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What The Office and Disneyland can teach us about great localization

Often when we talk about localization, we think of adapting ecommerce platforms, websites and other kinds of digital media for new markets and regions. However, almost anything can benefit from expert localization – including, for example, television shows and theme parks. 

Here we take a quick look at how two hugely popular global “brands” in their respective fields – the comedy series The Office and the Disneyland amusement parks – have been culturally adapted to resonate with new audiences around the world. 

There’s a lot to learn from these really interesting examples of great localization. We hope you’ll join us for the ride…

Localizing The Office

With its cringeworthy characters and ever-familiar workplace frustrations, the TV “mockumentary” comedy series The Office is a global phenomenon that has been seen by hundreds of millions of viewers worldwide.

Around the world, audiences relate to the basic premise that the workplace is full of excruciating characters who are not familiar with the so-called “norms” of professional interactions. If you’ve ever worked in an office, you won’t just recognise these character types. One of them is probably seated in a cubicle two spaces along.  

But one of the main reasons for the huge success of The Office in different regions is that the original UK series wasn’t just subtitled or dubbed into different languages. In ten countries, it’s been completely remade. This process of cultural adaptation has involved rewriting the storylines, creating new characters and even adjusting the tone of this popular series for each individual market.

In India and the US, it is still called “The Office”. In France and Canada, the show is known as “Le Bureau” and “Le Job” respectively. Chile (“La Ofis”), Sweden (“Kontoret”), Israel (“HaMisrad”), Finland (“Konttori”), the Czech Republic (“Kanci”) and Germany (“Stromberg”) all have their own unique versions.

The series is a great example of localization because, while the themes and format remain constant (political incorrectness and the the use of talking head “confessionals” in a documentary style, for example), the way audiences relate to offices and types of humour varies in different cultures around the world.

Take the central character, for example. In the UK, office manager David Brent (played by Ricky Gervais) is desperate to please but incredibly self-serving. His lack of self-awareness is funny but consistently uncomfortable, something British audiences seem to find easier to handle than their American counterparts. 

In the US version, when office manager Michael Scott (played by Steve Carell) says something inappropriate, it’s more clueless than mean. Americans also love a character arc of self-improvement. In the UK, downtrodden receptionist Dawn Tinsley is stuck in her dead-end job throughout series 1 and 2. In the US version, however, her counterpart Pam Beesly moves from insecurity to self-confidence in a classic Hollywood narrative arc.

In Israel, the feel-good factor of the US version was not something the series sought to emulate, where the producers preferred to stick closer to the British original. However, for this audience, the writers decided that comedy deriving from awkwardness around religion, race and gender (which is a theme found across all international versions of The Office) needed a different slant due to its unique cultural setting.

“In an English or American office, you would keep your views to yourself, but here, all the racial and religious aspects of our lives are out in the open,” explained the series writer Uzi Weill. “We’re constantly talking about it – it’s why you come to work! So to create an embarrassing situation, you have to take it further comedy-wise. It’s not based on ‘what would happen if I say this totally horrible thing’ because I’ve already said it. Instead, it’s ‘what will happen after I say it?’”[1].

With the US version of The Office listed as the most watched series on Netflix in 2018[2](beating even Friends), it’s clear that inspired cultural adaptation engages audiences on a scale that its original creators could scarcely have imagined.

Localizing Disneyland

Even if you’ve never been there, everyone knows what to expect from a trip to Disneyland, right? Magical theme parks with an incredible attention to detail, a tonne of rides and plenty of cartoon characters interacting with the crowds – it’s all part of the Disneyland experience.

Except, of course, Disney has come to understand that while some core elements should always remain the same, a little cultural adaptation goes a long way in providing customers with the best possible family adventure.

Tokyo Disneyland was the first to open outside the US in 1983 and its designers paid careful consideration to cultural sensibilities when planning the park layout. In California Disneyland, Sleeping Beauty’s castle is situated in the most central point. In Tokyo Disneyland, Cinderella’s castle takes the prime spot because her work ethic and sense of duty were believed to resonate more strongly with Japanese visitors.

Hong Kong Disneyland, which opened in 2005, is a theme park created to attract visitors from mainland China and is a little piece of localization heaven. 

The layout of the park conforms to concepts of “feng shui”, a Chinese tradition of creating environments which place people in harmony with the natural world. Following these principles, the park is positioned in a north-south direction to bring good fortune; two boulders stand either side of the main entrance to stop energy flowing out; likewise, a bend in the entrance walkway is aimed at preventing qi (energy) from escaping.

Layout isn’t the only cultural adaptation, however. As the number 4 is considered unlucky in China, the hotels and elevators in Hong Kong Disneyland skip straight from floors 3 to 5. The commitment to the complete feel-good experience goes beyond being just numerical. 

In the gift shops, for example, you can’t buy a Disney clock –  and that’s not because Disney believes in a world without time. In fact, in Mandarin and Chinese, “giving a clock” sounds like “going to a funeral”. Clearly, Disney has opted to steer clear of potentially uncomfortable linguistic misunderstandings in its new cultural setting.

In the successful export of its cartoon-version of distinctly US cultural values, it is interesting to note that Disney pays huge attention to detail in how it culturally adapts its theme parks to meet the expectations of local audiences. 

For Disney, success based on good localization is no mere fantasy land.

In conclusion

As The Office and Disneyland both show us, great localization is about understanding different cultures and adapting your product or service to them. 

Often in localization, we talk about culturally adapting language, user interfaces, web design and other such elements. However, every single thing should actually be considered – including, sometimes, the types of humour different cultures relate to or the layout conventions that are most appropriate in different regions.

In great localization, every detail counts. If you’d like to talk to us more about what expert cultural adaptation could do for your brand, send us an email at lifestyle@thisisalpha.com.


[1]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HaMisradhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HaMisrad

[2]https://deadline.com/2019/07/the-office-shift-netflix-to-nbcuniversal-tests-streaming-viewers-ad-tolerance-avod-1202638463/#:~:text=The%20main%20answer%20appears%20to,20%20million%20more%20than%20Friends.