Culture Workshop

How Lost My Name reinvented its product for Chinese customers

Before tapping into the pockets of Chinese parents, personalised children’s book publisher Lost My Name had to reinvent its product.

5 Nov 2016

Recently, Asi Sharabi’s team has been spending quite a lot of time with Chinese mums, quizzing them about bedtime. It’s the first bit of foreign consumer research that his personalised kid’s book company, Lost My Name, has done since starting out in 2012, despite having shipped to 184 countries worldwide and sold 1.8 million copies of its first book. But when it comes to translating the concept into Chinese, Sharabi explains, it takes more than a new set of characters; it means leaping into a whole new set of cultural expectations and traditions.

‘The Chinese children’s book market is really in its infancy,’ says Sharabi. ‘There isn’t a thousand-year-old tradition of reading bedtime stories to kids. But it is growing.’ Although it’s now the second-largest children’s book market in the world, in China, books are still expected to be functional and educational, making it a tough cookie for Western publishers to crack.

Lost in Mandarin

Lost My Name’s signature title, The Little Girl/Boy Who Lost Her/His Name, associates the letters of any child’s name with characters (such as monkeys, dinosaurs and robots), then digitally assembles a unique story involving them. Taking the concept to Europe, Australia and the US has so far involved translation into nine languages and the introduction of several skin tones and hair colours for the illustrations of the child. But translating into Mandarin, which uses characters rather than letters, threw the whole concept.

To avoid meeting the fate of several Western publishers who’ve tried – and failed – to conquer the Chinese market, Lost My Name took three suggestions for how to adapt the book to Shanghai, and presented them to Chinese mums.

English names

The mums were unanimous in their preference. Contrary to Sharabi’s expectations, they plumped for a version of the book that translated the text into simplified Mandarin, yet showed the child’s name and the characters they meet in English letters. ‘There’s an element of education there,’ adds Sharabi. ‘Which is extremely important to Chinese parents.’

‘Nearly all of the emerging middle class in China are giving their kids an English name,’ says Sharabi. ‘At three, kids learn to write their name in English.’

Counterfeit concerns

Still, wary of making too big a leap into the unknown, Lost My Name plans to hold off on finding a printer in China until it’s made sure there’s sufficient demand for the books, which launched in August. It also needs to build brand recognition, to help discerning customers reject any counterfeit products – although Sharabi is confident the books’ combination of digital and physical elements will make them difficult to copy. For now, the books will be printed in the UK and shipped abroad.

‘We do things in a lean way,’ says Sharabi. Unlike a traditional publisher, Lost My Name can edge into the new market slowly. Selling directly to customers through its website, it bypasses bookstores and distributors, and controls every stage of a book’s journey, apart from printing. That means it can easily tweak the books based on customer feedback, which might just give it the edge it needs.

Three tips for startups exporting to China

Be culturally aware. Translate brand names and websites using characters that represent words phonetically and have symbolic or lucky meanings.

Choose the right platforms. Raise profile and build traction on local alternatives to Google and Facebook, like Renren and Weibo.

Research. Find information on sites like Export Savvy and get in touch with the Department for International Trade.