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What's in a name? A lot, if you ask Airbnb, or rather Aibiying

By Chang Jun | China Daily USA | Updated: 2017-03-29 10:52

Among the many industry sectors in China whose market potential foreign companies are eager to tap, tourism is one slice of the pie that is impossible to overestimate.

According to statistics from China Tourism Research Institute, China had approximately 120 million outbound tourists in 2015, spending around $104.5 billion. There will be about 200 million Chinese touring overseas by 2020, Daxue Consulting predicts.

For any company wishing to crack the China market, the first lesson they should learn well is to localize in accordance with a deep understanding of the culture and its people. Pairing brand names with a sleek and concise translation into local languages can make or break any effort.

A challenge indeed, localizing a brand name in Chinese ideally should convey the brand's story, position the product appropriately and generate favorable customer feedback. It shouldn't evoke unintended associations in Mandarin or any major dialect, which can backfire.

A recent example comes from San Francisco-based home-sharing service Airbnb's adopting a new Chinese brand name. On March 21, the company's CEO Brain Chesky announced: "Airbnb is committed to succeeding in China, and we now have a Chinese name - Aibiying - which literally means 'to welcome each other with love'."

The company explained that brand consultancy Labbrand had tested more than 1,000 possibilities to come up with the name for Airbnb in China.

Is Aibiying a good translation of the startup's English name? On the surface, it seems like it is. The pronunciation in Chinese resonates well with Airbnb. And the three Chinese characters - "love", "each other" and "welcome" respectively - reflect the company's mission to bring together people from communities all around the world.

However, the feedback at home and abroad from the new name is less than encouraging. There are two major problems with the term Aibiying.

First of all, Aibiying is difficult to articulate in Mandarin. The last two syllables - bi and ying - are too easily intertwined and become bing, which means "sickness".

Blogger Lu Guoliang wrote: "As a Chinese, I want to say it's a terrible name. Nobody wants to say it out loud 'cause it means nothing and pronounces weird."

Others echoed the same sentiment and suggested that whoever engineered the translation should be fired.

Many others argued that the pronunciation contains a vulgar implication associated with sex pills. "Nobody likes it Hire some real talented guy please. And the branding with this name is just like a copycat porn company," someone commented on Twitter.

In response to the backlash against Aibiying on social networks, Labbrand's corporate branding associate director Jacquelien Brussee wrote in an email that the company is "used to seeing a buzz following big announcements and changes around brands This level of attention shows us that people care about the brand, and that they really have created expectations," she wrote.

Meanwhile, industry observers say that Airbnb is considering a make-over of the Chinese name.

With an estimated market value of more than $30 billion, Airbnb has been working the Chinese market since 2015, partnering with deeply-entrenched local companies to create a localized platform, establish a positive brand reputation and adapt services and product features to cater to the needs of Chinese customers.

To date, they have enlisted about 80,000 properties on the Chinese mainland with a steady and scalable expansion, providing around-the-clock customer support in Mandarin and accepting local payment methods such as Alipay and WeChat Wallet.

Besides introducing the new name, Airbnb has also tripled its Chinese workforce from 60 to 180 and doubled its investment in China to appeal to young Chinese travelers.

Contact the writer at junechang@chinadailyusa.com.

 

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