The opening of China’s market to foreign brands has been a boon—as well as a very risky proposition for firms that forget to take their international expansion seriously enough. Some of the errors started appearing years ago, though they still persist. Others are more recent. But all of them constitute serious threats to the success of foreign brands in China.
The first few relate to translation issues. Examples of translated brand names or taglines that sound rude, inappropriate, or scandalous in other languages are widespread and famous. When KFC shared its “Finger-Lickin’ Good” slogan with Chinese consumers, the Chinese version translated into something more like “Eat Your Fingers.” Translated into Mandarin, the car brand Peugeot comes out as “Biao Zhi,” which means handsome. But in southern China, Biao Zhi sounds very similar to a term for a prostitute. These mistakes are hard to understand in the modern, global market, where brands seemingly should be able to find ready access to native speakers of most languages and consult with them to ensure that the brand names and slogans work well, everywhere in the world.
Other mistakes are cultural rather than linguistic. For example, when Porsche filmed an advertisement in which its vehicles ran over the Great Wall of China, Chinese consumers were left more confused than intrigued. The ancient site had little in common with Porsche’s own storied history. It also had little to do with Uncle Ben’s Rice or Fedex, but that did not stop those brands from featuring the Great Wall in their advertising either. By the same token, hiring Western spokespeople who are unfamiliar to Chinese audiences to introduce a brand offers few benefits. Marks & Spencer paid substantial sums to hire Oscar-winner Emma Thompson to appear in Chinese advertisements, but because few Chinese consumers know who she was, those investments were likely wasted.
Finally, most consumers, Western and Chinese alike, know the action film star Jackie Chan. Accordingly, he has endorsed a virtually innumerable set of brands, many that had little to do with his image. In addition, many of them failed to catch on among consumers. A shampoo he endorsed that reportedly fought baldness even was found to contain carcinogens. As a result, “the curse of Jackie Chan” has come to refer to the damage that can be wrought by an overexposed, insufficiently selective celebrity endorser.
Angela Doland, “Six Cringeworthy Blunders Brands Make in China,” Advertising Age, July 8, 2014, http://adage.com