In the second of this two-part series, Arnold Ma of London based, Chinese-focused agency Qumin, continues his exploration of Western branding in Chinese culture and how it is essential for Western business to find the right name.
We’ve talked extensively on the importance of coming up with a suitable Chinese name for your brand if you want to enter China and impress the increasingly sophisticated Chinese customers.
Many brand managers wonder how big a difference a Chinese version of the brand name can make. Yes, it’s true that name isn’t the determining factor of a brand — the product itself should be the main reason why people buy you. But a Chinese sounding name is the most direct way to establish a foothold in consumers’ mind space. And in most of the cases, it contributes to the increase of sales. (It’s worth noting that less than 1.5% of Chinese consumers can read or speak English.)
1927, forty years after Coca Cola was invented by American chemist John Stith Pemberton, the drinks brand came to the Far East. The beverage giant opened a bottling factory in Shanghai, and launched its most iconic, sizzling drink to the local market.
Within a year the second bottling factory opened in Tianjin, a city 100 miles east of Beijing, as part of Coca Cola’s expansion in east Asia. It was then Coca Cola introduced its first ever Chinese name. Without much consideration, the company used a name that is somehow phonetically close to the English sounding name but it had an unfortunate and obscure meaning — 蝌蚪啃腊 (pronounced as Ke Dou Ken La), meaning “tadpole eats wax”.
The product itself was already a difficult challenge for the local palate but the unappetising name completely killed off any desire to dry the weird brown bitter sweet drink. The sales of Coca Cola understandably bombed.
In the following year, Coca Cola ran a newspaper advertisement asking readers to suggest a new Chinese name for Coca-cola. This competition, with a prize of £350, led to a Shanghai poet named Jiang Yi submitting what would become a household name to the company. 可口可乐 (pronounced as Ke Kou Ke Leh), with a jolly meaning of “tasty and joyful”, has since been regarded as the epitome of the English-Chinese brand name trans-creation. Sales, of course, picked up quickly and until this day remains one of the top.
Like any culture, China is greatly shaped by its language. Chinese, unlike the English, separate the writing system and pronunciation system, creating the unparalleled richness of cultural, historical and even visual association. Such linguistic characteristic makes the job of coming up a Chinese much more important in Chinese market.
Intuitively, a Chinese name is certainly much easier to remember for Chinese customers. Think Louis Vuitton; the almost flamboyantly un-pronounceable French name has long given way to the catchy four-character title of 路易威登 (pronounced as lu-yi-wei-deng). Chinese characters can ripple a lot further than just among the well-educated younger generation, whose English knowledge was never obtained by their seniors.
Different characters connote different “feelings”. Premium or rustic, edgy or classical, these feelings conjured up by certain characters will be seamlessly associated with the perception of the brands.
For example, Airbnb’s Chinese name 爱彼迎 (pronounced as ai-bi-ying) has conveyed a meaning of “love, each other, welcome” in three characters, but the each character is associated with a less premium context, making it feels more like a budget motel rather than an innovative experience-oriented rental service.
On the other hand, correct choices of character can boost up the brand’s marketing positioning and even pricing strategy.
Starbucks is known as the go-to cafe in the western market with standardised services and streamlined production. However, upon entering China at the end of last century, Starbucks adopted a rather bold move — newly anointed with the name 星巴克 (pronounced as shing-ba-ke), three characters all bearing exoticism, the brand elevated its positioning from a street-side cafe to a premium coffee house. Its pricing strategy and marketing strategy differed from its global strategy accordingly, which proved to be a great success.
Arnold Ma is chief executive of Qumin