Over the last three decades, countless companies have entered China seeking to gain a foothold in the world’s second largest economy. However, many of those have underestimated the cultural differences and language barriers that exist there. Here we break down five Chinese branding mistakes made by international companies and the consequences they suffered as a result.
Best Buy had one of the most well-documented cases of any American multinational flopping in China. Their fundamental mistake was assuming their existing model, strategies and methods would work just as it had done in the US. They negated to localise almost every aspect of their business, reflected most evidently by their poor choice of Chinese name: 百思买 (Bǎisīmǎi). With 百思 (Bǎisī) translating as “hundred thoughts“ and 买 (mǎi) meaning “buy”, which together can be translated as “think a hundred times before buying”, which is clearly a terrible name for a retailer. Best Buy’s gross underestimation of the Chinese market proved fatal, with them closing their doors in 2011.
While they were misfiring in China, they attempted to expand into Europe – their main target being the United Kingdom. They thought this would be much easier, a no-brainer, as the UK shares the same language, has a very similar culture and many within it benefit from disposable income. But, again, it was a catastrophe and they closed all of their stores in just one year.
Like in China, they underestimated the differences in consumer behaviour, the local competition and how the public would respond to their brand. The takeaway from this is that if applying the same methods and strategies don’t work between countries as similar as the US and UK, then there is no chance in an environment as different as China. Chinese Branding Mistakes
The fast-food giant first entered China in 2005 and in the first eight years they had just 63 locations in the country. This slower than expected growth can be mostly attributed to fierce competition with its main US rivals KFC and McDonald’s. They had both entered China long before Burger King and had become household names with thousands of restaurants across the country. Burger King was late to the party and had to distinguish itself fast but, unfortunately for them, their branding hampered that quest.
Burger King chose 汉堡王 (Hànbǎowáng) as their Chinese name, which literally means “Burger King“. On the surface, this seems like a perfectly logical approach. But Burger King, perhaps unintentionally, mimicked a popular naming convention for local restaurants. The character 王 is often used by local restaurants to make claims to “being the best”. As such, consumers greeted this name with heavy scepticism as, having been late to enter the market, they were declaring this as near-unknowns. Another consequence of using such a common Chinese trope was that it gave the notion of a foreign brand trying too hard to be local. This perceived desperation to appeal to Chinese people was ultimately rejected by many. Chinese Branding Mistakes
So, it’s not that the name was particularly bad, but by having the wrong connotations attached to it prevented Burger King from enjoying the same success and brand recognition it has in other countries. Like Bing (see below), this could have been avoided if Burger King had employed local expertise to help in their rebranding for the Chinese market. Chinese Branding Mistakes
After their impressive recovery from the financial crisis in the European market, Peugeot wanted to boost their fortunes in the world’s biggest car market. But this hasn’t come to fruition, with their sales in continual decline. One of the reasons for this is that their public image and reputation isn’t strong enough in such a crowded marketplace. French cars simply don’t hold the same prestige or excitement as their western counterparts, so a key challenge on their entry was adapting their branding and marketing strategy to try to win over Chinese consumers.
They chose the Chinese name 标致 (Biāozhì), translating as “beautiful” or “handsome”, which at first glance seems like a pretty good decision. The first problem arises from the use of 标致 (Biāozhì), which has strong feminine connotations, meaning that Peugeot were inadvertently targeting affluent women. BMW made a similar oversight with 宝马 (Bǎomǎ), meaning “Treasured horse” and with the word “bǎo” having very feminine connotations. Luckily for BMW, this allowed them to become the number one luxury car brand for Chinese women. In contrast, this meant Peugeot was positioning itself into direct competition with BMW and, with little to no brand recognition among consumers, they were (and still are) unable to compete. Chinese Branding Mistakes
However, this pales in comparison to their main blunder! They didn’t realise their name in South China sounds very similar to the slang word for prostitute 婊子 (biǎozi), which led Peugeot to be heavily mocked online and inspired countless dirty jokes. They eventually addressed the issue through more re-branding but significant damage to their brand had already been done and was absorbed by a Chinese company in 2014. Chinese Branding Mistakes
Peugeot is yet another example of a company who failed to employ local knowledge, which in their case led to widespread ridicule. Companies should be wary of accidentally creating any gender-related connotations that could potentially harm their business.
Bing is the second largest search engine in the US, while holding that same spot in many other countries too. After Google’s withdrawal from China, Bing was poised to capitalise on the world’s biggest internet population. But so far their ambitions have been left unfulfilled, with branding playing a key role in that. Unlike others on this list, their Chinese name is excellent. 必应 (Bi ying) translates as “certain to respond”. You couldn’t ask for much better as a search engine.
So why does Bing make our list? Unfortunately, Bing sounds incredibly similar to the Chinese word for sickness or illness 病 (Bìng). This may not have been such a big issue had it arisen elsewhere, but the Chinese are extremely superstitious and it is considered extremely bad luck to utter any words that are related to disease or death. As the logo depicts, the Chinese name was placed beside their original one, a choice which only amplified the problem. The result of this oversight was losing out to Yahoo as the most popular foreign search engine, and they are still struggling to recover from this blunder. Chinese Branding Mistakes
Companies must research their original name to ensure it doesn’t hold any negative connotations in the foreign markets they wish to enter. Bing failed to do this, having only considered their Chinese name. In a country as big and diverse as China, assessing potential pitfalls among its languages and regional dialects requires a native insight.
Bing has since changed its logo, now having no mention of the original name, instead of just a simple ‘B’ beside 必应. Whether this damage control will benefit them in the long term remains to be seen.
When Quaker Oats entered China they chose to stick with their original name, hoping it would stress their quality and exclusivity. The problem with this methodology was that consumers were unable to say or remember the name. As a result, many opted to create their own nicknames. In Quaker Oats’ case, their brand became commonly known as 老人牌 (Lǎorén pái), meaning “Old man‘s brand”– inspired by their logo. Eating cereal in the morning is mainly done by the young, affluent middle class, so the moniker created the opposite intended image, resulting in them being outpaced by almost all their major competitors.
Shortly after a takeover by PepsiCo, they changed their name to 桂格 (Guì Gé), which literally means “Cinnamon Standard”. As a result, revenue surged by 50 percent in 2010 and 2011. By 2012, they represented seven percent of the breakfast cereal market – third overall – and even outperformed Kellogg’s. Quaker Oats is a great example of the damage that can be done when companies don’t attempt to adapt their name to foreign markets, but at the same time, they are also an example of the benefits effective localised branding can have.
As you can see, these companies all succumbed to different mistakes, with each of them suffering consequences of varying severity. What unites them is their failure to use local knowledge and expertise when adapting their brand. To succeed in China is vital that companies both entering or already operating there evaluate their local branding, or lack of, and be ready to adapt if needs be, should they want to cement their position in the soon-to-be world’s biggest consumer market.