Shanghai: Name game

The sound of a car's name can be more important than its actual meaning

What does 'Say Oh' have in common with 'Ke Kou Ke La'? Both are Mandarin Chinese phrases that sound most like their respective English names.

'Say Oh' is the Chinese phonetical of Sail, the name of Buick's new compact that General Motors began producing jointly with Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp. this summer. It means 'better than European.'

No wonder that in a market dominated by rival Volkswagen, GM officials are smiling.

Phil Murtaugh, chairman of GM China Group, says the process for naming the Chinese car, which is aimed at the growing middle class, was similar to naming vehicles in the United States: An outside agency developed a list of possible names. Using those names, GM sponsored a 'Name the little Buick' contest for employees at the Shanghai plant where the car is built and a finalist was chosen.

Then the company compared the way the name sounded in English as well as Chinese before making it official.

That last step is critical in emerging markets such as China, where a product's success can depend on language differences and cross-culture implications.

Marketing experts know too well about past blunders where not enough attention was paid to this step.

Which brings us back to 'Ke Kou Ke La.' That was another multi-national corporation, Coca-Cola Co.'s, first attempt years ago at its Chinese name.

Though it sounded like its English name, Coke knew it would have a difficult time selling something that translates to 'Bite the wax tadpole' to consumers.

You can reach David Sedgwick at dsedgwick@crain.com

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