As readers of this blog well know, I often refer to China and Taiwan when making the case for avoiding the use of flags on a global gateway. There are many others reasons, of course, but geopolitical issues have become more acute lately.
I could also point to the Russia and Kosovo as another case study for avoiding the use fo flags. As this New York Times article notes Kosovo, despite being a FIFA member, cannot fly its flag at World Cup stadiums:
The flag — which depicts a gold map of Kosovo under six white stars on a blue background — is one of more than two dozen barred from World Cup stadiums by tournament organizers.
Here’s a visual of the flags not allowed into the stadiums:
While most countries acknowledge Kosovo and its flag, Russia does not. And because this World Cup is hosted by Russia, well, so it goes.
Which brings me back to your global gateway.
Your global gateway is a tool for helping visitors find (or change) their locale setting, not a geopolitical statement.
I love typewriters and languages, so this book was a sure thing as my interests go.
And I learned a great deal.
Perhaps the greatest takeaway was the degree to which the Chinese language was viewed as inferior (not just outside of China but also within) simply because the many thousands of characters weren’t easily accommodated onto a Western-designed keyboard.
It’s worth noting that the Internet itself was not designed to support Chinese characters either. IDNs are, at best, a hack and probably will be for the foreseeable future.
But it’s fascinating to see how the “standard” Western typewriter evolved and how it impacted typewriter innovations for supporting Chinese. Shown here is theShu-style typewriter — a marvel to behold.
The conventional single shift keyboard that we use today was not the only keyboard available a hundred years ago. For instance, I have a typewriter that features a great many more keys (and no shift key).
Turns out that this typewriter was ideal for the Thai language, at least until the company that made this typewriter was bought out and the design laid to rest.
Progress we call it.
The author has a sequel in the works, I’m assuming it will be titled The Chinese Computer. And I can’t wait to read it.
And let’s suppose this vendor refers to Taiwan as a country and the email goes out to people in China who believe differently, and they happen to be in a position to punish you by blocking your website within China.
According to Skift it was indeed a vendor that led to this misstep. And the CEO, Arne Sorenson, has vowed to make sure it won’t happen again:
“We should have caught it, even though it was provided by a third party, and we didn’t catch it,” Sorenson said. “We moved quickly to fix that mistake and we are moving as quickly as we can to look at all of the stuff we’ve got exposed out there online to customers in China and customers around the world to make sure we are not making similar mistakes in the future.”
This is a lesson that all companies should take to heart. When you hire vendors to communicate with the world on your behalf — you have to audit their work just as closely as you would your own. Because at the end of the day it’s your brand name that will suffer.
Here we are, roughly six weeks later, and the Marriott website still appears to be blocked. Mistakes happen, but the more educated your marketing and web teams are to global and local regulatory and cultural issues, the fewer of these mistakes you will make.
I’ve found over the years that it often helps to highlight the more common mistakes that organizations have made to help other organizations sidestep them. This report is included with the 2018 Web Globalization Report Card.
The context of how you display this flag can make all the difference; for example, do you display the flag on a global gateway with text that reads Select Country or Select Country/Region?
This may seem like a trivial distinction, but Select Country could cost your company millions in lost revenues if China cracks down the way it recently cracked down on Marriott — whose website is currently taking a forced time out.
Now, as I’ve noted earlier, Marriott did not display the Taiwan flag on its global gateway; this problem stemmed from a customer questionnaire that referred to Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong and Macau as countries. I would also not be surprised if this questionnaire was created by a third-party vendor. But the reason how it happened isn’t that important now; what’s important is ensuring that these mistakes don’t repeat — or, better yet, never happen in the first place.
Marriott was not alone. Medtronic, Delta and Zara were forced to apologize for making variations of this mistake, which include referring to Taiwan as a country on the global gateway.
The apparent intensification of efforts to police how foreign businesses refer to Chinese-claimed territories – even if only in pull-down menus – underscores just how sensitive the issue of sovereignty has become in a China that is increasingly emboldened on the international stage.
The involvement of more than one Chinese authority in rebuking businesses across different industries suggested possible coordination at a high level of government.
So what should you do to avoid a similar fate?
If your global gateway is built around using flags, now is the time to leave them behind. I’ve written extensively about the many challenges and risks of using flags — on this blog, in many editions of the Report Card and in my newest book.
The rewards of using flags simply do not outweigh the risks.
And I’ve worked with a few dozens companies that have since redesigned their global gateways to be more geopolitically neutral. Another upside is that these resulting global gateways are typically more efficient — both in page display time as well as in maintenance.
But as I write this post I know a number of multinationals — all Fortune 100 — that currently display the Taiwan flag on their global gateways. And the context of a few of them most clearly send a Select Country message — which is a message no company wants to be sending right now.
If you need me to help you make the case for an immediate global gateway redesign and/or internal audit, contact me; I can bundle this in with the forthcoming 2018 Report Card.
If you visit Marriott’s China website today you’re likely to see this:
I dumped the text into Google Translate and here is what it loosely says:
So what exactly happened here?
According to Skift, Marriott sent a survey in Mandarin to its Chinese loyalty members that referred to Tibet, Macau and Taiwan as “countries.” As readers of this blog will know quite well by now, in the eyes of Chinese authorities, this is no trivial oversight. It appears that this shutdown could last a week.
I can only imagine the lively conversations being held at the highest levels within Marriott right now.
This should be a wake up call to all organizations
I’m working on the 2018 edition of the Web Globalization Report Card and have compiled a list of a number of websites that are currently vulnerable to the wrath of China.
For the record, I don’t agree with China. And I know many execs at Western-based multinationals don’t as well. But it doesn’t matter what we think. If you want to do business in China you have to play by its rules.
In Marriott’s defense, its website did not list Taiwan as a country — but it appears that someone in marketing was not well versed on this very delicate geopolitical issue. This would be a good time for any company that does business not just in China but anywhere outside of its native country, to consider planning regular Globalization Summits. I’ve participated in a number of these over the years and find they go a long way in raising awareness to a range of geopolitical issues — as well as the sharing of best practices. Contact me if you’d like more information — I also now include copies of Think Outside the Country.
PS: If you haven’t purchased the 2017 Report Card, we’re now offering a special 2017/2018 bundle that will be available for short time. You can purchase both reports here.
And for those of you who already have the 2017 Report Card, we’re going to offer a discounted advance purchase option as well. Please contact me if you’d like to do this sooner than later.
And speaking of travel, we have a unique report out devoted to destination websites — there are a few that also run the risk of offending Chinese authorities.
In 2016, more than 120 million Chinese traveled internationally. which is roughly the entire population of Japan (or Canada, Italy and Australia combined).
And only 10% of the country has a passport.
Imagine the travel industry when 25% of Chinese residents are traveling abroad. Where will they go? What will they want to see? To help shed light on these questions, Hotels.com recently interviewed 3,000 Chinese residents who traveled internationally over the past year.
China is already the largest source of international travelers for many countries.
Yet only 10% of the Chinese population had passports in 2016.
Shopping is no longer the prime attraction for a growing number of travelers
Nor is group travel, which is quickly losing favor among older travelers. Translation: Chinese travelers are tiring of those buses.
Independent travel is very popular among millennials.
And eco/green tours are becoming quite popular, particularly among older travelers. I’m very happy to see this.
The most welcoming countries to Chinese travelers, based on survey respondents, are Thailand, Japan, Australia. The USA made the top 5, though I suspect that ranking might be slipping based on current events.
The top landmark in the US: Grand Canyon.
The top landmark in Australia: Great Barrier Reef.
And in France: the Louvre.
Chinese visitors spend more in the US than visitors from any other nation, approximately $7,200.
So what does this mean for hotels and other travel segments? It means you have be curious, nimble, and you had better support Chinese — both on your website, in your call center, via social media, and with in-house Mandarin speakers. Survey respondents ranked poor hotel localization as a top 5 problem.
Chinese is also not as well supported across many of the global travel websites I reviewed two months ago. As shown here, based on our new report Destination: Marketing, Chinese is found on only 64% of the leading tourism websites.
Also, accepting Visa or Mastercard is not good enough. Most Chinese travelers prefer to pay with UnionPay.
I was saddened to read that “the father of Pinyin” died this weekend in Beijing (though he did live to be 111 years old). While until now I never knew very much about the man himself — who daringly criticized the Chinese government, wrote dozens of books, and was exiled during the Cultural Revolution — I was very familiar with (and grateful for) Pinyin when I began learning Chinese.
Pinyin, a romanized version of the Chinese language — which allows non-native speakers a much, much easier way to learn the language — was adopted by China in 1958, replacing the former Wade-Giles system. (Wade-Giles had been conceived by two British diplomats, and its pronunciation guide was very different and far less accurate — for example, the Wade-Giles word for Beijing is the far-less-accurate Peking.) And, as Zhou’s New York Times obituary notes:
Since then, Pinyin (the name can be translated as “spelled sounds”) has vastly increased literacy throughout the country; eased the classroom agonies of foreigners studying Chinese; afforded the blind a way to read the language in Braille; and, in a development Mr. Zhou could scarcely have foreseen, facilitated the rapid entry of Chinese on computer keyboards and cellphones.
I began to learn Chinese in the early 1990s, before moving to Asia to teach English as a second language. I began in the States with an introductory university class in which we were required to memorize characters, which was insanely difficult. In addition to that, our Chinese teacher was Taiwanese, which meant he used traditional characters as opposed to simplified characters (adopted in mainland China to increase literacy). Here is the word for beautiful in simplified Chinese:
And here is the same word in traditional Chinese:
Notice how many more strokes are required in the traditional version. Also note: There is no way for a native English speaker to tell, just by looking at either character, how to pronounce the word. This is where Pinyin comes in. If it weren’t for Pinyin — that is, if I’d had to go by Wade-Giles’ pronunciations — no one I spoke with in Taipei would’ve been able to understand a word of what I said (and it was hard enough as it was; Mandarin Chinese also has four tones for every character, and getting those wrong is all too easy for a foreigner).
Once in Taiwan, I realized I had to focus on spoken Mandarin rather than the written language — most important to survival was learning how to talk. I did have to learn a great many traditional characters, however — this was necessary for everything from eating (in places with written menus, though I ate mostly from food carts) to banking (all transactions on ATMs were in Chinese characters) to finding my way around the country (all of the road signs and bus signs were also in traditional characters).
The language was so different that I learned to “forget English,” as my Chinese tutor taught me; the only way I could grasp the language was to approach it not by translating things in my head but by thinking in Chinese. And this was fascinating…the Chinese language is beautiful, complex, and vast, and when you start to think in Chinese, it’s easier to learn the language, as each character is built from a combination of ideas. To use a simple example, here is the simplified character for the word America:
And here is the traditional character:
It is pronounced Mĕi guó, which is translated as “beautiful country” — as you can see, the first part of the character (美, mei) is from the character above, for beauty.
When I returned from Asia after two years, I was so used to thinking in another, very different, language that I found it hard to put English sentences together; I often spoke in simple sentences, as if I were translating my thoughts from Chinese back into English. It took a long time to sound like a normal native English speaker again.
I reflect on all this as my first book, Forgetting English, is released in its third edition. The title story, while fictional, has many moments — including the one with my Chinese tutor — inspired by my time in Asia.
It’s been especially enlightening to reflect on the extraordinary life of Zhou Youguang; as you’ll read in his obituary, he was so much more than the father of Pinyin. Sent to a labor camp during the Cultural Revolution, he remained an open critic of Chinese communism. His many accomplishments include overseeing the translation of the Encyclopedia Britannica into Chinese, and he wrote more than 40 books (some of them banned in China), at least 10 of them published after he turned 100 — truly inspiring.
China’s Alibaba is the creator (and exporter) of this one-day ecommerce extravaganza that takes place on 11/11.
And despite being a one-day event the pre-promotion is in full effect.
According to brandchannel, Alibaba is intent to set new records this year by expanding beyond China’s border. Its long-term goal is two billion shoppers, so they have no choice but to look outside mainland China. This year they’ve recruited Katy Perry as their spokesperson.
Amazon recently launched Prime in China. But Amazon is just a blip compared to Alibaba.
Costco has been a partner for several years and apparently did 3.5 million in sales two years ago. Here is their Tmall home page. Costco does not even have a localized website for China — just a Tmall site, which is effectively the same thing when it comes to China. The benefit of a Tmall site is that you’re hosted within the country, bypassing the great firewall. And you get built-in marketing and support from Alibaba.
Now, will Singles Day take off in the US?
When it comes to ecommerce, I’d say anything is possible. We Americans love any opportunity to shop. And perhaps with the growing backlash against Black Friday, this will one day become the next big shopping day.