People hated Airbnb’s Chinese name when it was adopted

Many Western companies have found China to be a difficult market to crack, and home-sharing giant Airbnb is no exception.

In March last year, Airbnb unveiled its new Chinese name “Aibiying” in an attempt to woo the Chinese market.

Comment by Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb

The three characters 爱, 彼 and 迎, each carry positive meanings of ”love,” “each other” and “welcome” respectively. When combined, Aibiying translates to “welcome each other with love,” a reflection of Airbnb’s mission to bring together people from communities all around the world.

Love not appreciated

However, the Chinese did not feel the love. While Aibiying sounds similar to the original Airbnb, Chinese users have criticised its awkward pronunciation and weird character combinations.

On the popular Q&A site Zhihu (China’s equivalent of Quora), a thread commenting about Airbnb’s Chinese name is viewed more than 1 million times – quite impressive considering that Zhihu caters not to the masses but the educated urban elite.

“This is how you kill a successful foreign brand fast: start with a stupid Chinese name,” is just one of the many negative comments responding to Airbnb’s rebranding strategy.

There was even a linguist writing a full analysis on why this name did not make sense.

It is like a foreigner trying to speak poor Chinese

Compared to successful ones such as Coca Cola (可口可乐) or Uber (优步), Airbnb’s Chinese name indeed stood out for being awkward.

To be frank, Airbnb’s original name in English is not that intuitive to pronounce for many native speakers, either.

Aibiying was the result after brand consultancy company Labbrand had tested over 1,000 possibilities. Yet, it was still criticised for remaining out of touch with the local ground.

Someone who used to work with Labbrand shared that there was a vigorous process for name selection, including a linguistic test. He did not share details on how this process worked because of commercial confidentiality.

There were a few theories why the eventual name was picked eventually, from Airbnb management’s love for the meaning to slippages during the communication process. Anyways, the name would not have been approved if it did not make sense to Airbnb management.

Many localisation consultants cannot even get their own pitch to NOT be awkward in Chinese

Think of Airbnb China as a Chinese startup invested by Airbnb

Localising a brand name for China is a challenge; but not as big as the challenge of localising operations, and navigating through changing customer, competitive and regulatory landscape. There were cases where names were originally bad, but somehow because of successful marketing and operations, people got used to the name.

Many non-Chinese companies which were unsuccessful in China often neglect the peculiarities of the Chinese market. They simply replicate the same business and marketing tactics that have worked elsewhere. Many underestimate the need for proper (rather than superficial) market research, which helps localise business strategies, prior to entering many others.

Given both cultural and regulatory hurdles, and the notorious red ocean of competition (in almost every sector), the Chinese market is excessively difficult for foreign tech companies.

As such, Airbnb’s success in China will be determined by their ability to leverage local resources and provide services distinctly designed for their Chinese users.

Whether is it integrating Alipay into its payment system or allowing Chinese users to log in with one click using social networks like WeChat and Weibo. These are the easy ones.

Globally local?

Airbnb will never be as “local” as their Chinese counterparts. Airbnb will have to navigate the grey zone of an unregulated home-sharing industry. Not only that- it has to be careful to avoid being kicked out of China, by regulators or by competition (think: Uber).

Today, Airbnb faces a few homegrown competitors including Expedia/Ctrip-backed Tujia, as well as Xiaozhu, a homesharing startup whose investors include Alibaba founder Jack Ma.

The competition in cities is fierce – and not an easy task on Peng Tao, the new President of Airbnb China.

How long will this honeymoon last?

Do note that Chesky remains Chairman of Airbnb China – showing either lack of willingness or ability (or probably both) to find a local Chairman.

Airbnb has attracted a number of Chinese investors, most notably CIC, the sovereign fund. However, we do know that CIC’s investments are much more financial than strategic.

Airbnb hits wall (again) with the Great Wall (literally)

Airbnb has projected China to be its largest origin market by 2020. Their latest plans have also shown great ambitions for the market by doubling investment and scaling the team in China. However, it must first overcome a number of challenges, starting with localising its business operations.

Perhaps that explains why Airbnb cancelled its Great Wall of China sleepover contest in August this year following concerns about potential damage on the historic structure. Like the name “Aibiying”, clearly not everyone was a fan.

There is so much we could learn from a simple rebranding exercise which highlights the importance of deep local knowledge and expertise.

When Chinese companies go to India, Indonesia, or Brazil, they in fact face exactly the same challenges. 

Thanks for reading The Low Down (TLD), the blog by the team at Momentum Works. Got a different perspective or have a burning opinion to share? Let us know at [email protected].