Companies fail rebranding test in China

16 August 2012

BEIJING: Less than one in four major foreign firms have used the most effective approach to rebranding in China by adopting a name matching the original in both sound and meaning, a study has found.

Marc Fetscherin and Ilan Alon from Rollins College, Romie Littrell from the Auckland University of Technology and Allan Chan from Hong Kong Baptist University, assessed the strategies of 100 large multinationals in this area.

"Ideally the Chinese name would have both phonetic and semantic associations," they said. "Though the hardest to pull off, this two way match gives a global product in China the best chance of success".

Only 24% of operators had implemented this kind of dual adaptation". Nike's is thus called "Nai Ke", characters that mean "Endurance Conquer". Coca-Cola is also represented as "Ke Kou Ke Le", or "Can be tasty, Can be happy".

Elsewhere, 43% of firms employ "sound adaptation", with a name phonetically similar but semantically unrelated to the original.

For example, Sony, the electronics group, is referred to as "Suo Ni", equating to the words "exploring nun or priest". Audi, the carmaker, is also known as "Ao Di", or "profound enlighten".

"This can work for brands that rely on advertising or word of mouth, and it highlights global identity," the study argued. "But names lacking any real meaning are hard to process".

Another 24% of the organisations monitored have instead opted for "meaning adaptation", so that their Chinese moniker is semantically similar to the international alternative but sounds different.

General Motors, the automaker, has deployed this strategy with the name "Tong Yong Qi Che", as has General Electric, or "Tong Yong Dian Qi".

"This strategy gives brands an image and an identity that don't vary with dialect," the study asserted. "It makes global marketing communications difficult, though."

A final 11% of companies had a unique Chinese title. Pizza Hut, the restaurant chain, uses the banner "Bi Sheng He", or "guarantee win guests". Heineken, the beer, is also known as "Xi Li", or "happy power".

"This lets a company customise brand identity, and it avoids problems caused by differences in dialect," the study said. "However, the brand risks being seen as merely local."

Data sourced from Harvard Business Review; additional content by Warc staff