In a marketing stroke of genius, the Dallas Mavericks are asking their Chinese fans to choose a new (Chinese) name for the team. Here’s why having a good Chinese name for your brand, product or even sport can be the crucial difference between standing out in the world’s largest market or going unnoticed.
The NBA‘s Dallas Mavericks are searching for a new Chinese name after deciding that their previous one “xiao niu” – literally “little cows” – has nothing to do with the team. Owner Mark Cuban announced the decision on September 11th via the team’s official Weibo account and asked for fans to send in their suggestions for a new name. But the Mavs have been so overwhelmed – reportedly receiving “tens of thousands” of new names – that they said on September 25 they would need more time to evaluate the suggestions and will announce the three finalists at a later date.
It’s a fantastic PR move that engages fans twice – 1) collecting name suggestions and 2) asking fans to vote on the final choices – over an extended period of time, especially since some fans say they think it’s not even really necessary because they like the current moniker. Moreover, it’s something that engages all NBA fans in China, not just Dallas fans, even if fans of other teams send in some less-than-serious suggestions.
But it’s also a smart move, because countless teams, brands and stars before them have been stuck with Chinese names not of their own choosing – and the ones that stick are not always the most complimentary. Let’s take a look at some of the ones that went wrong…
The problem with transliteration
The default for the Chinese names of western brands or athletes is a phonetic transliteration. This is not bad per se, but it’s not conducive to producing a catchy moniker. One issue is that translations tend to be much longer in Chinese than in English, so the three syllables of LeBron James become the six characters 勒布朗·詹姆斯 (which in pinyin is Lēi bùlǎng·zhānmǔsī or, phonetically, lay-boo-lang jan-moo-suh).
That’s not even one of the longer ones. The NHL recently made their debut in China, with two preseason games last month, which prompted the LA Kings and Vancouver Canucks to list their bilingual rosters. Alexander Burmistrov became the TEN character monster 亚历山大·布米斯特罗夫 (Yàlìshāndà·bù mǐ sī tè luō fū / ya-lish-an-duh boo-muh-suh-tuh-lwo-foo). While the Russian center’s cumbersome Chinese name likely won’t cost him any endorsement deals in Chinese (because, frankly, he’s not nearly famous enough), a catchy name or nickname at least gives a potential star a head start in the quest to connect with Chinese’s massive audience.
Mark Roswell – unknown in his native Canada – is arguably the most famous foreigner in China, where he’s referred to simply as Da Shan (“big mountain”). Yes, he speaks perfect Chinese and has made a career here doing a traditional style of stand-up Chinese comedy, but his name is catchy and memorable, plus it’s appropriate since he’s well over six feet tall – all things that have helped shape his persona in China. Call him “mah-kuh ruh-suh-way” and it just doesn’t have the same buzz.
Remember, too, that while many Chinese speak very good English, the vast majority will be far more comfortable in their native tongue. In other words, the Chinese name will be the ones that Chinese fans use.
The Dallas Mavericks desire to change their Chinese name stems from the fact that a maverick refers not in this case to an unorthodox person, or free spirit, but to a young horse – as can be clearly seen in their logo at the top of the page – hence Cuban’s irritation with the reference to cows.
In this video piece by ESPN‘s Howard Chen, Cuban says being a Maverick equates to being “strong, innovative, forceful and being a winner”. Granted, he’s taking a fair bit of poetic license there given the true literal meaning, but credit to him and his marketing team for trying to rebrand the team in this way (as well as providing some clues to which types of Chinese names might make the voting shortlist).
The cruel nature of Chinese sports fans
While their current “xiao niu” name is seen as an affectionate nickname, other nicknames in the sporting realm are not so kind:
- Belgian tennis player Kim Clijsters was 普兰女王 – the Queen of Plans – because she used to distract her opponents, so the story goes, by calling for well-timed medical timeouts.
- Cristiano Ronaldo is sometimes called by the Chinese for “three votes”, because that’s how many he received in the 2005 Ballon D’Or vote, finishing in 20th place. Never mind that he was only 20 at the time and that he’s since won subsequent editions of the award four times, “Three Votes” is the name that’s stuck with him.
- Arsenal‘s Alexis Sanchez is always called 大腿 – “the thigh” – because he’s the “thigh” of Arsenal i.e. the strongest part of the team, because he’s always carrying them on. That reflects well on Sanchez, but not so well on the club…
- Finally, there’s a long-winded tale Chinese soccer fans tell that’s set in the future, in which an aged Fernando Torres tells his son there used to be a player who didn’t play many games, but won all the major trophies, to which his son replies, “I know him, Dad! It’s you!” Torres Sr snaps back: “Shut up, it’s your Uncle Mata!” That’s now how Man Utd‘s Juan Mata is known in what’s become an affectionate nickname, but the sub text is that Mata and Torres are always on the bench.
Those are just some of many, many examples, but the point is that getting ahead of the game with a positive, memorable name can help avoid those negative nicknames dreamed up by mischievous fans. A strong name alone, of course, won’t guarantee a stream of endorsements, but it can at least help clear some potential obstacles along the path to sponsorship dollars.
This phenomenon is not confined to sports, by any means. To take a couple of well-known examples, BMW is known in Chinese as “baoma” – literally “precious horse” – which is widely seen as a catchy, strong, positive name. On the other end of the scale, Facebook neglected to come up with a proper Chinese name, thus allowing the transliteration “Fēi sǐ bùkě” (fay-suh boo-kuh) to flourish.
Just one problem, Zuck – who really ought to know better.
It also sounds exactly like 非死不可, which is the Chinese for “must die” – something that’s spawned endless jokes about Facebook’s inability to penetrate the mainland market.
One final note on the importance of a good translation. 橄榄球 (“Gǎnlǎnqiú” or gan-lan-chou) actually refers to both American football and rugby. Literally, it means “olive ball”, an olive being oval in shape, hence the reference to the sports. But once you realize that these two very distinct sports – both of which are making huge efforts to establish themselves in China – are largely indistinguishable to massive parts of the population, the importance of choosing a good Chinese name should become painfully obvious.