Apple Speaks the Language of China

Less than a year ago, Apple was in sixth place for smartphone sales in greater China. Competitors such as Huawei, Lenovo, Samsung, Xiaomi, and Yulong far exceeded Apple’s sales in the region. However, per Apple’s latest earnings report, the company is now the #1 smartphone maker in China. What is Apple doing differently now?

  • Bigger screen. The newest iPhone isn’t just a reason for customers in more mature, Western markets to upgrade. Larger-screen smartphones have been popular in China for quite some time. By launching a new product with a larger screen, Apple began to see greater success in China.
  • Greater status. The iPhone is a status symbol for the rising middle class in China. Apple is now further capitalizing on this brand attribute by doing high-end promotions that appeal to this segment of the Chinese economy, including a recent fashion spread for the Apple watch in Vogue China.
  • Local credibility Many companies fast-track their entry into China by aligning with well-known, trusted companies that already work with the customers they hope to reach. Apple did this when it partnered with China Mobile, the largest wireless network in the world, in late 2013.
  • More locations. Tim Cook explained that Apple’s online store now serves 350 cities in China. Apple has just 15 stores in greater China right now, but plans to expand that number to 40 over the next two years. As Forbes reports, Apple is even asking US-based employees to consider relocating to China. The company will open five new stores in the next five weeks to coincide with the Chinese New Year holiday shopping period in February.
  • Faster launch. It was only just last year that Apple included China in its global rollout for new phones. In the past, China had to wait three months to get their hands on the newest products, sending an unintended message to China that they were less important than other markets.
  • Fewer knock-offs. Cutting out the lag time to get their products into consumers’ hands was important for Apple, because it addressed the demand for fake phones at the source. Apple also took steps to cut down on smuggled iPhones in the region.

While these facts are all important elements of Apple’s strategy in China, nothing could be more critical for creating a real connection with Chinese customers than truly understanding local values and culture. That entails speaking to them in their language, obviously, but also presenting ideas – and the brand – in a way that seems relevant to the local population. (Get our free eBook on transcreation for more on this topic).

To see a beautiful example of how Apple is doing this, check out the video below, which recently appeared on the company’s Chinese retail website. The video features Wang Dongling, a name that means very little to Western consumers. However, in Hangzhou, where Apple is opening up a new retail store, Wang Dongling is a well-known and revered Chinese calligraphy artist, an important and respected figure in the local market.

The video shows him talking about his art and using beautiful brush strokes to paint a poem about the local West Lake region, and revealing an art form that holds deep significance for the local culture. The resulting imagery also serves to subtly convey Chinese people flocking toward the Apple brand. The traditional, brush-painted characters contrast nicely with the Apple logo in red, a meaningful and important color for China. The entire image is then shown covering the front of a shiny new retail store.

In recent years, Apple has struggled to leap past its competitors and reach its full potential to sell products in China. The tide has clearly turned. Revenue for the region is now up 157% compared to last quarter, with more than triple the sales growth the company is seeing in the Americas or the rest of Asia.

Apple has made many changes recently to ensure its success in China. Having the right partner strategy, product strategy, and sales distribution strategy were all critical elements. Now, with that foundation firmly in place, the company can create messaging that is hyper-local and finely-tuned to its customer base. This is an essential part of creating an enduring brand presence for any company, in any market, but especially for a market as important to a company as China is to Apple, both today and tomorrow.

About Nataly Kelly

Nataly brings nearly two decades of translation industry experience to Smartling, most recently as Chief Research Officer at industry research firm Common Sense Advisory. Previously, she held positions at AT&T Language Line and NetworkOmni (acquired by Language Line), where she oversaw product development. A veteran translator and certified court interpreter for Spanish, she has formally studied seven languages, and is currently learning Irish. A former Fulbright scholar in sociolinguistics, Nataly lives in the Boston area with her husband and daughter. When she isn’t working, you’ll usually find her translating Ecuadorian poetry, writing books, and exploring the world (36 countries and counting!).