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Company names matter: Just ask Tata and Uncle Niu

Venky Vembu | Updated on January 09, 2018

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I know Tata, but who’s Uncle Niu?

It’s the name of a condom brand in China, which has recently run afoul of Chinese authorities.

For promoting ‘immoral values’?

Not at all. Chinese authorities have for long sensibly abandoned the misplaced sense of morality that characterises condom use by associating ‘French letters’ with sexual hyperactivity. Unlike, for instance, some leaders nearer home, who went into paroxysms when they discovered JNU students abide by safe sex practices!

I get the point. So why did Uncle Niu run into trouble?

It’s because Chinese authorities have recently begun cracking down on companies that have registered “weird names”.

‘Uncle Niu’ doesn’t strike me as a particularly weird name.

That’s because you don’t know the full name of the company. Translated from Chinese, it reads: “There Is a Group of Young People With Dreams, Who Believe They Can Make the Wonders of Life Under the Leadership of Uncle Niu Internet Technology Co. Ltd.”

Seriously?

Yup. And Chinese authorities now want companies to avoid “inappropriate” names.

Are there many such companies in China?

To distinguish themselves in a crowded marketplace, new companies have been giving themselves somewhat outlandish names. For instance, a company that makes Virtual Reality accessories calls itself ‘What Are You Looking At Shenzhen Technology Company’. There’s also a ‘Hangzhou Looking for Trouble Internet Technology Company’ and a ‘Beijing Under My Wife’s Thumb Technology Company’.

They sound quirky, but harmless.

Yes, but navigating the world of Chinese naming conventions has proved particularly difficult for established brands from around the world.

How so?

Typically, international brands have to “go native” (adopt a Chinese name) to do well in China. But sometimes, a straightforward transliteration of their established brand names can prove troublesome in China. For instance, Toshiba found its brand name sounds like “tou-chu-ba” which in Mandarin Chinese means “Let’s steal it!” Toshiba hurriedly switched to ‘Dong-zhi’, which loosely means “the noble entity from the East”.

Sounds like China is a nomenclatural minefield.

To be fair, brands face similar problems in other geographies too. For instance, Rolls-Royce had to rechristen its Silver Mist brand in Germany as Silver Shadow because in German, the expression der Mist had scatological associations. And, likewise, Ford had to rename its Pinto brand in Brazil because the name was Brazilian slang for small-sized male genitalia! But in China, the naming-convention problems are amplified because of the tonal complexities of the Chinese language.

So what did Tata do wrong in China?

Actually, the Tatas were very lucky. In Mandarin Chinese, the word ‘ta’ means ‘pagoda’, so the name Tata translates into “twin pagodas”, an auspicious name.

Good for them!

Yup. Likewise, HP’s brand name in Chinese is ‘Hui-Pu’, which means, loosely, “to provide universal benefit”. And Ericsson went with the Chinese name ‘Ai Li Xin’, which means “To establish trust, confidence and affection.”

The bottomline?

In China, firms prefer to take on an “indigenous name” that has positive socio-cultural nuances and reflects the brand philosophy and identity. Even if it means forgoing their established brand names. And, yes, it helps if your names don’t get too weird.

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Published on August 23, 2017

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