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02 June 2018

International branding mistakes: Chinese companies

Creating an international brand is a vital part of developing a multinational enterprise. However, not all companies are successful in achieving this challenging goal. Here we look at five Chinese companies who were unable to translate their national prestige to a global audience.

Many of these companies are at the top of their game and provide outstanding products and/or services, but making the transition beyond your own borders is always a task fraught with challenges. Below you will see where their branding went wrong, the consequences of those mistakes and how those pitfalls can be avoided. And it is certainly not just Chinese companies who make these mistakes. Click here to see “Five Chinese Branding Mistakes by International Companies”. International branding mistakes

Dangdang – 当当网 (dāngdāng)
Branding Mistakes - Serica Consulting - DangDang

当当网 is an e-commerce company established in 1999. Like Amazon, Dangdang began mainly selling books but has since expanded its product categories to include household merchandise, cosmetics, digital, home appliances and dozens of clothing categories. After its initial public offering (IPO) in 2010, it has expanded its store to over 50 countries but they have been struggling to gain any meaningful market penetration, especially in the United States. Their brand identity has played a considerable role in hampering their international ambitions.

The name 当当网 (dāngdāng) – visualised in the logo – comes from the Chinese adjective 响当当 (Xiǎngdāngdāng). The adjective itself has two meanings: the first is to describe loud and overwhelming sounds, such as those coming from a drum or bell, the other is a metaphor for resounding fame. This memorable name and logo clearly resonates well with local consumers, yet internationally it achieves the opposite because of some negative connotations linked to its English name. International branding mistakes

“Dang” is commonly used as a replacement for “damn”, originating in the south of the United States and latterly spreading to other English speaking countries. (It should be noted that Americans are much more sensitive to curse words, especially those seen as blasphemous – such as “damn”, than other English speaking countries). So, as you can see, the name Dangdang actually has negative connotations in the US and the rest of the English speaking world, hampering their plans for serious expansion.

For foreign companies planning to expand into mainland China, this is a reminder to check your existing brand name, and any prospective Chinese names, to ensure that it doesn’t carry any negative meanings or connotations.

Helen Keller – 海伦凯勒 (Hǎilúnkǎi lēi)
International Branding Mistakes - Serica Consulting - Helen Keller

Helen Keller is one of the most popular domestic brands of sunglasses in China, selling millions every year. Their Chinese name is 海伦凯勒 (Hǎilúnkǎi lēi), which has no meaning and is simply a transcription of “Helen Keller”. So their branding is entirely based on the American author and political activist. For those unfamiliar with her, she was the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree and was a devoted supporter of socialism and woman’s suffrage.

She is very well known and respected in China because such persistence and devotion to study is very close to Confucian values. She was also a strong supporter of socialism, which helped make her a standard part of the school curriculum. But, even with such widespread adoration and respect, it may still surprise you that they would name a sunglasses company after her. What you may find even more shocking is their marketing slogan:

你看世界,世界看你 (You see the world and the world sees you)”

To most westerners this is either in bad taste, highly inappropriate or massively offensive. But the company and its legions of customers see this very differently from a western audience.

The company’s spokesperson said they were aware Helen Keller was blind, but they “valued her philanthropic spirit which spread optimism around the world”. As you can see, the irony of selling sunglasses named after a blind person (which she never wore) is lost on many Chinese people. A quick look at local newspapers and social media will show the majority of people believe her name is being honoured. Of course, typing the same content into Google would show the opposite. This is an example of huge cultural differences in terms of perception and its given sensitivities.

To reverse it, Chinese people are very sensitive to references towards ghosts or spirits. When international companies have branded or advertised themselves using them it has caused offence and is seen as extremely insensitive. Which is right? Which is wrong? It’s all a matter of cultural perception.

Despite how it’s viewed in the west, Helen Keller continues to sell their glasses. However, they have limited themselves to the domestic market only, as they will unlikely be able to appeal abroad. Helen Keller is a perfect example that a brand name perceived positively in your domestic market could be highly offensive in another.

Huawei – 华为 (Huáwèi)
International Branding Mistakes - Serica Consulting - Huawei

Huawei is the world’s largest telecommunications equipment manufacturer and helps provide phone services to over a billion people. This means that one in six people globally uses their hardware. So how is it that they aren’t as ubiquitous as the likes of Apple and Samsung with the average western consumer?

The problems begin with branding. Huawei is the official transliteration of the firm’s Chinese name 华为 (Huáwèi). The etymology of the character 华 (huá) is derived from 花 (Huā) which means “flower” (which is hinted at in Huawei’s logo). But the character has now evolved to predominantly refer to China or ethnic Chinese. The second character of Huawei’s name, 为 (wèi), means “action” or “achievement”, so together Huawei means “Chinese achievement”. Naturally, this branding has worked wonders in the domestic market and has since become a household name. But to the majority around the world, this name is extremely difficult to both pronounce and spell, spawning many videos online on how to pronounce it correctly. This combined with a logo that is unclear and confusing to many has meant Huawei has very little brand recognition in the west.

Traditionally this hasn‘t (and largely still doesn‘t) affect the success of the overall business, as in the past they’ve rarely sold directly to consumers, instead preferring to focus on businesses and partnering with local companies. This has been the main factor in Huawei‘s growth for years, with overseas sales worth billions of dollars. So why then has Huawei made our list?

They set themselves the hugely ambitious goal of overtaking Apple to become the worlds second biggest smartphone manufacturer – they are currently ranked third. Although they achieved this temporarily in 2017, they were not able to keep this hard fought position, due to their lack of brand recognition. The only way for them to achieve this goal is to successfully penetrate the high-end segments of the US and EU markets, a serious undertaking for any global company. Huawei has spent years aggressively promoting their brand overseas. They have sponsored major sports teams, incorporated many celebrity endorsements, attended the world biggest tech events and have even launched large-scale digital marketing campaigns across social media. Because of that, their unwillingness to rebrand while spending millions on marketing is perplexing in many respects. This lack of focus on branding is made more evident by the fact that none of their devices made it into the worlds top ten most sold smartphones.

Huawei is one of the most innovative companies in the world, with fantastic products that stand toe to toe with any other company. But, until they fully localise their brand to western markets and place a much greater focus on their flagship devices to grow their brand recognition, they will be unable to effectively compete with Apple and Samsung, leaving the realisation of their ambitious goals in serious doubt.

Biemlfdlkk – 比音勒芬 (Bǐyīn lēi fēn)
International Branding Mistakes - Serica Consulting - Biemlfdlkk

Biemlfdlkk is a golf clothing brand established in 2003 in Guangzhou. The company‘s Chinese name is 比音勒芬 (Bǐyīn lēi fēn), which was chosen purely for its phonetic value since the character combination doesn’t have any meaning, which of course neither does the “international” name of the company. Their global name is completely unintelligible and is impossible to pronounce. In any western language this kind of letter combination is completely alien.

So, how on earth did they come up with this name? Well, that seems to be a relative mystery as even the company’s spokespeople, when asked what language the name comes from, have replied differently. One said it comes from a French designer, another said it is German. There is no mention or explanation as to the name’s origin or meaning on their official website and social media page, implying that their brand‘s strategy is to appeal to domestic consumers by creating the effect of it being an international brand. So far this strategy has been successful, but how, you might ask?

In the past, Chinese consumers were (and still are) accumulating wealth at an unprecedented pace, so brand awareness and purchasing habits didn‘t have enough time to catch up. This, combined with little to no English literacy, meant it was extremely easy to sell your brand to customers. But Biemlfdlkk’s strategy was short-sighted. International branding mistakes

Thanks to drastic increases in English literacy and brand exposure it has become much more difficult to hoodwink consumers into believing you are an international brand. With education rising along with income levels, it will soon be impossible for Biemlfdlkk to persuade their customers that they are a real international brand.

Ping An – 中国平安 (Zhōngguó Píng Ān)

Ping An 中国平安 (Zhōngguó Píng Ān), provides insurance, banking, and financial services. It is ranked 96 in the Fortune 500 list and is one of the biggest non-state owned companies in China. 平安 (Píng Ān) translates as “safe and sound”, depicting peace and harmony – extremely good branding for an insurance and financial services provider. This, combined with their excellent products and services, has enabled them to become one of the most valuable and influential brands in China. Since IPO in Hong Kong in 2004, they have set themselves the ambitious goal of becoming a world-leading personal financial provider. International branding mistakes

With innovative technological solutions, combined with their knowledge and expertise, there is no reason why they can’t achieve this goal; they have representatives in over 150 countries so far. But these global ambitions have been hampered by their international branding, or in this case, their lack of it. Rather than creating an English name, they simply took the Chinese characters and wrote them in Pinyin. But Ping An holds no meaning or relevance in foreign markets. In English “Ping” means an intrusive, high-pitched sound and in other European and Middle Eastern languages, this name is generally interpreted as gibberish. International branding mistakes

This has hindered their ability to make any meaningful gains abroad and has enabled their competitors to capitalise on this. For example, their closest rival ‘China Life’ has grown significantly both at home and abroad. They’re now just a few places behind Ping in the ‘BrandZ Top 100 Most Valuable Chinese Brands’. To realise their global ambitions and fend off their competition, adapting their branding and marketing approach to better meet the needs of its target audiences would go a long way to boosting Ping An’s international presence.

The mistakes above make it eminently clear that stepping out into foreign markets having built a successful business in China poses just as many obstacles as those facing their counterparts heading in the opposite direction. While the places these five have stumbled are not always applicable to every company relocating to China, what their errors and missteps do highlight is how bizarre or misguided even the most genuine attempts at trying to tap into a new market can be if the necessary care and respect is not given. To avoid coming unstuck in such a way, gaining an insight into the language, consumer habits and culture are vital – the kind of knowledge only found on the ground in somewhere like China itself. International branding mistakes