When Pepsi entered the Chinese market in 1981, it did so with the slogan “Come alive with Pepsi”. Or so was the intention. The translation the beverage firm ended up with was more akin to “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave”. In a country that is imbued with a general sense of taboo regarding death, this was a far from ideal brand message.
Unfortunately, foreign firms still make the occasional cultural and linguistic faux pas. Indeed recently a string of international brands fell foul of Chinese netizens’ ire for releasing gimmicky products designed to capitalise on the upcoming Lunar New Year – which according to the Chinese zodiac will usher in the Year of the Monkey. The Shanghai-based news website The Observer last week published an article documenting netizen denouncements, with one writing that many of the commemorative products were “so ugly I could cry”.
Receiving the majority of the bad press was Nike, which revealed new models of footwear set to coincide with the Chinese New Year. One branding error was in the Nike iD line. It featured a design which embossed the Chinese character fa (which implies wealth) on one shoe while the other carried an inverted fu (an inverted fu is a traditional symbol displayed at the Spring Festival; it has connotations of good fortune).
The idea seems sound enough, but regrettably for Nike when fa and fu are placed together their meaning stops being ‘wealth and good fortune’ and instead is ‘to become fat’. The slip-up sparked ridicule online and a much-forwarded accusation that Nike was telling China’s consumers they were putting on weight. “Is the designer working undercover for Li Ning [a rival local brand]?” mocked one weibo user.
Last October some netizens were even more put out by Nike’s ‘Skate Boarding’ line in China. The tongue read Nike SB. And while the US firm clearly intended ‘SB’ to be short for ‘skate boarding’, amongst China’s internet users it is short for a term of abuse that combines the word stupid with an unprintable expletive. One widely read weibo post dubbed the shoe “a good example of how to give up on the Chinese market”.
Clearly Nike has no intention of doing that, but The Observer said another of its new designs – incorporating a lotus flower, a koi carp, and a paper doll: all auspicious symbols for the year to come – had not offended anyone linguistically, but was definitely a style failure.
Other brands appear to have paid more attention to simian images, but not always to great acclaim either. For example, a Louis Vuitton bracelet with a monkey’s head was derided by one netizen with the remark “This is a monkey? It looks more like an alien!”
Regarding the dash to cash in on the Year of the Monkey, another netizen offered this warning: “Just because it’s related to the Lunar New Year doesn’t mean Chinese people will think it’s cool.”
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