Uber Gets a Chinese Brand Name: Youbu

Ride-Hailing App Launches in China, but Competition is Steep

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Uber, the ride-hailing smartphone app, now has a Chinese name, Youbu (loosely translated, "A Great Step Forward.") As it breaks into China, it also has plenty of local competition.

Uber officially launched Thursday in Shanghai, where it has tested services for months. It's also testing in Shenzhen and Guangzhou.

Uber
Uber

The company has grown fast since its start four years ago in San Francisco. It's now in 70 cities worldwide, including 14 in Asia-Pacific.

Even so, Uber may not have come to China quickly enough.

Chinese internet giants Alibaba and Tencent each back rival taxi-hailing apps. They're a more affordable – if less glamorous – alternative to Uber, whose drivers wear suits and open doors for customers.

And several Chinese copycats have already taken cues from Uber's upscale model, including Yongche.com.

"There are some copycats in China doing very well -- maybe Uber can do well here too, because it's better on a technical level, but it's hard to say," said Will Tao, analysis director at China's iResearch. He noted that foreign tech companies have generally had a hard time in China.

One thing that might help Uber's China prospects is that it's now accepting Alipay, Alibaba's ubiquitous online payment service, which should give more consumers confidence in it. It also lowered prices – now the minimum fare is about the same price as a Starbucks latte, just under $5 (Starbucks is pricey in China.)

As in other countries, Uber doesn't have much marketing budget in China. It relies mostly on word of mouth and a few buzz-building activities. For Lunar New Year in China and Singapore, people used the app to bring troupes of dancers dressed in traditional lion costumes to their offices.

So far, chatter about Uber on social networks has tended to be from expats or Chinese who have used the service abroad.

The hiring of a new Shanghai general manager with experience at Tencent will help, as will its new Chinese name. In Chinese it's called Youbu -- an excellent step, or a great step forward. Like the name Uber, it doesn't have anything to do with cars. Sam Gellman, head of Asia expansion, said the service is a "step forward" for cities.

Many foreign companies use a branding agency to select a Chinese name, but Mr. Gellman said he chose the name with input from native Chinese speakers.

Uber is expanding globally amid a spate of bad press in the United States. Its surge pricing has drawn venting on social media – cookbook author Jessica Seinfeld complained about a $415 Uber tab to shuttle her kids to events during a New York snowstorm in December.

Then on New Year's Eve, a driver affiliated with Uber struck and killed a 6-year-old girl in San Francisco.

If anything similar happened in China, bad news would likely travel fast on local social media, where users are active sharers.

Asked about a plan for possible negative social chatter, Mr. Gellman said, "We'll cross that bridge when we get there. We just started. So far the more people that know about Uber, the better."

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