Marriott and Delta learn tough lessons on importance of localization

Marriott found itself in an uncomfortable position in China after an online customer questionnaire listed Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau and Tibet as separate countries.

Shanghai authorities closed the hotel brand’s website for a week. The Shanghai Cyberspace Administration issued a statement that it would be closing down Marriott’s mobile app, according to Reuters, which would could negatively impact bookings in China’s mobile-first economy. Shanghai’s Huangpu district market supervision bureau will also launch an investigation into whether Marriott has violated China’s cyber security law and advertisement law.

According to the South China Morning Post, the backlash against Marriott began on Weibo after the questionable questionnaire was posted by a user to the Communist Youth League’s official account on the popular Chinese social media platform. This led to thousands expressing their outrage and calling for a boycott of Marriott.

Caixin Global reports that Marriott’s including Tibet in the drop-down list was particularly offensive to Weibo commenters as other brands from abroad have previously also listed Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau as “countries” in an English-language context.

Arne Sorenson, president and CEO, Marriott International, issued the following statement following the incident:

“Marriott International respects and supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China. Unfortunately, twice this week, we had incidents that suggested the opposite: First, by incorrectly labelling certain regions within China, including Tibet, as countries in a drop-down menu on a survey we sent out to our loyalty members; and second, in the careless “like” by an associate of a tweet that incorrectly suggested our support of this position. Nothing could be further from the truth: we don’t support anyone who subverts the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China and we do not intend in any way to encourage or incite any such people or groups. We recognize the severity of the situation and sincerely apologize.

“In the aftermath of these two events, here’s what we have done.  As soon as we became aware of the issue with the survey, we worked to take it down and make the necessary corrections. We also reviewed the other areas on our websites and apps where this type of functionality might exist to make sure the labeling is correct. In China, at the request of the Government, we have taken down our Chinese websites and apps to conduct a full review and audit. We also quickly un-‘liked’ the tweet and posted a statement of apology on Twitter.

“Upon completion of a full investigation into how both incidents happened, we will be taking the necessary disciplinary action with respect to the individuals involved, which could include termination, changing our approval and review procedures for online content, reviewing our customer feedback channels, and enhancing training to ensure these situations don’t happen again. We are also working closely and co-operating with the relevant Government authorities in China.

While the statement is vague on how the error occurred in the first place, one way in which global brands can avoid running afoul of local markets is to ensure that they work with a local marketing and communications team who might be more sensitive to the implications of brand messaging.

On Friday, Delta Air Lines had to issue its own apology after the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) demanded an “immediate and public” apology for listing Taiwan and Tibet as countries on its website.

“Delta recognizes the seriousness of this issue and we took immediate steps to resolve it,” the airline told Reuters. “It was an inadvertent error with no business or political intention, and we apologize deeply for the mistake. As one of our most important markets, we are fully committed to China and to our Chinese customers.”

Get local right

For global companies, there can be no room for error on issues of basic cultural understanding. More than a “faux pas” these errors of localization can be interpreted as a lack of interest in the culture with which the brand wants to do business.

One of the common misconceptions of localization is that merely translating what works in one context will work in another, but this strategy is inherently flawed. Language is far more than the sum of its letters. It stretches to embrace history and includes many nuances, implications and idioms that only native speakers will appreciate.

Investing in partnerships with locals who can audit and help with marketing and communications, localizing websites and social platforms, should be considered a core-requirement of doing business internationally.

Though Marriott made several posts on Weibo to apologize, it is not clear whether Marriott actively monitors mentions on Weibo or whether they might have been able to get ahead of the negative backlash in real-time. Large global brands which can afford to do so might benefit from contracting local social media teams to manage the brand reputation in real-time.

Another strategy for global brands might be to empower local management to oversee marketing efforts and carefully screen promotions. These team members can help ensure that their corporations do not offend or otherwise damage the brand.

Even local firms can sometimes encounter problems with regulators, though. The South China Morning Post mentions that a local advertising agency was fined $153,000 for including a Chinese map in an advertisement which was judged to be inaccurate and undignified though “authorities did not specify what was wrong with the map.”

Carefully vetting the credentials and reputation of outsourced local advertising, marketing and communications partners would also be critical to success.

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