Disney and China: How Local is Too Local?

There was a great article recently in the Wall Street Journal that describes the challenges that Disney faces in launching Hong Kong Disneyland later this year. According to the article, there are more than 290 million consumers in China under the age of 14. Imagine the number of Mickey Mouse hats they could sell!

And yet Disney has had very mixed results with theme parks outside the US. On one hand you have Paris, which is still struggling to make ends meet; on the other hand there is Tokyo, which is a massive success. The big question is whether China’s culture will embrace Disney’s culture. This article excerpt illustrates the uphill battle that Disney faces:

    While Hong Kong’s relatively wealthy 6.8 million citizens are well versed in Disney’s cartoons-and-Cinderella culture, the brand is far less pervasive in mainland China. Many Western media and consumer-products companies have stopped exporting their Western goods, choosing instead to develop more locally tailored fare. Chinese consumers are drawn to luxury, but still want culturally relevant products. And sometimes the government demands Chinese goods: It recently proposed banning foreign-made cartoons on prime-time TV.

    Britney Spears doesn’t burn up the charts in China. Today, 70% of music and 90% of all programming on Viacom Inc.’s MTV China is made in China. At Yum Brand’s KFC, 85% of the menu is unique to China, with some cross-cultural hybrids, such “Dragon Twisters” with Peking duck sauce.

So Disney is making some attempts to localize the experience for its Asian guests, like creating more photo opportunities and changing “Main Street, U.S.A.” to “World Bazaar.” And let’s not forget the now-infamous “shark fin soup” episode; Disney recently agreed to take that item off its menu after pressure from outside Asia. Which begs the question: How local can you be to one culture without offending another culture?

Cultural speed bumps are inevitable these days. I am glad to see Disney putting the effort into balancing its global culture with China’s culture. My prediction is that Disney will do well in Hong Kong and exceedingly well when it sets up shop in Shanghai. That is, until a local competitor builds a “Chinaland” equivalent, trying to beat Disney at its own game.

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