The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

By guest author:
Marc Garnaut

Spark Media Lab

I’ve been sharing my morning coffee for the past year or two with the “yee-ha”s of corporate wagons circling and the “forward-ho”cries of entrepreneurial cowboys heading out to the great frontiers. Yes siree, rarely a day goes by without the newspaper reminding me that there’s a gold rush going on and those who hesitate will surely be lost.

The wild west is now the wild east and China and India promise fame and riches for brands that are fleet-of-foot. Or do they?

I don’t want to chat in this paper about the (many and varied) strategic issues involved in moving a brand into a new and linguistically different market. That could be the subject of a major brick of a book. But, I thought it might be interesting to look at just a microcosm, the logo or brandmark, and see what lessons can be learned from the brave pioneers who’ve established themselves in the China Market.

There are really two ways of rendering a foreign mark in another language. Transliteration, or phonetic translation is one. So, for example Louis Vuitton is branded in China as “lu yi wei deng.” Nokia is “nuo ji ya” and Harley-Davidson is “ha li.”

The other method is conceptual, where local characters are chosen to express a similar image. For example, in China, Shell Oil is known as “bei ke” (shell), Nestle is “que chao” (swallow’s nest) and Wrigley is “jian pai” (arrow brand).It sounds simple enough, but actually it’s a process so full of complexities that only the foolhardy would risk doing it without the expert support of an experienced globalisation team behind them. I say this with insider knowledge, because the staff of elionetwork, one of Singapore’s leading linguistic companies, share my office and fall under the same management as Spark Media Lab, the communications company I work for. Their ears are constantly to the ground, and they know some disaster stories that would curl your toes.

Globalisation is littered with “in hindsight it wasn’t such a great idea” stories, and often it’s from savvy multi-national companies who should know better. Funny to us as outsiders but not necessarily amusing to the companies at the time. KFC’s “finger-lickin’ good” slogan entered the China market as “eat your fingers off.” Pepsi’s “Come alive with the Pepsi Generation” spent a short time in Taiwan as “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead” before the F&B giant went into damage control.

Logotypes can be equally tricky. Quaker Oats was lucky to be affectionately adopted by the Chinese market as “lao ren pai” (old man brand), but Polo Ralph Lauren’s polo player, signifying classic affluence in the West, was nicknamed “san jiao ma” (three-legged horse), carrying none of the prestige the company hoped it would.

May Chiang, elionetwork’s Business Manager, puts it this way: “You need to ask a lot of questions in localisation of brands for the China market. It’s an art and a science. Should they be read left to right or right to left? Should they be in simplified characters common in China and Singapore or traditional characters used in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Does it work for all dialect groups? Are the meanings or emotions that are carried in the words and symbols aligned to the brand image?”

One of the most common misconceptions we deal with is that localisation is literal translation and that it can be judged by price per word like a commodity. That’s really not the case. A good localisation provider using expert native-speaking translators will understand the nuances of your communication and make sure that the meaning and emotion crosses cultures. They’ll safeguard your brand and get you to market faster and in exactly the way you’re intending. It’s an expert service, and getting the girl in accounting who speaks Chinese to do it might save you a little money, but the consequences could be serious damage to your brand.

The story of Coca-Cola’s entry into the market comes in a couple of different flavours, depending on who is doing the telling. Some tell of how the company paid heavily for being ill-prepared by having to quickly withdraw marketing material they’d distributed for their launch. The official Coca-Cola story is more flattering to their cross-cultural prowess.

According to Coca-Cola, they found prior to the launch of their localised brand identity that shopkeepers had made their own signage, approximating the phonetics of the name as best they could. Unfortunately, some signs translated to “female horse fastened with wax” while others invited customers to “bite the wax tadpole.”

The company’s own localisation team cleverly fused the transliteration and conceptual methods to come up with “ke kou ke le,”which translates in Mandarin to “permitting the mouth to rejoice.”

Other companies have not managed to find exact phonetic equivalents, but have encapsulated the feeling of positivity. Pepsi (undoubtedly much wiser after their initial Taiwan experience) is branded “bai shi ke le” (everything makes you happy), Kellogg is “jia le s” (family happiness), Heineken is “xi li” (the power of joy) and Xerox is “shi le” (offering happiness).

I think everyone who has travelled will have come across ads in English proudly exclaiming “It will become a fortunate feeling” or billboards for prestige products for “Ones who are on top of the others.” Imagine the re-branding gymnastics you’d have to perform if something that clumsy applied to your entire identity.

So maverick cowboy, by all means strike out into the wild frontier.

Just have a good posse by your side.

About the Author
Marc Garnaut is Creative Director of Spark Media Lab, Singapore. He is author of many published articles on a broad range of marketing and popular culture topics. Creative and strategic, eclectic and passionate, Marc describes himself as a person with 2 degrees and a passion for street photography, jazz and Takeshi Kitano films. He hopes that makes him an interesting and effective person to work with.

About Spark Media Lab
Spark Media Lab strives to move design beyond beautiful lay-out. We help identify the specific needs of our clients and develop creative strategies to achieve these goals. In this manner creative + tactical work together, giving our clients the most relevant and innovative solutions possible for effectively communicating with their audience.

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