What’s In a Name?
Our 6th annual Fortune China CEO Summit was recently held for the second year in a row, in Xiamen.
Business events such as conferences used to be primarily a succession of speeches. Now they are a series of expert conversations. Apart from the conversations among panelists on stage, there is valuable dialogue on the side, during meals, coffee breaks, etc.
One interesting conversation I had was with Chen Qihua, Chairman of Caterpillar China and Vice President of Caterpillar Inc. (the latter is a global role).
Caterpillar was one of my company’s first customers, in the mid- and late 1970s, when they began to develop the China market from their Hong Kong office. So in those days I knew them well.
Later, they were among the early wave of large American companies to open offices in Beijing. I recall visiting that first office. It was in the International Club building, near the old Friendship Store. This location, along with the Beijing Hotel and Friendship Hotel, was where most international companies’ China headquarters offices were located in those early days.
It was fascinating to me listening to Chen Qihua describe the step-by-step approach which Caterpillar has taken in China towards blending a global company culture with a local company culture. This is something which the majority of large global companies have struggled with in China. It is also a big challenge Chinese companies are facing as they are expanding abroad.
Caterpillar’s story is a remarkable success, and one which Fortune China will be reporting more on. It was especially interesting to me because I knew them in the early days of the China market’s opening.
I recall in my travels in China in the 1970s, I would see many slogans saying: “In agriculture, learn from Dazhai”; and “In industry, learn from Daqing.”
Caterpillar’s success might merit a slogan such as “In globalization, learn from CAT.”
Chen and I also talked about the cultural and language issues embedded among the challenges of adapting a global company culture into a local market. This is a deep and complex subject in itself, but we exchanged notes on one aspect of it, which is branding.
Specifically, the challenge of adapting (direct translation is not enough) an international brand into a local language version which appropriately reflects brand and corporate values. Not easy to do, and mistakes can be very damaging.
I recall that in the early stages of China’s export boom, Chinese companies began advertising their brands overseas. Many of them used Hanyu Pinyin brand names in their export advertising.
I’m sure to them it seemed sensible, because the brand names were written in “foreign” alphabetic characters rather than Chinese characters.
The problem is that the vast majority of foreigners outside China are not at all familiar with Hanyu Pinyin , especially its strange (to them) combinations of “q”s, “x”s, “i”s, and so on. So, instead of a readable and memorable brand name, they got a bowl of alphabet soup spilled on them.
Fortunately, this trend was short-lived.
Since Fortune China is celebrating its 20th anniversary, I’ve been reflecting on the early days. We spent about two years doing market research before the launch of the magazine in 1996, and I’m very pleased that we did.
One of the issues we wrestled with was the Chinese brand name for the magazine. Up through the mid-90s, the most common name used in China’s state media for Fortune Magazine was “幸福杂志–xing fu za zhi.” “Xingfu” can be translated as fortunate, or happy, but more in the sense of luck than financial success.
On the positive side, this brand name had a certain degree of recognition in China.
On the negative side, it was not as appropriate a brand name for Fortune as “财富杂志–cai fu zazhi”. “Caifu” clearly connotes wealth, and financial success.
In the end we decided to go with “cai fu”, starting with the launch issue in 1996. In hindsight, I’m very glad we did.
I doubt if you could find many people in China today who would recognize the name “xingfu” magazine.
Chen Qihua shared a few examples of localizing Caterpillar product names which involved similar challenges: keeping the basic meaning, but with the right connotation. This is often a very subtle process giving rise to lively internal debates.
That’s where companies need talent with deep cross-cultural experience and understanding: leaders like Chen Qihua and the teams they train and manage.
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