interested in the drinks than the sugary doughnuts. And following the lessons of other American retailers, the doughnut shops are finding that some of their best-sellers would be barely recognizable back home, like Dunkin’s dried pork and seaweed doughnut, or the doughnut made with dried Bonito fish...

Dunkin’, like some of the other chains, is discovering that coffee and other drink offerings, including jasmine green tea and lichi green tea, are more popular than doughnuts.

Krispy Kreme, meanwhile, is offering its quarters, with easy chairs and quiet surroundings, as a place to relax, surf the Web and enjoy a huge variety of cream-filled doughnuts at a more leisurely pace.

“People stay a long time,” Lim said. Here in Shanghai, he said, “we position ourselves differently than in the West.”
However, he also questions whether donuts are a good fit for China:
But what isn’t at all clear is whether Chinese consumers particularly like doughnuts.

The average Chinese breakfast might consist of congee, or rice porridge, maybe some soybean milk, sometimes fried noodle, or perhaps a dry roll or bun. The idea of something as sweet as a glazed or cream-filled doughnut in the morning would seem an anathema to many local palates.
Based on my own food explorations I am not as skeptical about the future of donuts in China. Here is one reason why:

Chinese doughnuts / xian jianbing / 咸煎饼 in Guangzhou, China
A pile of deliciousness

These tasty objects are called xián jiānbing (咸煎饼) and roughly equivalent to a large bagel in size. I am not aware of a English translation (and a literal character by character translation does not seem to do the trick) so I will call them Chinese donuts. They go especially well with a tasty bowl of congee (a Chinese rice porridge) but can be happily enjoyed on their own. The Chinese donuts cost less than US 50 cents each, are much denser than typical Western donuts, and are very filling. The ones above are from a simple but wonderful local restaurant -- Wuzhanji (伍湛记). I would list the restaurant as a must visit for foodies (they also have excellent steamed rice-flour rolls) and is perfect for a morning meal. Based on the crowds I regularly saw at Wuzhanji, they certainly have no problem selling plenty of Chinese donuts.

Of particular relevance is that these Chinese donuts are not very sweet and instead fit more in the "savory" category. Based on it and many other similar foods I have had in China, when I read about the localized products at Dunkin' Donuts I was not at all surprised (I have yet to try any of them though). I think the Chinese donuts provides a useful example of how understanding what is available in China can provide some hints to foreign companies about how they can best localize their offerings in China or how some offerings may not require any changes (see here for a similar discussion about mobile phones).

I should point out that you cannot find Wuzhanji and its special Chinese donuts in just any city in China. As far as I know it only exists around Guangzhou -- a city where the density of Western donut shops currently appears to be far less than Shanghai. But I suspect Wuzhanji and its Chinese donuts could fare well in Shanghai. If Wuzhanji opens branches in Shanghai there could be yet another twist in China's donut wars.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

McDonald's in China - Localized, Growing, and Influencing

When I compared a KFC and McDonald's in Yueyang, China, I mentioned that KFC has had much success in China and that one of the possible reasons is its localized menu. While McDonald's success hasn't been as great, that doesn't mean McDonald's hasn't localized its menu or that it is doing poorly in China.

Some examples of its localized menu include a taro pie and some different dipping sauces for its Chicken McNuggets -- such as chili garlic. See here for more examples of McDonald's food offerings in China (in Chinese and may not load in some browsers). I haven't bothered to try quantifying it, but my impression is that KFC's menu has been more modified from its US version than McDonald's. Whether that could be a key reason KFC has seen more success in China is another question.

And although the McDonald's in Yueyang wasn't busy at the time I visited, I've seen plenty of others that were. For example, recently I passed by a McDonald's in Hengyang, Hunan province:

inside a busy McDonald's in Hengyang, China

and another in Chenzhou, Hunan province:

Both were full of customers eating and drinking. There are also broader signs of McDonald's success in China. As reported on Bloomberg News this past summer:
McDonald’s Corp. (MCD), the world’s largest restaurant chain, should open an outlet a day in China as it challenges Yum! Brands [owner of the KFC and Pizza Hut brands] for dominance in Asia’s largest economy as rising salaries boost spending on fast food.

“We should be opening a restaurant every day in the next three to four years” in China, Peter Rodwell, company president for Asia excluding Japan, Australia and New Zealand, said in an interview in Singapore today. “We’re now opening a restaurant every other day.”
Even with that growth rate, though, McDonald's has its work cut out if it wants to surpass KFC. Not only is KFC currently far ahead of McDonald's in terms of number of stores in China, but it's likely to expand further. In fact, I've seen signs of potential new locations for KFC that I'll share in a later post.

McDonald's growth isn't good just for the company, but it has benefits for China as well. Again, from Bloomberg News:
The Oak Brook, Illinois-based company has said it plans to recruit 50,000 employees in China this year, including 1,000 university graduates as management trainees. McDonald’s, which trails Yum in number of Chinese locations, moved its China training center from Hong Kong to Shanghai last year.
Furthermore, the benefits aren't limited to McDonald's and China. For example, last April I had the opportunity to speak with these two employees of a McDonald's in Nanning, Guangxi:

Happy McDonald's employees

The young lady on the left was a college student and working part-time. The extra income was useful for her, and she preferred the job to what she did the previous year when I first met her -- promoting a brand of tea at a large park in Nanning:

Green tea promotion

What was most notable, though, was how she absolutely gushed about how much she enjoyed working at McDonald's -- the friendly atmosphere, the supportive management, etc. She didn't think she could have such a positive work experience in most similar Chinese companies, and her experience clearly influenced her view of the US in a positive manner. I can't provide any numbers, but based on other conversations I've had I know she isn't alone in her feelings. This is yet another example of America's "soft-power" that I have mentioned before in a very different context.

So, if McDonald's is localizing its menu for China and is playing a role in shaping Chinese people's opinions of the US it raises an important question.

Should McDonald's ever offer the McRib in China?

Friday, December 30, 2011

KFC and McDonald's in Yueyang, Hunan

I'll continue on the theme of bird meat from the previous post, but this time in a way that involves no photos of blood or birds soon to meet their end.

At an intersection in a central shopping district in Yueyang, Hunan province there is a KFC and a McDonald's right across the street from each other. On Thursday evening when I looked inside this is what I saw at KFC:

many people waiting to order food at KFC in Yueyang, China

And this is what I saw in McDonald's:

not as many people waiting to order food at McDonald's in Yueyang, China

In short, many more people were lined up at the KFC. One could now think, "Maybe McDonald's is more efficient serving customers so the lines are shorter." Well, even in other parts of the restaurants it was clear there were far more people at the KFC. While this is just one night in one city, it represents KFC's very successful presence in China.

As noted earlier this year by William Mellor in an article on Bloomberg about KFC in China:
In its home market, the U.S., KFC is struggling, an also- ran to McDonald’s Corp., the world’s biggest restaurant company, and feuding with some of its own franchisees over how to halt declining profits.

In China, KFC has achieved such dominance over McDonald’s and local rivals that Colonel Harland Sanders’s image is a far more common sight in many Chinese cities than that of Mao. That accomplishment is striking in a country where foreign companies often stumbled and ran into roadblocks in the past.
The article argues that part of KFC's success is due to how it localized some of its offerings. This point helps provide a sense of just how much of an effort has been made:
While fast-food restaurants in the West often host kids’ birthday parties, KFCs in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang autonomous region that’s home to the Muslim Uyghur people, advertise parties for the families of boys who have just undergone the religious ritual of circumcision.
While I don't think there were any circumcision parties at the KFC in Yueyang (which is far away from Xinjiang) while I was there, the menu was the typical China-localized version I've seen in many other regions of China (read the article for more on the localizations made by KFC or see KFC's products on their Chinese website here). Ironically, one of the chicken sandwiches offered by KFC in China, and not in the US, is the "New Orleans Roasted Burger". I'm not sure what it has to do with New Orleans, but I like it and apparently so do many Chinese.

There's more I could say on the issues KFC raises regarding localization but I'll save that for another day. For now, I'll just be content that I think I've wrapped up the bird meat theme for now.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Dairy Queen and the Goji Berry in China

Previously, I commented on Dairy Queen localizing it's menu in Kunming, Yunnan with some options including mango (see here).  I also included this photo:

DQ menu with mango smoothie/slushy options

However, recently in Chengdu, Sichuan I saw a DQ with a slightly different menu:

DQ menu with goji berry smoothie/slushy options

I had never tried a goji berry, also know as wolfberry, drink and hadn't seen it in the Kunming DQ stores so I tried the goji berry crushed ice drink.  The sacrifices I make for research...

DQ goji berry "slushy"

As you may note, the color of the drink is a bit different from that shown on the sign.  In fact, it almost looked mango-colored.  However, the taste was definitely not mango-ish.  It was, dare I say, wolfberry-ish.  I think.

I can't say whether the goji berry being featured instead of mango is indicative of a general shift in menu options in DQ across China, a new potential option being tested in a specific market, an attempt to localize the DQ menu to specific regions of China, or something else.

I'll keep an eye out on DQ's elsewhere to see if any patterns become apparent (I may limit my sampling of DQ products, though).  If any readers are aware of other differences in DQ's in other regions of China I'd be curious to hear about it.

UPDATE:  After some more "research" I've discovered that the goji berry option definitely isn't only limited to Chengdu.  Also, at least in other locations now featuring goji berry, the mango option remains, just no longer featured.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Mobile Phones in China: More on Variety

In a recent post, I discussed the great variety of mobile phones available in China and shared some examples from stores in Zhaotong, Yunnan (see here).  A reader, Jendy, had this to say about the post:
"I wrote a paper on the cellular industry in China during my MBA program, after having spent 2 weeks in there with my class. I remember a factory owner saying that the Chinese see cell phones as a status symbol, much like cars or houses in other countries. He said that some of his factory workers would prioritize having the best and most technological cell phone over new clothes, eating a good dinner, etc."
I made some related points when I discussed the role of fashion and image in people's choice of mobile phones in an earlier post "Mobile Phones in China: Local Rates, Fashion, and Fakes":
"Many are willing to spend a large proportion of their income to purchase a mobile phone, sometimes saving up at least several months of their full salary, out of concerns related to fashion and image. For many people in China, their mobile phone will be the most expensive and openly visible item that can be with them many places they go -- like a car for many people in the US. While hanging a mobile phone around ones neck isn't as common in China as it used to be, there remain many opportunities for it to be visible."
Fashion, image, and status can be very intertwined.  For now, I'll avoid getting into a deep discussion on these issues, but suffice it to say they all can play a role in many mobile phone purchases in China.

Jendy continued with a claim connecting the role of a mobile phone as a status symbol and the diversity of mobile phones in China:
"So, it's not really surprising that there is more variety in China when there is a large population of people who prioritize cell phones over many other things."
Jendy also provided some anecdotal evidence for the impact Chinese brand mobile phones are already having globally:
"On a side note, I have friends in Chile who order Chinese phones over the web because there is so much more variety and phones with more features than you can't find here (dual sim phones for example)."
As Jendy's example shows, by developing localized designs for Chinese consumers Chinese mobile phone manufacturers are also likely creating devices that meet needs in other markets.  There are reports that exports of Chinese brand mobile phones are rapidly growing (I'm still looking for a source I feel OK about linking to, though).  It will be fascinating to see how the industry develops.

To further highlight the variety of mobile phones available from China I'll share some photos from a store you may have heard of in Zigong, a city in Sichuan province that is a six hour bus ride from Zhaotong.  In a previous post about Mother's Day in Zigong I shared some photos of a fashion show at Mall-mart and commented that the store was similar to Walmart in many ways.  I later discovered that Zigong's first actual Walmart had opened only a few months prior to my visit.

Zigong's first Walmart

As typical for Walmarts in China, it had an electronics section including mobile phones.  Like the department store in Zhaotong it had a wide array of Chinese brand phones in addition to more globally familiar brands such as Nokia.  However, many of the Chinese brands were different from those I had seen in the Zhaotong store.  Here are some photos of the selection available at Walmart (thanks to the Walmart staff for permission):

Quejaz mobile phones

Hedy and Gionee mobile phones

"Great" mobile phones

Lenovo mobile phone with transparent screen.

Nokia mobile phones 

Konka and Dim mobile phones

Dim and Opsson mobile phones

There were other brands as well.  The Walmart in Zigong and the stores in Zhaotong are of course just a handful of stores, but they are representative in many ways and provide a hint of the diversity of mobile phones available in China.

More on mobile phones in China later.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Car Bombs and No-Smoking Ashtrays

James Fallows recently shared two photos of signs in Beijing and asked his readers to guess their meanings (see here for post).

Here is the first sign:

And here is the second sign:

The first sign confused me at first, but when I thought "China" the meaning was immediately obvious to me: "no firecrackers".  In China, I've seen firecrackers lit just about anywhere, including on sidewalks as people are walking by.  I've also seen signs forbidding them in a variety of places such as subway stations.

In a later post James Fallows shared some other responses from his readers to the "no firecrackers" sign.  Here are just a few:

  • "No Fishboning Permitted!!!"
  • "Don't pull the martial arts weapons off the pine trees"
  • The sign must mean: "Don't step on the fishbones lying on the ground, because it will make a funny noise."
  • My guess - "cutting down trees and/or removing tree branches is prohibited."
  • Beware of falling Douglas fir twigs?
For a fuller list of interesting guesses by Fallows' readers see the post here.

The second sign, which James Fallows initially labeled "no car bombers", left me more baffled.  In his post, Fallows shared some of my thoughts including that it was "no loudspeaker announcements from cars", "no sirens", or "no giant sponge monsters on top of car".  As the last guess may indicate, none of my answers had left me convinced I had really figured it out.

Later, Fallows added the following two contributions from readers on the meaning of the sign:

  • My wife (from China) says the second one means "no transporting loads on top of cars."  (btw, she knew no firecrackers instantly).
  • [Reader who once lived in China] As for the second sign, I have seen it many times before and never figured it out. But the firecracker sign gave me an idea: could it mean "no setting off fireworks on top of your car?" I have seen people in a Chinese wedding motorcade dropping fireworks onto the road, so perhaps in the past they affixed them to the roof of the car.
The first explanation seems questionable to me because I am unclear why this rule would be applied to such a specific area.  I also am not sold on the second explanation.  I've seen some pretty raucous wedding motorcades but have never seen anyone lighting firecrackers on their car roof (yet).

If Greece has anything to say about the sign they may actually support something similar to Fallows' original suggestion.  For example this sign in Greece:

according to Wickipedia means "No vehicles carrying explosive or flammable goods".  All I can say is I guess Greece doesn't have a giant sponge monster problem.

I was now curious to hear from some more people in China.  Not having time to do a rigorous experiment in Beijing, I informally showed the Beijing "no car bombers" sign to a waitress and waiter at a cafe (where I am writing this piece) in Chengdu, Sichuan province.  Here's a summary of their responses (they both easily recognized the first sign as "no fireworks"):

Waitress (who had last year passed her driving test):
  • She was clueless at first.  She said she had never seen a sign like that in any of her preparation for the Chinese driving test.
  • She first suggested it might be about not carrying fireworks.
  • She then wondered if it was about not making noise.
  • Her final answer was that it was a warning not to stop because something could fall from above.
  • He too had never seen such a sign.
  • His first guess was that it was about objects falling from above.  He stuck to that.
I shared the suggestion that it was "no transporting loads on top of cars."  Neither thought that was a possibility.

So, with the little evidence available to me it doesn't appear the sign has a consistent interpretation, even to Chinese.  However, maybe it's a Beijing thing.  With any luck, Fallows will later share more (which looks like will happen soon).

The signs brought to mind another moment when I had been confused by a symbol in China.  This is what I saw in a supposedly no-smoking hotel room in Dunhua, Jilin (for some earlier posted photos of scenes in Jilin see here):

While the symbol seemed readily clear to me, "no smoking", its placement on an ashtray seemed to be rather contradictory.  I wondered if there was an explanation other than someone having a strong sense of humor.

Numerous times in China I've seen evidence that would suggest the ashtray may be a response to hotel guests' behavior.  No-smoking rules are not regularly enforced in many parts of China.  It's not uncommon to find people smoking in designated non-smoking areas, whether it is a hotel room, elevator, stairwell, etc.  I've also seen the effects of people smoking in a no-smoking hotel room -- for example, glasses intended for drinking filled with cigarette butts.

The ashtray may be a pragmatic design in that it both informs people (where else is a smoker more likely to notice a non-smoking symbol?) and it reduces the chances of other undesired consequences if people ignore its message.

Also, in many cities in China no-smoking rooms are only available in more upscale hotels.  It is possible this hotel merely wanted to "act" upscale but had no real concern about guests smoking.

When I showed the ashtray photo to the same Chinese waitress she said it meant "You shouldn't smoke because it's bad for your health, but here's an ashtray in case you still want to".  Her interpretation would be consistent with the idea that the "do not" slash is more of a suggestion than a rule.  Maybe fitting since in China there are many "rules" which are in fact rather flexible.  Another waitress believed the symbol meant "no smoking" but was confused about the purpose of the object.  Her only guess was that it was a pencil holder.  When I suggested the possibility it was an ashtray she dismissed the idea as ridiculous since the no-smoking symbol was obvious.

So, like the car-bombing sign, the true intentions behind the no-smoking ashtray (or whatever you want to think it is) remains unclear.

I share the above because it highlights the challenges in creating symbols that convey a clear and consistent meaning without using any words AND the challenges in fully interpreting symbols in other cultures where you may not be aware of key contextual information.

This is an issue I've faced in my work when evaluating/creating icons for software, online services, etc.  Even a button for a seemingly simple function can provide a difficult challenge.  What at first may seem to be an obvious solution could be found to be ineffective after observing how numerous potential users interpret it.  It can take several cycles of design and testing to find the best symbol.

Furthermore, you may need to either localize symbols for particular groups of people or find a symbol that is interpreted consistently regardless of culture (which can be challenging depending on the cultures involved).   Even if a symbol is understood, it may still need to be localized to feel more "home-like".

And possibly, like the "no fireworks" sign, sometimes it might not be a problem if a symbol is only understood by some people.  The people who don't understand the symbol may not be the people you're trying to reach.  The "no fireworks" sign may be clear enough to fireworks-loving Chinese.  The fact that non-fireworks wielding foreigners don't understand it is not critical (assuming they don't cause a fish bone incident due to a misinterpretation).

So, next time you see a symbol being used you can ponder the challenges in finding the "right" symbol and whether the way you see it is the same as people from other cultures.

Finally, the waiter and waitress I questioned about the Beijing sign didn't feel satisfied with their answers.  They very much wanted me to tell them the answer and I had to say I was unsure myself.  When I explained that I thought the confusion was possibly indicative of poor design or that the meanings of some symbols need to be taught to be understood the waitress responded, "Well, this is the government making mistakes.  Don't blame the people."

I definitely won't.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Mobile Phones in China: A Variety of Options

[Note:  Originally posted on May 12, 2011.  I have reposted because the original piece was removed by Blogger in response to an incident around May 13, 2011 and has since not reappeared.  Thanks again to readers who wrote in to say that a saved copy of the post could be retrieved from some RSS readers.]

A previous post covered the topics of local rates, fashion, and fakes for mobile phones in China. Like before, what I'll share in this post is intended to be a high level overview, this time about the variety of mobile phones available in China.

In the "tier 1" cities such as Shanghai many stores selling mobile phones, especially in downtown areas, will have a selection that includes most of the major globally dominant brands. However, in many other cities the typical selection of mobile phones noticeably changes. While Western brands may still be available, there will often be a larger number of Chinese brands.

To provide a small taste of the options in a non-major Chinese city, I'll share some photos (all taken with permission) from two different stores in Zhaotong, Yunnan -- as regular readers of this blog will likely know by now a city in a very rural area of Southwest China.

Here are just some of the phones being sold in one of Zhaotong's larger department stores:

And here is a small part of the selection in one of the many small mobile phone stores one can find in Zhaotong:

Some assorted points:
  • While there are some foreign brands sold in the department store such as Nokia and LG, there are a significant number of Chinese brands, including BBK, Gionee, Jugate, K-Touch, Oppo, Sunup, and more.
  • Some phones in both stores show obvious attempts to be visually appealing for Chinese tastes.
  • The Sunop phones with an apple on them arguably may be a trademark issue, but the overall design is not just simply copying Apple .
  • In the smaller store, trademark issues are more apparent -- especially in the names of phones such as Anycoll (Anycall, a Samsung brand sold in China), Nckla (Nokia), iPheon (iPhone), Mctcrcla (Motorola), and Cppc (Oppo, a Chinese brand). As you can see, this issue is not just limited to foreign brands.
There is much more one could comment on regarding the above photos. And these are just showing a sampling of the phones in two stores out of many in Zhaotong, yet alone in China. However, they're representative enough to make a key point: there is a great variety of mobile phones available in China. There are two reasons why this point is critical to understanding the mobile phone market in China that particularly interest me.

      1) Many consumers have a very wide range of mobiles phones to choose from.

This raises a host of fascinating issues to explore. For example, what impact, if any, does the greater variety have on how people choose their mobile phone in comparison to places with less variety?

      2) It indicates there is a lot of "experimentation" occurring in China.

It's easy to criticize the mobile phone industry in China for the immense about of amount copying that occurs. It's definitely an issue but don't be fooled. There is also a significant amount of design that could be considered creative or innovative. Some of the resulting products may prove to be significantly successful or provide inspiration for better designs -- not only for the Chinese market but others as well.

I'll explore the issues of creativity and innovation in China more in later posts. I don't think they're as clear cut as some portray them to be. For now I'll just close with a claim that may come as a surprise to those who are not very familiar with China: The diversity of mobile phones available in stores in "communist" China is greater, not less, than what can be found in the US.

I'd be very interested to hear you think about that.

[UPDATE:  Follow-up post with a reader's comments and more examples of mobile phones in China here:  Mobile Phones in China: More on Variety]