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My job was to tell the executive chairman of a significant Chinese manufacturer that this brilliant choice of brand name was, well, not going to work.
In China the words 'white elephant' signify a double dose of good luck. But as the name for an export brand, it took five hours to explain why this would not be successful.
Similarly, the upmarket outdoor clothing brand Rodd and Gunn is hardly worried by its Chinese challenger Mr Dog Family, although the clothing’s quality is excellent.
And the growing number of passengers on China Southern Airlines are startled to hear Brisbane has the biggest harbour in eastern Australia in the airline’s Australian travelogue. Sorry Sydney, but your harbour is done over by the (currently temporarily closed) Southbank Park beach in Brisbane.
This is not a complaint about ‘Chinglish’. But it’s a real concern about misinterpretation, in both directions. It has some funny side effects, on the surface. The sign outside our meeting room said 'Keep Silencing'. But the serious side is that it was written by a graduate of four years’ study at an Australian ‘Big 8’ university.
As a growing number of Chinese companies strive to develop their own branding, they are let down by language.
It’s a similar case with the few Australian enterprises trying to develop brands in China. Our food brands, such as wines and Stockyard Beef, do well because they are self-evident – you can see the bottle, or the steak, and know what you are getting. But they are rare.
The White Elephant example occurred in 2005. I was dismayed this month to see such little progress on the language and brand interpretation front.
My colleague on this growing issue is an Australian Chinese Vietnamese man who is across cross-culture business issues (Nathan was, as a child, an escapee from Vietnam on a leaky boat, fortunate to land in Malcolm Fraser's Australia. And he’s now repaying his adopted country many times over in business excellence. Grateful boat people pay their way).
He is seeing daily branding disasters from poor language and cultural interpretation. His business is quality control for mainly American sourcers and importers.
Some of the quality problem is screwing price just too hard on Chinese manufacturers lucky to make 3% profit if all goes right. But much comes from poor interpretation of specifications that do not properly explain in language or culture what is required.
This is then multiplied as a debacle when the Chinese manufacturer tries to develop their own brand.
As Nathan says, far fewer Chinese understand English than claim to, and far fewer Australians have the local understanding they claim.
The opportunity is for a business that can bridge the language and cultural distance, with the business nous and courage to take the real interpretation to the top.
This will mean bypassing the mis-educated graduates of foreign universities, none worse than those pushed hurriedly through courses for Australian university entrance.
Interestingly in Guangzhou, a business has started teaching real English in depth for business purposes, which is a start in this essential new Chinese re-education.
The best English/Chinese language and interpretation schooling is only available in-house at a US-owned security firm which needs the best skills to track down intellectual property breaches.
Undoubtedly the west will see a growing number of Chinese brands, all understood for their own qualities and market segments.
There's a logjam of opportunities from manufacturers desperate to escape being screwed contractors for western brand agents and retailers.
But only when someone provides better branding interpretation.