Here are five home-grown Chinese companies that have created fantastic international brands and have prospered greatly as a result. While all the companies on this list took slightly different approaches in developing their brand, each of them took the process seriously by devoting the necessary time and resources to make it successful.
Alibaba – 阿里巴巴 (Ālǐbābā)
Alibaba has become one of the world’s biggest retailers, already dominating the Chinese market they have set their sights on the abroad and overtaking their American rivals Amazon and Wallmart. Understanding their branding goes a long way towards explaining their meteoric rise.
As a platform connecting Chinese suppliers with businesses around the globe, it was essential that they came up with a brand that would resonate with an international audience. Founder Jack Ma chose 阿里巴巴 (Ālǐbābā) as he likened connecting Chinese suppliers with a global network of businesses to the secret cave of treasure discovered in the story. His logic was that the folktale ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves‘ was both globally recognised and simple to pronounce. After the name came to him while visiting San Francisco, he went into the streets and asked people from all over the world if they knew the name and story of Ali Baba. They all did, and most responded with “Open Sesame”, further solidifying his vision. This demonstrates his wisdom of recognising the cultural differences and the need to test the name before it went public.
Alibaba remains the only successful brand in China that has the same name at home and abroad. It is easy to say, easy to remember and perfectly surmises what the company is about. As Alibaba continues to expand its range of services and grow its user base, it is on its way to enjoying the same prestige and brand recognition as the likes of US tech giants Apple, Google and Microsoft.
Lenovo – 联想 (Liánxiǎng)
Lenovo is the largest PC maker in the world, with revenues exceeding $40 billion and a workforce spanning over 60 countries. This remarkable rise to global dominance was made possible by their desire to be a truly global company, capable of competing with anyone, not just their Chinese counterparts. This guiding philosophy was, and still is, implemented throughout the company. For example, they do not have a single headquarters, instead having “key locations” in the US, China, Hong Kong and Japan. This allows them to be more in touch with their customer base, enabling them to agilely react to changes in local markets.
A testament to this revolutionary thinking is how they rebranded for the international market. Their original name was 联想 (Liánxiǎng). 联 (Lián) means “unity” or “connection”, while 想 (xiǎng) can stand for “thinking”, together it can be translated as “connected thinking”. Through different connotations of each character the name combines positive emotions of unity and creativity within the IT industry.
Their original English name (used domestically) “Legend” was planned to be implemented in their expansion, but after closer analysis, they realised this would be too presumptuous a name for a new brand. Furthermore, the name was already taken by a lot of different companies around the world. So they set out to create a new name that would still hold true to their values and vision. They settled on Lenovo, which took “Le” from “Legend” and combined it with “Novo”, which means “New” in Latin. Together it signified “New Legend”. A highly appropriate name when you consider their achievements since their international expansion.
Look at their logo and you’ll see that they omitted Chinese characters, removing any indication of it being a Chinese company. Brands from China, particularly in the early noughties, suffered poor reputations internationally but crucially even more so in the country itself. Lenovo, however, was so successful that the majority of its customers had no idea it was a Chinese brand, enabling them to substantially increase their global prestige.
Lenovo is a perfect example of a homegrown Chinese business that has evolved into a global company whose structure, strategies, workforce, marketing and branding are not universal, instead of being tailored to every local market they operate in.
Grandma’s Home – 外婆家 (Wàipó jiā)
Hangzhou’s very own Grandma’s Home has grown to a whopping 1112 restaurants across China. Their Chinese name is 外婆家 (Wàipó jiā) with 外婆 (Wàipó) meaning “maternal grandmother” and 家 (jiā) meaning “home” and “family”. Although 外婆 is understood throughout the country, it is a term that is predominantly used in South China, which gives a local touch to the name which infers it sells Southern Chinese cuisine. In order to fight off their competitors and prepare for international expansion, they developed the simple but effective English name “Grandma’s Home”.
Unlike many restaurants, they didn’t simply write their name in pinyin or write their signature dish in English. Instead, they chose to emphasise the universal love and appeal of grandma’s cooking. No matter your age or culture, the image of eating at your grandmother’s home will usually conjure nostalgic, familiar and happy emotions. The name is easy to say and spell for even the most basic English speakers, enabling Grandma’s Home to become one of the most popular restaurants for Chinese middle-class families. Their localisation goes beyond their branding with an excellent bi-lingual menu (extremely rare in China) and English speaking staff in most of their tier 1 city branches to help tourists and expats. This excellent use of localised branding and service has made them well positioned for successful expansion abroad.
Despite the cultural differences between China and the west they still share universal similarities; love, hope, family, prosperity and friendship are universal concepts. Grandma’s Home is a great example of tapping into these base emotions to create a brand that strongly resonates with both domestic and international audiences.
Home Inn – 如家酒店 (Rújiā Jiǔdiàn)
Home Inn is the oldest and largest budget hotel chain in China. It was established in 2002 and today has more than 2600 hotels, making it one of the most recognised brands in China.
When creating their original Chinese name they had to adopt a brand identity that would appeal nationwide. They opted to build it around the idea of a home away from home with 如家酒店 (Rújiā Jiǔdiàn). 如 (rú) means “comparable to”, “like” or “as if” 家 (jiā) means home or family and 酒店 (jiǔdiàn) stands for ‘hotel’. So together it could be interpreted as “like your home hotel” or “as if you were home hotel” which is extremely explicit and direct, an approach most western people would find grating and unappealing.
This difference in perspective arises in part because in less mature markets consumers have traditionally only made purchasing decisions based on price and therefore had very low exposure to branding. However, unprecedented economic growth means this has been changing fast, especially with increasingly young, affluent and savvy consumers driving future consumption.
In recognition of this 如家酒店 (Rújiā Jiǔdiàn) developed the name ‘Home Inn’, which is more subtle than the original but still simple to understand. Modernising their brand allowed them to successfully fend off local and foreign competition, improve its brand recognition among young consumers and build an international customer base for the first time.
Home Inn is a brilliant example of a company who have prioritised branding from the beginning and were ready to adapt an already successful stance to react to changes in the market. International companies expanding into mainland China must first determine the region or city they wish to enter before deciding how sophisticated their branding and marketing should be.
Inspur – 浪潮 (Làngcháo)
Inspur, formerly Langchao (浪潮), is one of the oldest IT brands in China and has been operating since the 1960’s. Today they provide IT products and services to over 100 countries across the world, catering to the needs of both companies and governments. Throughout their history, they have been responsible for several technological breakthroughs in China’s IT industry, so it is no surprise that their brand name hints at innovation.
The inspiration for 浪潮 (Làngcháo) came from a book called “The Third Wave” by U.S. futurist Alwin Toffler. The character 浪 (Làng) means “wave” and the accompanying 潮 (cháo) means ”tide”, so together it can be translated as “tidal wave”. The term is only used figuratively and implies, in this context, a “tidal wave of revolution” or “tidal wave of change”. As such it creates the impression of an innovative company that is at the vanguard of change.
Shortly after receiving investment from Microsoft in 2005 they decided to create a new international identity in the hope it would increase their sales overseas. This new name still had to represent the forward-thinking approach that made them famous and in 2006 they switched their English name to “Inspur”. This combination of “in” and “spur” forms the same image of a company that is always at the cutting edge of progress. This is reinforced by their international logo which is sharp, clean and electric blue.
Inspur made internationalisation one of their key strategies and recognised the need to adapt and change their branding for foreign markets. They spent months developing a new name and logo, being heavily rewarded with their overseas sales rising by as much as 30 percent by 2010.
Growing incomes, changes in consumer habits and increased competition at home and abroad has meant international companies can no longer rely on being “foreign” and “expensive” as the primary means of attracting customers. Equally domestic companies cannot afford to stand still and must adapt to safeguard their future. All the companies on this list took the time to invest in branding so that it would resonate in both foreign and domestic markets alike. International Branding Successes