When Airbnb’s New Chinese Name Gets Saucy
On 22nd of March, popular home-sharing service website Airbnb unveiled its new Chinese name ‘Aibiying’ (爱彼迎) in China. Looking at the characters individually, ‘Ai’ (爱, meaning love), ‘bi’ (彼, meaning each other), and ‘ying’ (迎, welcome), could not be any more perfect, especially considering the nature of the service, as it proudly proclaimed, ‘welcome each other with love’. While the sentiment is correct, the new name doesn’t seem to strike the right chord with the Chinese-speaking netizen. The new name, while summing up the credo of Airbnb to be open-minded and welcoming to travellers all around the world, is making the Chinese unsure if they should embrace or wince at it.
Here are some reactions from Chinese social website Weibo:
Huangxiake: “With the logo, colour, and a name like this, are you sure this is not a matchmaking website?”
Neigegaochifang: “You have been mulling over this for a year? I suggest you mull for another year.”
Youhuangju: “This name sounds brothel-ish, and the pronunciation is not pleasant. May as well stick to the English one.”
mmmmmRui-Chu: “Clutched my chest for three minutes…”
Second generation aunt: “OMG, you must have done a survey before making the decision, right? Do tell who the survey company is? Will NEVER work with them.”
BEHIND THE NEWS
Along with the above comments, there are even more complaining about the name’s lack of catchiness as a well-known brand, difficulty in its pronunciation, and more importantly, the sexual connotation that makes it sound distasteful. One thing for sure is that Airbnb has made a great effort in coining the new name judging by the combination of these positive words, but still the Chinese are quite clearly not too pleased with it.
What really went wrong with the name?
We understand that the Chinese language is notoriously difficult to deal with when it comes to merging sound and the meaning of characters during translation, particularly when people try to come up with a Chinese name that sounds similar to the original name in its native language. But what went wrong when arriving at the new name was that the creator only considered the effect of individual characters and overlooked the combined effect of the meaning, the sound and even the visual presentation of the logo design. That’s how a name might go wrong even if you have a combination of positive characters.
What is particularly thorny about naming in Chinese is that the connotation of each word and the overall character of the name are interrelated — the overall presentation of the name can influence how the audience interpret a single character, and a single word can impact on the general impression or the personality of the name.
But how did all those sexual connotations arise?
We have to start with the logo design. The pink/purple-ish logo colour design gives a lively, even romantic feel. It already gives a possible hint of love or even sex, at least in Chinese culture. With the first character ‘Ai’ meaning love, the basic amorous aura for the name has been determined; ‘love’ and ‘amor’ will thus be the central concept around which the connotations of all other elements will revolve. This will influence how the audience perceives all of the other well-intended words — ‘ying’ (迎, welcome), due to its similarity in pronunciation to ‘yin’ (淫, lust or lewdness), will reinforce the sexual implication. What’s riskier is the second character ‘bi’ (彼, meaning each other), will be suggestive of a particular female body part with just a slight tonal change. So there it is, the presentation and connotation of the name influencing each other and the name in the end becomes saucy.
Feeling the urgency to do something about the name, Airbnb’s followers started to brainstorm alternatives. Amongst many suggestions, some proposed a similar sounding name by tweaking the last character, ‘Ai bi ling’ (爱彼邻, meaning ‘love each other’s neighbour’); others suggested ‘Ai bing’ (爱宾, meaning ‘love for guest’).
How hard is to localize your brand name for China?
It has always been a challenge for foreign brands trying to localise a Chinese brand name when venturing into the Chinese market.
One of the worst examples is the scary association of ‘tadpole’ and ‘biting wax’ with Coca Cola’s former brand name. Other unsuccessful examples include Google’s Chinese name, known as ‘Gu Ge’, which captures the English pronunciation, but is unable to convey any particular characteristic or the spirit of Google. Microsoft search engine ‘Bing’, which is introduced as ‘Bi Ying’ in China, suggests a guaranteed satisfying search result. Its almost identical Chinese pronunciation to ‘disease’ could be the major factor in it failing to win favour with Chinese speakers.
Giving a foreign brand a successful name in Chinese is never easy as the overall revelation of the name is closely-knitted with how it is presented and perceived as a whole by Chinese speakers.
Cultural consultancy is necessary as any trivial difference could lead to a significant effect on the form, sound, and meaning of a translated Chinese brand name. Text aside, there is also the dynamics between the brand logo design and the name that will have to be carefully assessed once the logo is integrated. It is a task of intricacy and an instinctive judgment call. Unfortunately, only people familiar with the culture will be able to scrutinise the name from the most trivial perspective and avoid any possible risk it may have in its overall perception and prevent any possible negative association from sprawling like wildfire.
A piece of advice for foreign brands out there — kindly seek feedback from a in-market audience, or even better, from marketing consultancies who work with local talents that have been highly-vetted and can make sure you steer clear of possible mistakes in your brand name or marketing campaigns. The more people you ask, the better!