One of Week in China’s most widely read articles looked at how foreign multinationals select Chinese names for their brands. We analysed the successful examples and how to avoid pitfalls (see WiC283 for more). We even ranked our top 30, with first and second places respectively going to BMW’s Chinese name Baoma (meaning ‘precious horse’) and Coca-Cola’s Ke-kou ke-le (delicious and fun).
Over the years there have been some corporate branding missteps too. Microsoft, for instance, was taken aback to discover Bing – the name of its search engine – sounded the same as the Chinese word for ‘disease, virus or defect’. (Microsoft elected to change the search engine’s name in China to Biying – which means ‘responds without fail’.)
One of the problems we highlighted were legacy names – in particular where a multinational had come up with a name in Hong Kong many decades earlier, using Cantonese. The issue? What sounded good in this southern Chinese dialect (spoken mainly in Guangdong province) usually didn’t translate to something equally resonant in China’s more broadly spoken lingua franca Mandarin. And for those companies seeking to expand in the broader China market, the priority has largely shifted to how the name sounded in Mandarin.
Though evidently not always – as a recent instance involving a local smartphone brand has illustrated. In its case it’s embarking on a rebranding because the name it selected in Mandarin raises chuckles in a local dialect.
Entrepreneur Luo Yonghao set up Smartisan in Beijing in 2012. We profiled his firm in WiC239, noting how he planned to revolutionise China’s smartphone market with his elegant, high-end designs.
He picked an English name for his firm that married the words ‘smart’ and ‘artisan’ (in an earlier incarnation Luo had been one of China’s most high profile English teachers, working with New Oriental and later starting his own English language school). In Chinese he opted for Chuizi, denoting a craftsman’s hammer.
Unlike Luo’s most direct competitor Xiaomi (which means ‘millet’ in Chinese), Smartisan struggled to gain traction in its first four years and lost money. In 2017 Smartisan’s market share of Chinese smartphone sales was 0.6%.
Luo – who has 14 million followers on Sina Weibo (he is pictured above) – decided he needed fresh capital and last summer the government of Chengdu invested Rmb600 million ($95.47 billion) via its tech fund. Part of the deal was that he had to move the headquarters to Chengdu, which he did last December.
However, he quickly realised he had a severe branding problem: Chuizi is slang for the male genitals in the local dialect. So after half-a-decade of attempting to build his brand in China Luo has said he will abandon both Smartisan and Chuizi for a new name: Wild Hope.
Luo’s branding experience appears to have proven a traditional Chinese idiom right: getting the wrong name is always worse than being born with an ill fate.
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