Theirs seemed to be the standard Western take on branding in China – and I found the topic so interesting that I researched it a bit on the web. I found that my companions aren’t alone in their thinking, at least among English-language websites. So what do people mean by an appropriate Chinese brand name? Well, the websites assure us that names have profound significance in China, meaningful names are more appealing, you won’t succeed if consumers cannot pronounce your name, and a name that sounds wrong will, allegedly, prove extremely detrimental to you commercially. So crucial is this aspect of setting up shop in China that a mini-industry has formed around producing just the right translation or transliteration of your foreign company’s name.
A lot of people know about Coca-Cola (可口可乐 - kěkǒu kělè – roughly: ‘good to drink, makes you happy’) and how they got it right years and years ago by sounding like the original English brand but conveying a positive meaning in Mandarin. In the world of Chinese Western brand-names, Coca-Cola is it.
Then there are the no-nonsense ones that just translate straight out of the English (e.g. 汉堡王 - hànbǎo wáng – Burger King – literally: ‘hamburger king’ or星巴克- xīng bākè - Starbucks – literally: ‘star “Buck”’). Or finally, some just go for a straight phonetic translation with no special meaning at all, such as路易威登 - lùyì wēidēng - Louis Vuitton - or阿玛尼- ā mǎní, which is Armani.
Then there is the case of Coca-Cola: when it was first sold in China 90-odd years ago, shopkeepers, in order to advertise Coke, and for want of any official rendering in Chinese, simply picked the relevant characters that would phonetically translate ‘Coca-Cola’ into Chinese. I realise that we are talking about the 1920s here, when marketing techniques were no doubt less sophisticated than they are now, but at least one can observe that it didn’t seem to bother shopkeepers – who were trying to advertise the product to generate sales after all – that the meanings of the characters were nonsensical, even ridiculous, producing the notorious ‘wax-flattened mare’/ ‘bite the wax tadpole’ names of lore. The point is that the brand name spoke for itself, even then, regardless of the preposterous meaning of its Chinese characters.
A name given by IKEA's Chinese website for its stuffed wolf toy Lufsig, Lo Mo Sai (路姆西), contained a homophone of Hai (閪), a Cantonese word meaning "vagina"; the name itself could be written as Lo Mo Hai (老母閪), meaning "mother's vagina". In December 2013, the toy became a symbol of opposition to the Hong Kong government, after an incident during a town hall event where a Lufsig was thrown by a protester at Chief Executive CY Leung (who had been nicknamed "the wolf" by his critics). Following the incident (and the discovery that its transliterated Chinese name, sounds similar to a profanity when pronounced in Cantonese), Lufsig experienced a surge in popularity, selling out at IKEA stores in Hong Kong, as well as in 11 out of 14 stores in mainland China.
The moral of this story is: get the name all wrong, and the Chinese public might even like your brand blunder.
I might further argue that the meanings of those names, if we look at them again, assume a certain lack of sophistication on the part of the Chinese: cars will go ‘fast’, food and drink will make you ‘happy’, beer will give you ‘power’. Now I admit that Western marketing sometimes appeals to pretty base needs and desires – and that is why I will gratuitously include here some of the old 1980s and 1990s Cadbury’s Flake adverts, where the message appears to be: ‘the experience of eating a Flake is comparable in quality to being fellated by a professional model’:
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In particular, it is subtle enough not to say that Subway is ‘good’ per se: it simply conjures up an image of a certain lifestyle (one that is implied to be a desirable one). By contrast, the Chinese equivalent just boasts slightly brainlessly (not to say inaccurately and utterly without justification, I might add) of 赛百味’s one hundred allegedly excellent flavours. And indeed, Chinese consumers are assumed to accept this boast at face value.
So I think the whole Western brand-name industry in China rests on some fairly shaky assumptions. And the clincher for me is that, when you read any account of failed Western businesses in China, none of them mention: ‘they chose a crap Chinese name’.
Finally, as a general rule, as the younger generation come through and are more proficient in English, the need to Chinesify a brand becomes less and less urgent anyway.
To sum up, why not leave the last word to the Chinese themselves? As a Chinese lady told me: ‘Look, we don’t care about their bullshit brand-names, we just care about the price!’
If you agree or disagree with what I said, why not leave a comment? It would be great to hear from you!
There are lots of articles online about this subject, and they certainly informed my thoughts in this piece:
http://hbr.org/2012/09/in-china-pick-your-brand-name-carefully/ar/1 - see the comments in particular for the point about Pizza Hut and McDonald’s making more sense in Cantonese.
http://www.businessinsider.com/picking-brand-names-china-2011-11?IR=T& http://www.ibtimes.com/foreign-brands-china-struggle-translate-while-others-manage-prosper-1390871 http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/12/world/asia/picking-brand-names-in-china-is-a-business-itself.html?pagewanted=all
http://www.forbes.com/2009/12/01/china-three-mistakes-leadership-managing-marketing.html - on typical mistakes made by Western companies in China. http://www.forbes.com/sites/helenwang/2012/09/03/yum-china-from-rebranding-to-reinventing/ - on Pizza Hut and KFC’s popularity in China.
http://www.coca-colacompany.com/stories/2008/03/bite-the-wax-ta.html - about the early days of Coke in China.
http://www.post-gazette.com/business/businessnews/2006/10/19/From-Hongda-to-Wumart-China-brand-names-have-familiar-ring/stories/200610190252 - about Wumart and Hongda. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lufsig - for the quotation about Lufsig. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brand_blunder
Further photo and image credits to: http://www.freeimages.com/profile/mikebryant