Cookie Localization

by Translation Guy on May 9, 2012

“Twist, lick, and dunk” is the marketing mantra of America’s iconic cookie, the Oreo. It’s also the manufacturer’s instructions for use for eating this sandwich cookie with a glass of milk.

The phrase also describes the challenges Kraft Foods faces in selling their extruded confection to consumers in Asia, where adapting the familiar favorite to local markets has put the loco in localization.

Oreos today are the world’s most popular cookie by far, with close to $2 billion in sales last year. Half those cookies were sold in China, where Oreos are known as 奥利奥, pronounced ào lì ào, meaning “profound happiness, profoundly”. But adapting the product to Chinese taste was much more complex than selecting an auspicious transliteration of the brand name.

For years, the cookie “was spectacularly underperforming” in China, according to Sanjay Khosla, Kraft’s president of developing markets. One problem: Kraft offered Chinese consumers the same type of Oreos that it sold in the U.S. “There was a belief that what was good for the U.S. was good for the world,” Khosla said.

But then Kraft asked Chinese cookie-eaters a question unthinkable to Americans raised on Oreos —What’s wrong with Oreos? Turns out Chinese consumers thought the extruded treats tasted funny, too sweet on the inside and too bitter on the outside, according to Lorna Davis, global biscuit chief at Kraft. So food scientists cooked up a Chinese cookie recipe and made the outside more chocolatey, and the inside cream less cloying. Sales began to take off.

Changing the taste of Oreos to suit local tastes marked the crossing of the brand identity Rubicon. With the die cast on localizing Oreo flavors, this most fundamental feature has proliferated in the 100 local markets where the cookie is sold. In China, it’s green tea ice cream flavor, Orange & Mango, And Raspberry & Blueberry, In Indonesia, it’s Chocolate & Peanut, and in Argentina, Banana and Dulce de Leche, among many others. This is the same approach taken by global candy giant Kit Kat in overseas markets.

So if you can change the flavor of a cookie and still call it an Oreo, why not change the look too? So Oreos now come as wafers and stick, both favored cookie forms in East Asia. But it’s all good, because it’s not the shape or the flavor that makes an Oreo, but the experience. Oreos are about context, according to Davis. Despite all the different shapes and tastes, all Oreos remain dunkable.

“In the early days people said there’s no way that Chinese would twist, lick, and dunk because that’s a strangely American habit.” But it turned out that a habit was easier to translate than taste. Kraft embarked on a dunking public education campaign featuring basketball giant Yao Ming, to huge success.

So while other global brands like McDonalds or Coke for have localized their marketing efforts to teach consumers to like their taste in order to participate in the brand experiences, Oreos have localized their taste to to encourage consumers to participate in a childlike (or childish) brand experience.

I should disclose that I am no dunker, either at home or on court. So this is one brand experience outside my experience, and makes me wonder how prevalent such bad table manners are among Oreo eaters.


  1. I have not eaten an Oreo cookie in over 20 years, but now I am craving a double stuff! Thanks, Ken!

    • Ken says:

      My apologies to your waist-line.

  2. It makes sense that any product would have to be changed for the local pallet. Even the name and advertising techniques to become more familiar with he locals.

  3. The translation of oreo seems a bit cheesy (creamy??). Really, profound happiness?

    • Ken says:


  4. Pavla Klima says:

    I must admit that the image of the Chinese Oreo looks pretty tasty. And I wouldn’t mind going for a more chocolatey one. Do they sell these in the states too?

    • Ken says:

      Not yet. But if it works in China, they’ll be trying it on Americans soon enough.

  5. Can’t stand any cookie that leaves black stuff in my teeth. The translation should read “profound decay, profoundly.”

  6. I really would hate it if the US company’s had to ruin the rest of the world with with their garbage food. The thing about the other places is they seem exotic to us because things are different. I would want to travel half way across the globe to see the same stuff (even if it’s double stuff) on the store shelves.

  7. Finlay Laube says:

    I lived in china back in the late 90’s. I didn’t find much that was very American. The candy was different, the Budweiser tasted different, and the potato chips were fish and ketchup flavored. I grew to like the tastes over time, but I was sure happy to get back to some cheese dorito’s and a real Bud.

  8. Anything shrimp flavored in china would sell. Seriously. Even Oreo’s.

    • Ken says:

      Wendy’s used to sell Shrimp Burgers in Japan. They were good.

  9. Kit Kat is horrible over seas. I was so happy to see them on a store shelf when I was in Asia that I bought them out. As soon as I opened the first one I felt cheated. It was not the same chocolate as in the States.

  10. Lloyd Cannon says:

    I wonder if Yao hurt his leg doing that commercial? He certainly couldn’t stay on the court for very long.

  11. One thing that hasn’t been changed in China is Pizza Hut. The pizza is just as good there as in the States. Or maybe it seemed that way because I had been eating Chinese pizza for a year that tasted like ketchup and corn.

  12. I have never been a fan of eating oreo cookies, but when they are mixed with vanilla ice cream, it’s like heaven. Go figure.

    • Ken says:

      It’s not a party without cake and ice cream. With white wine.

  13. Theresa Dyer says:

    I remember the early 1980’s and visiting my older cousin and her husband in Dallas Texas on a summer trip. As me and my brother and sister sat bored in the living room while our parents visited with them, we were offered a new type of ice cream…Oreo. The best think I ever tasted in my life up until then. I had a new found respect for that little black and white cookie.

    • Ken says:

      As an old Friendly’s ice-cream scooper, it was my professional opinion that adding cookies to ice cream crossed the line. But what do I know? The only job I ever got fired from twice.

  14. Nice polls Ken. Only I wish I could see what the “other” responded to with their favorite type of Oreo.

    • Ken says:

      Me too. I’ll try to figure it out.

  15. I agree that any marketing has to be attractive to the local population. The tastes are so different in China that anyone who want to launch a new product over there needs to really do their homework or risk losing a lot of money in the process.

  16. Sue Levine says:

    You mean people don’t just eat the inside of an Oreo? I thought the two black circles were just some sort of biodegradable packaging to get the white creamy stuff to the customer safely.

    • Ken says:

      That’s funny. I always thought it was the other way around.

  17. LingoStar says:

    I’m French, there are Oreo cookies in France too. I think it’s the same product that the Oreo sold in the US. A lot of my friends love them but I don’t. Though I’ve got to admit that I love Oreo ice cream!

  18. Dear Ken,

    Thanks for a wonderful blog, brought me great information and some laughter.

    • Ken says:

      Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet, Bjorn.

  19. Minshu says:

    奥利奥does not mean Profound happiness, profoundly. Oh no.

    • Ken says:

      So, what does it mean? Besides Oreo, I mean.

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