No padding is sexy now

The 2017 Victoria’s Secret fashion show in Shanghai supplied Chinese social media with a multitude of trending topics. Given that the brand doesn’t open any flagship store in China until February 2018, this late-bloomer can be inspiring for many international brands. After all, neither Google nor Facebook is a success story in this much-coveted market.

As a linguist who often works on website localization projects, I cannot help but notice that the English copy on the brand’s US site is quite different from the Chinese one on its Tmall store. Overall, the brand voice for Victoria’s Secret in China is much more “modest” compared to its English source. 

If you were to read and compare the product descriptions, you will soon realize that the same product is presented with drastically different wordings. So much so that you may argue it’s more of a transcreation rather than a translation. This deliberate departure from the literal approach is what I think is worth sharing as best practices for Chinese localization in general. 

China introduced its amended advertising law back in 2015, and many businesses scrambled to overhaul their branding strategy to comply with the ban on superlative usage. That means using words such as “national-level,” “the most” or “the best” in Chinese advertising campaigns could lead to a fine starting at $30,000. According to the Beijing government, fines totaled around $60 million as of September 2016 for breaching the new regulations, which feature many other prohibitions as well.

The impact of this new regulation on the Chinese advertising industry is hard to ignore, but if you are thinking about localizing your marketing content for China, a good strategy to share with your translation team would be to tread carefully. Their work will need to transform often-boastful language into Chinese copy that’s market-ready. What exactly does that mean?

Superlatives are a big no-no

While the law doesn’t provide an exhaustive list on what not to use, much effort has already been made on compiling potentially “troublesome” adjectives. This glossary of superlatives and prohibited terms is readily available online if you search for 极限词(违禁词)汇总 in Chinese. The checklist covers a much wider range of adjectives than just the typical superlatives.

Obviously descriptive language that contains the character 最 (which is similar to “the most”) are an easy trap to avoid, but that’s only part of the puzzle. Languages that carry meanings associated with supreme, extreme or number one also falls under the no-no category for being potentially misleading or fraudulent. So are any other claims that cannot be objectively quantified or supported by hard evidence.

Omission is your long-lost best friend

For example, among the product descriptions for Victoria’s Secret sportswear, on the US site I found sentences like “the best gets better,” “the world’s #1 bra brand has created the world’s best sport bra” and “your favorite maximum-support sport bra.” Literal translation of the messages would not work due to the reasons stated above. Therefore, as counter-intuitive as it may seem to be, omission is a necessary Chinese localization strategy.

In addition to the many adjectives that you need to watch out for, noun phrases such as “Body-Wick fabric” and “breathable padding” that refer to the brand’s proprietary functionality cannot be rendered literally either if they are not officially patented in China.

In the example to the right, you see a side-by-side comparison of a product that is quintessential to the brand image. The product name “Add-2-Cups Push-Up Bra” are paraphrased to circumvent mentioning measurable results, which cannot be guaranteed and thus are potentially misleading.

The key takeaway is, if your brand is also aiming for the Chinese market, you’ll be well advised to follow the lead of Victoria’s Secret, taking out the “padding” in the language of your product descriptions.