I’m pleased to say that, based on the websites I study regularly, we’ve reached “peak flag.” In other words, at a high level, companies are now beginning to move away from using flags on their websites within their global gateways.
This is a good thing.
On a personal level, I love flags. But from a usability perspective, flags often cause more problems than they solve.
Companies that have stopped using flags on their websites over the years include:
To name just a few.
And, yes, I’m well aware that Apple still uses flags. I do believe that Apple will drop flags as the risks far outweigh the rewards.
If you are flying the Taiwan flag on your website, consider yourself warned.
As I’ve written many times over the past year, China is paying close attention to how multinationals refer to Taiwan on their websites, not just textually but visually. And this includes the global gateway.
But the fact is, flags are completely unnecessary in global gateways — not just the Taiwan flag but any flag. And now is a very good time to extricate flags from your website.
Flag free means frustration free.
I’ve published a new report that details the many reasons for removing flags from your website; it also includes examples of websites that have gone flag free, including Costco, Google, Sanofi and Siemens.
Apple has redesigned its website many times over the past decade but one thing has remained largely unchanged — its global gateway strategy.
Here’s a screen shot of the global gateway menu from back in 2010:
And here it is today:
But over the past few days Apple did something I’ve been waiting for them to do for some time — begin using geolocation.
Here’s how it works…
If you’re in the US and you try visiting the home page of, say, Apple France, at www.apple.fr, you see this message above the top menu:
The message gives you a shortcut back to the US (.com) website.
And if you’re in Japan and you visit www.apple.com, you see this message:
In this case, the user can go to the Japan home page with one click.
This is a step forward for Apple and I’m happy to see it.
But there are still flaws with the execution which could use improvement.
Beginning with the flags.
I don’t know why Apple clings to flags with such passion. I do believe Apple will drop flags eventually and I’m hoping the move towards geolocation portends bigger and better changes to come. Flags are completely unnecessary for this geo-header to be effective. Also, if you wish to select a different locale you will be bumped back to the array of flags on the global gateway menu. As a general rule, flags should not be used for navigational purposes.
Now let’s examine the message itself: Choose another country to see content specific to your location and shop online.
The first issue is the absence of “or region” in this sentence. The intention here is not to be verbose but to help Apple avoid any geopolitical issues, particularly given the recent issues that American multinationals have been having with China. Better yet, perhaps the text can be rewritten so “or region” isn’t even necessary. How about asking if the visitor would like to visit a more local website.
Finally, the mixture of pull-down menu with the “Continue” button is a bit cumbersome. Since the pull-down menu lists only two options I’m confident there is a better UI that would save the visitor a click.
Issues aside, I am happy to see Apple moving ahead with geolocation. I can imagine this was not an easy decision. After all, Apple is very sensitive to user privacy and this type of implementation will naturally lead some visitors to wonder how Apple knows where they are. But this is not an invasion of privacy; this is a step towards providing a better experience.
I also believe this change is a sign of a larger shift in website strategy, a more decentralized model, which I will be talking about later this year.
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.
Lululemon provides an interesting case study of a US-based retailer taking its first steps towards going global.
And, like all first steps, this one is rather awkward.
To be clear, Lululemon is only focused on shipping globally, which is a nice feature for English-speaking customers around the world. But I wish the website made this explicitly clear, so that web users who don’t speak English don’t waste their time with the tool highlighted below.
What I’m going to show here isn’t a conventional global gateway because Lululemon supports only an English-language website. But I would suspect that a fair number of international web users may think it will take them to a localized website. The flag, I think, is part of the problem. A user could see the flag and think that this is a global gateway he or she must navigate.
But it’s not an easy gateway to navigate — it’s frustratingly open ended. The gateway link is located well down the home page — not quite in the footer but close:
Clicking on the country name brings up the “Type Your Country” input box.
Here’s where things get interesting.
If I enter “China” I find that my country is supported. This is a fine if I’m an English speaker in China.
But what if I enter Chinese text? This is what I see:
Now one could argue that by only supporting Latin text input you’re doing a better job of managing language expectations because there is no translation of text available. Nevertheless, a basic text menu of supported countries would be a better solution than this open-ended input form — and certainly a less resource-intensive approach.
This gateway reminds me of the Seinfeld episode in which Kramer plays the Moviefone guy:
On a very positive note, the website uses geolocation to guest the user’s preferred target country. Shown here is the message that a user in Germany sees:
It’s in English, naturally, so I’m not sure all users will find this approach user friendly.
But, like I said, this is a first step toward going global.