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As Airbnb Just Learned, It's Really Hard to Localize Your Brand Name for China

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Localizing a brand name for China is a mind-boggling challenge. Ideally, the name should convey the brand's story, set out its local positioning and be memorable. It should sound similar to the original, and have a good ring to it. It shouldn't evoke unintended meanings in Mandarin or major dialects.

That's why brand consultancy Labbrand tested over 1,000 possibilities to come up with a Chinese brand name for Airbnb. The name the company settled on, Aibiying, involves three characters meaning "love," "each other" and "welcome," and it sounds vaguely similar to the original.

But there was a backlash on social media, with critics saying the new name is hard to pronounce and doesn't make sense. Among the nastier commentary, one said the name sounded like a "copycat porn company." (The second character of the name sounds similar to slang for a female anatomy part.) One user of microblogging platform Weibo wrote: "My god. Better to have no Chinese name at all."

Airbnb is doubling its investment in China, a country where most Western tech companies have been shut out or failed, and the brand name is part of a push to grow there. Chinese consumers can't talk about a brand if they don't have a name for it in their language.

But it's really hard to get the Chinese name exactly right.

Labbrand is a specialist in Chinese names, having created them for Marvel, LinkedIn, Booking.com, TripAdvisor and many others. It has developed a process that includes legal checks, a methodology to check for possible negative associations across dialects and tests with consumers.

Jacquelien Brussee, Labbrand's corporate branding associate director, 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.

A video Airbnb made for the launch gives some extra insight into the thinking behind the name; it shows artists creating representations of the new moniker in wood, wool and string. (Watch it above.) At the end, six characters flash across the screen that convey the brand's purpose: "to welcome each other with love." That's the name Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky announced on Twitter.

But then three of those characters drop away, leaving the remaining three that make up Aibiying, "love," "each other" and "welcome."

Unless you know the full six characters, "the name is kind of meaningless," said Jerry Clode, head of digital and social insight at Shanghai-based Resonance, who also leads a division that creates Chinese brand names. He believes maybe the teams involved overthought the name, eventually losing the stategic focus and hitting on something that's awkward to pronounce. "It's not a name (people) would feel comfortable just inserting into a normal conversation, or a social conversation," he said.

Usually Chinese brand names aren't such a hot topic. Maybe, Mr. Clode said, in this case there were "really high expectations of the brand from millennial types who see this as sort of a second-generation Apple, a key icon of the sharing economy."

One classic example of a bad Chinese brand name is Best Buy, which struggled in China, then exited the country, Mr. Clode said. Its Chinese name Bai Si Mai sounded similar to the original, but it literally meant "think over a lot, before buying."