To the average Chinese consumer, McDonald's brand name isn't "McDonald's" -- it's 麦当劳. But internet users there must still navigate to the mcdonalds.com.cn web address, a cumbersome process for non-English speakers.
Though China's fast-expanding internet is largely in Chinese, most URLs remain stubbornly stuck in Roman lettering, a holdover from the internet's English-language origins. Now change is afoot, but it's unclear how big the impact will be for brands.
ICANN, the agency in charge of internet addresses, is rolling out a host of new gTLDs -- what comes after the dot in a web address -- beyond standards like .com and .org. Some are in foreign languages, including Chinese, making it easier for brands to have fully Chinese-language URLs.
Why would that matter?
Proponents say matching a brand's URL with its Chinese name will boost search-engine optimization, and that it's just good sense in a market where stakes are so high. About 591 million Chinese people are online, which is just 44% of the population, meaning there's lots of room for growth.
"Internationalizing domain names will help Chinese customers and internet users identify the brands they are familiar with," said Zheng Song, head of China for ICANN. It will also reduce phishing, he said. When URLs use Roman type, Chinese users are more susceptible to scams guiding them to a phony bank or e-commerce site trying to snatch personal information.
Many Chinese-language gTLDs are to debut in early 2014. A few foreign companies, such as L'Oréal and Volkswagen, have sought gTLDs to match their Chinese brand names. Amazon bid for suffixes in several Asian languages, while Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba wanted .alibaba in English.
The application price for a new gTLD is a steep $185,000, and so far ICANN has only received 72 applications for Chinese-language suffixes.
Brands may not feel the need to make that kind of investment, considering many Chinese internet users have gotten used to the Roman alphabet. (To input Chinese characters, many type in pinyin, a Romanized form of Mandarin, then pick characters from a pop-up menu. Others trace characters onto smartphone screens.)
Andrea Fenn, managing director of Shanghai-based digital agency Fireworks, said he sees advantages in Chinese addresses but wouldn't consider them a branding revolution.
Many Chinese consumers prefer to connect with brands inside platforms like Sina Weibo, a popular Twitter-like service, instead of through company websites, he said. The growth of the mobile internet is also a factor.
"Very rarely a consumer would type a website URL on their mobile -- you would click on a link, or simply copy and paste the URL," Mr. Fenn said. "So it would not make a lot of difference to the user whether that line is in English or in Chinese."
Nonetheless, registries have staked out Chinese-language gTLDs and are betting that companies and individuals will want dibs on their web-address endings.
Taneli Tikka, chairman and co-founder of TLD Registry, a Finnish company that has control of two Chinese-language gTLDs, sees a role in breaking down barriers: "For Chinese netizens, we are removing the English necessary for accessing the internet."
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