Chinese Corner

How Not to Accidentally Call Yourself a *@#$!2 min read

Corporate naming adventures in China – Eveline Chao

The annals of international marketing are filled with tales of spectacular cross-cultural name fails – a Ford car called the Pinto, for example, which turned out to be Brazilian Portugese slang for “penis.” Coming up with no name for foreign markets can be risky too. Facebook has no Chinese name, so transliterations have sprung up organically. One of them, 非死不可 fēisǐbùkě, means “must die.”

Enter Lexicon Branding. This small company, a dozen people strong, in Sausalito, California, uses linguistics to name products. They’re famous for having named the BlackBerry, Swiffer, Febreze, Pentium, and PowerBook. Occasionally, their work involves Chinese. They sometimes develop Chinese renditions of brand names: 黑莓 hēiméi for BlackBerry, and 红五工作室 hóng wǔ gōngzuòshì for computer game company Red 5 Studios – or of services, such as 有问必答 yǒuwènbìdá for Q&A.

They also evaluate possible brand names to find out what they convey in various markets. Greg Alger, Lexicon’s recently departed in-house linguist, told me in 2013 that they recommended against pharmaceutical name Semtris in Cantonese-speaking markets because “it triggered a relatively strong association with 心醉時 sam tsui si, which would mean something like ‘time to get seriously drunk.’”

In another instance, Lexicon recommended against translating a technology product called Blackwing into Chinese. Alger noted that Blackwing sounds “cool and sleek” in English, but apparently 黑翼 heiyi, its direct translation, doesn’t. “The explanation given by our linguist,” said Alger, “was that the color black is associated with misfortune. In some contexts [like] overtly masculine products, 黑 might convey fierceness and strength, but these were not desired attributes for the product in question.”

Sometimes, it behooves a brand name to remain in English. Lexicon recently did a survey with Chinese consumers in which 时尚 shíshàng, “fashion,” kept coming up in the free associations for every name being tested. Alger speculates that the names were seen as fashionable simply because they were in Roman letters. Indeed, why else the abundance of nonsensical English words sprinkled across t-shirts and signs in China?

Another thing Lexicon has to watch out for is the prevalence of Chinese slang that utilizes Roman characters. Q can mean “cute” in Cantonese and “chewy” in Taiwan, while MB is a euphemism for “your mother’s [beep!],” making it unsuitable as an acronym for any product. Similarly, a Chinese friend once pointed at the NB on my New Balance sneakers and said, “Tee hee – niubi shoes!” (Niubi is Chinese slang for “f*ing awesome.”) Luckily for New Balance, that’s an association any company would want. ∎

An earlier version of this post appeared in That’s Beijing and That’s Shanghai in 2013. 
Header: “No swearing” sign on the Trax LRT in Salt Lake City. (Wikicommons)

Eveline Chao

Eveline Chao is a freelance writer and the author of NIUBI! The Real Chinese You Were Never Taught in School. She lived in Beijing from 2006 to 2011. She's now based in Brooklyn, New York, where she continues to write about China, as well as the history of Manhattan Chinatown.