Understanding China, One Blog at a Time

An American in China

2 U, Too Bad…

Posted by w_thames_the_d on December 3, 2009

Here is a post from my sister site mychinabizblog.com

Was in the process of setting up another company, did all the research, looked viable. All we needed was a name. I being a “skilled” marketeer quickly realized that the idea of 2U would go over well. Just think about it, 2U pizza, 2U consulting, whatever, it sounds great. You could, for example say 2U pizza, bringing the best to you…

After deciding upon the name, the group then began to market test it. Funny thing was that some of the Beijing locals got a confused look in their eyes. We thought it just the normal process of breaking down the notion of “2” as in “to” etc. But then a bad thing happened, the look in their eyes was not only confusion but also frustration. 2U, due to phonetics, is not a good idea in China.

In Chinese the sound of their numbers is as follows:

1= eeee

2= are

3= sun

4= se

5= woooo

Looking at this list, as my colleagues and I did, it would seem that we were safe. Phonetically it sounds like 2 or “ARE U English”. That is if you are thinking in English, Are you English, is not that bad, maybe confusing, but it could create awareness which is good.

The problem is that in Chinese letters mean a lot, as in good and bad, the taboos are enormous. I knew that 4 pronounced like se, is bad as it has the same sound as death. So, 4U in a name would be a disaster. What I didnt know however was that 250 means ignorant or foolish in Chinese. Teh way they pronounce it is:

ARE BI Woo Shi

This does not present a problem yet. But, they typically cut the words down or shorten them. Thus, to pronounce 250 they actually say:

Are Bi Wo or

Are or

Are Wo

Basically, the name I had created had the same sound of a word that means ignorant person.

In B school we have read about many companies and their faux pas while doing business internationally. This is just another dramatic example of how important it is to get locals of all ages and from diverse backgrounds involved, especially in an area such as naming. None of the team had spotted the error, but those in our focus did right away.

Needless to say we quickly rectified the situation, decided on something more International and easily digested such as American Pie. The lesson is that there are many cultural taboos that only natives will ever understand. It is imperative to test, re-test and re-check all marketing material before moving forward. I have been in business here for a few years and have plenty of local resources from which to draw upon, but there will always be something that you as a foreigner miss. Get the locals involved as much as possible and as early as possible, save yourself some trouble down the road.

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