Flee your dolt name

grim_reaper benchi You’ve heard us talk about donkey names, and how devious punning gets applied to pretty much every brand in China. Being known as the donkey brand hasn’t hurt Louis Vuitton, you’re thinking, so maybe this whole “naming risk” thing is a little overstated. Well, consider for a moment the Benz that’s getting dusted off this fine spring morning in some Beijing showroom.

Rushing towards death

Mercedes is not the luxury car leader in China, still lagging well behind Audi and BMW. But in recent times it’s not doing so poorly either, thank you very much, with 2013 sales up 11% over the previous year. Would Mercedes now be doing so well had it retained its original name? That name, from the late 70s to the mid 80s*, was Bēnsī (奔斯), a seemingly innocuous transliteration of Benz. The first character means something like “going quickly”, and the second is fairly neutral, being used mostly in the writing of foreign names. But by the mid-80s it was apparent that, whatever other market issues were facing Mercedes Benz, the name was not helping. The common man, less familiar with Mercedes than with other luxury vehicles, usually had one of two reactions on first hearing the name:

  1. Bēnsǐ (奔死), meaning “rushing towards death”
  2. Bènsǐ (笨死), meaning impossibly doltish or thickheaded

Be a donkey, not a dolt

You might be forgiven for wondering, though: are these dolt names really any different from donkey names? Couldn’t you just chalk up “rushing towards death” to playful fancy? In our framework at Sinonym, one critical factor distinguishes the donkey name from the dolt name: the common man’s kneejerk reaction. I don’t mean kneejerk with a negative connotation. It’s just literally the question of immediate reaction: When people in the potential target market hear the proposed name, what do they think? If the kneejerk reaction is enthusiasm, interest, curiosity, or sometimes even just “neutral,” then the name is a potential success. It’s not to say no one will ever make fun of it. But the key difference is reaction time. If the first reaction is neutral to positive, the name may someday be a donkey, but it will never be a dolt. With Mercedes “Bensi,” though, there was simply no question about the kneejerk reaction: it was negative. Whether folks first thought of death or doltishness wasn’t really the issue. Moreover, in the emerging luxury car market of 1980s China, it was not a name worth trying to overpower with slick marketing. So the name was changed, to Bēnchí (奔驰). The new meaning? Speeding, or running quickly — unambiguously positive to the man on the street. And in the years since, the brand has been accepted as a universal symbol of luxury. References : http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-02-11/mercedes-sales-growth-tops-bmw-on-compact-car-surge.html http://daxueconsulting.com/luxury-car-market-research-in-china/ ——– *Timeline according to this account (中文) — I’ve been looking for more authoritative dates and would be grateful for a comment if you know more.

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