When you have one of the most recognizable brands in the world, it may be an alluring temptation to simply presume your global fans know you already, and will understand your meaning. Not so. For a company like Disney, with so many sub-brands of movies and characters established throughout its 92-year-long history, they understand many are more, or less, recognizable in some markets than others. And they take great pains to ensure that each time they make a major step in a market, they’ve taken local language and culture into account.
For instance, with the opening of Shanghai Disneyland this month, every aspect of translation and localization required analysis and, if necessary, rethinking. A Wall Street Journal feature article covered a few of the details. First thing to keep in mind: Disney did not wait until the last minute to do localization. They have been carefully planning their entry for the past six years. They sweated the details, and they made sure to double check by testing it with fans long before the park officially opened on 16 June.
One emblematic example: the iconic Dumbo, who first flew onto American movie screens prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor in October 1941, was relatively unknown to Chinese Disney fans. For the Shanghai theme park, though he is listed on the English language version of their website as “Dumbo,” for local markets he was translated into Chinese in 2016 simply as “Little Flying Elephant.”
When it comes to culture, the world is not flat. Disney cannot take our culture and export it to China.
So said Bob Iger, Chairman and CEO of Disney in 2013, as quoted by China Daily. He also said at the time, “There will be entertainment and show elements that will be very Chinese in nature, performed by Chinese, and designed, directed and created by artists from China.” Even the menu is localized, as a “giddy” Iger recently enumerated to The Hollywood Reporter, “We’ve got a Szechuan chicken burger, a Peking duck pizza shaped in a Mickey head… There’s something called siu mai dumplings that are Shanghainese — they’re tremendous!”
This isn’t Disney’s first foray into China either. Their Hong Kong theme park opened over a decade earlier in 2005, and lessons learned there will certainly apply. For instance, in Hong Kong, the “Haunted Mansion” changed its name to “Mystic Manor” and removed the ghosts, since Chinese audiences did not view them as particularly fun. Disney likewise has extensive history in localizing its brands, such as the Chinese version of High School Musical, created in 2009.
Though as that foray shows, sometimes Disney might even take things a step too far, such as wanting to replace a basketball scene with kung fu. (Note: China loves basketball, and has since it was introduced to the country in 1895.)
Thus, the 2016 opening of Shanghai Disneyland is the culmination of decades of efforts involving a very large Disney cast, including Iger, who has been involved with negotiations dating back to 1998.
What are your thoughts for your own company, and its brands? Is localization something you plan out far in advance, or is it something left until late (possibly too late) in the process? Conversely, have you ever over-thought a localization process? We’d love to hear. Write to us at [email protected].