Where Google went wrong with China
As this blog demonstrates, global brands sometimes shoot themselves in the foot because they do not take local culture difference and sensitivity into account.
However there is such a thing as being TOO oversensitive.
Google’s strategy in China has been to portray the brand as completely Chinese. This “when in Rome do as Romans do” tactic has now gravely backfired.
Facing the well-established, dominant Chinese search engine Baidu, not only did Google adjust to local censorship requirements. It dressed itself from head to toe in local clothing.
First Google translated its name to mean “Valley Song”.
Then it used refined Chinese calligraphy and even traditional Chinese poetry in its advertising.
If you didn’t know, you would have thought Google is Chinese.
Google turned a blind eye to two cultural facts.
1. There is very high sensitivity in China to foreigners “stealing” Chinese culture, due to colonial history and a fierce, renewed sense of patriotism.
Baidu swiftly countered Google’s advertising with a violent but effective patriotic commercial.
It portrayed a “wild west” dressed American (representing Google) in an intense calligraphy competition against a genuine Chinese master (representing Baidu). The Chinese master wins, showing the American for what he is – a fake.The American spits blood and falls dead, to the delight and cheers of the Chinese audience.
2. You cannot underestimate the importance of the Chinese government.
When you say a company is “good”, it is generally NOT understood to mean “it does no evil”, but simply that it is approved by the government.
The government portrayed Google’s efforts to digitalize Chinese books as a foreign attempt to steal Chinese heritage – again undermining Google’s attempts to look like a “good Chinese company”.
Today, after all Google’s efforts, Baidu retains more than 70 percent of the Chinese market. Its brand is severely damaged in the biggest growth market in the world.
Although there may be a genuine plot to sabotage Google, it may be that the search giant’s “threat” to pull out of China is a mask for commercial and cross-cultural failings, and possibly a counter-tactic to put pressure on the government.
It will be fascinating to see how “Google vs. China” plays out.
In the meantime, it is worth remembering one fact: going completely local may not only betray your international brand’s DNA, it is also a high risk cultural strategy that can easily backfire.