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Mandarin becomes a new vehicle for automakers

By Li Fusheng And Eriknilsson | China Daily | Updated: 2016-04-28 08:37

The drive by foreign automakers to enter the Chinese market speaks for itself - increasingly in Mandarin.

It sometimes even sings - such as when Nicholas Speeks, a Briton who heads sales and marketing for Mercedes-Benz in China, drew cheers on Monday by serenading a crowd at Auto China in Beijing with the ballad Great China.

"We have the same home, and its name is China," Speeks crooned in Mandarin to applause at the company's booth at the show, which runs until May 4.

That was a day after the brand's new E-class car was unveiled to the tune of the Chinese classic song In the Field of Hope.

Participants joked that the country truly is "a field of hope" for Mercedes-Benz.

China became the automaker's largest market when it sold 373,500 vehicles on the mainland last year. Sixty-seven percent of its vehicles were manufactured in China, 12 percentage points more than in 2014.

The brand, whose name translates as "go fast", is not the only one attempting to make new inroads in one of the world's largest and fastest-growing auto markets.

Jaguar Land Rover CEO Ralf Speth ended his speech at the auto show on Monday by declaring in Mandarin, "I love China." His speech centered on the company opening an aluminum workshop in Jiangsu province earlier this year, its first such plant outside the United Kingdom.

Speth also referred to a saying used in both Chinese and Western cultures: "Teaching one how to fish is better than giving fish to him."

While he gave the quote in English, it is more grammatically aligned with the Chinese version, which states: "If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach him how to fish, you feed him for life."

Language has fast become a vehicle for automakers to localize in China.

Some contend that using foreign faces speaking in Mandarin to connect with customers is simply a superficial gimmick.

"Showgirls and celebrities have not been allowed at the auto show for the past two years. So car companies are trying something new to attract attention," said John Zeng, managing director of Shanghai-based consultancy LMC Automotive.

Zeng said it is a predictable ploy to woo customers.

But independent auto analyst Zhang Zhiyong said the trend goes deeper than skeptics believe.

"Many carmakers have localized, and such behavior is part of localization. They create an emotional connection, and people who speak the same language feel closer."

He referred to Daniel Kirchert. The former head of China operations for Infiniti, the luxury division of Nissan, is fluent in Mandarin and rarely speaks English in public.

"Demonstrating an ability to speak Chinese or show a knowledge of China helps a brand to localize," Zhang said.

The head of BMW's China operations, Olaf Kastner, stumbled through an entire speech in Mandarin when the carmaker opened its engine plant in January in Liaoning province, its first outside Europe.

The company's Chinese name, Baoma, translates as "precious horse" - as in the type that pulls a luxurious carriage.

Volkswagen Group's China head, Jochem Heizmann, said the company is empowering regional markets to be more demanding - hence its "made-in-China" and "made-for-China" strategies.

Its Chinese name, Da Zhong, translates as "great masses", perhaps befitting of its sales aspirations in the Chinese market.

The company said it plans to set up one of its three innovation centers in Beijing. The others will be in Germany and the United States.

"We view China as an incubator for innovation and new technologies, and as a source of solutions that can be transferred to the world," Heizmann said.

Lincoln China's president, Robert Parker, said, "People were buying everything brought here (China), but this continues to diminish. They are now (selective) about products, and they should be."

JD Power Asia-Pacific auto operations general manager Geoff Broderick said: "Quality just gets you to the dance. To dance, you must also provide customers with a delightful ownership experience to earn their long-term trust and loyalty."

That is to say, the global auto industry is perhaps realizing it requires more than just words to truly speak the same language. And hearing that is likely music to Chinese drivers' ears.

Mandarin becomes a new vehicle for automakers

Auto China, which has attracted 1,600 exhibitors from 14 countries and regions, opened to the public on Wednesday. Auto sales in China reached 24.6 million last year.Wang Zhuangfei / China Daily

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