Rebranding Your China Business Globally

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Op-Ed Commentary: Chris Devonshire-Ellis

Nov. 2 – It’s somewhat sad, and marks the end of an era in a way, but my firm’s Chinese logo has had to be ditched in the advent of a growing internationalization of the business. It’s pertinent, not just because our own business – for years purely China focused – has now become itself multinational, but also because increasingly, other China-based businesses will have to start thinking about the suitability of their logos when going overseas as well. The internationalization of Chinese businesses is going to become a growing trend, and the new multinationals are going to need to think about a new image to incorporate such developments.

The old, Chinese Dezan Shira & Associates‘ logo spells xie li in archaic script, meaning “Working Together,” which was somewhat apt for a consulting practice. It had been in use for 18 years and was taken from an original chop made at the time especially for the firm by my then-girlfriend’s father. In fact, in those early days (no internet), contracts between the firm and our clients were even originally chopped using this seal. It’s long been retired and now lives in our company museum in our Beijing office, where all old artifacts of the firm are put on display.

The logo has had to be retired as the practice has extended into India and Vietnam, and the use of a Chinese logo to depict what is now an Asian firm is no longer suitable. That however is precisely an issue that other Chinese companies are going to find – logos are going to have to be redesigned, and possibly even Chinese names rethought and rebranded as Chinese businesses look to internationalize.

For some companies that have an element of uniqueness about them, that isn’t going to be a problem. In fact, over time, the very firm’s name “Dezan Shira” has become a brand in its own right. The words actually come from a misspelling of my own surname, courtesy of a time 20 years ago when I was with the legal publishing house China Law & Practice (now part of Euromoney). In negotiations with the Chinese Ministry of Justice to publish into English China’s newly promulgated commercial laws, I received a letter addressed to a “Mr. Dezan Shira.” When I left Asia Law & Practice a couple of years later, I used the spelling mistake to brand the firm I was then establishing. It seemed less egotistical than naming the practice after myself, was amusing in terms of the circumstances, and was original and memorable. As it happened it also was very Indian, something I hadn’t thought about at the time.

Fortunately I got away with the name, but it might have easily also have been completely inappropriate. There are no new words any more, and it turned out that both “Dezan” and “Shira” are indeed words, and curiously both with roots in Sanskrit – the language of ancient India and of Tibetan Buddhist texts. “Dezan” is a Tibetan word meaning a small dwelling, while “Shira” is an Indian word for a variety of wild rice. That can loosely be construed as “house of rice” – which is actually rather auspicious, as in “we’re never going to go hungry.” Companies looking at names today would be well advised to conduct more research than I did when choosing a brand name – although as I said, I got away with it and the firm is now internationally known. That uniqueness helps, and now that we are in India I never get asked about the origins of the name (which I used to a lot in China many years ago).

However, businesses haven’t always got it right the  first time. Coca-Cola, when taking a transliteration of their English name for the Chinese market found it actually meant “Bite the Wax Tadpole” which is both nonsensical and not a little silly. That rebranding took a lot more money than a simple transliteration, and even today Coke is still remembered as the “Wax Tadpole” drink in certain circles.

As Chinese businesses themselves look to expanding overseas, they may also need assistance with logos or even names as part of a corporate rebranding exercise. Experts in this field may want to assess Chinese companies and discuss with them their plans for such exercises as China Inc. goes global.

Chris Devonshire-Ellis is the principal and founding partner of Dezan Shira & Associates, establishing the firm’s China practice in 1992. The firm now has ten offices in China, five in India, and two in Vietnam. For advice over China strategy, trade, investment, legal and tax matters please contact the firm at info@dezshira.com. The firm’s brochure may be downloaded here.

Chris also contributes to the Asia Briefing publications India Briefing, Vietnam Briefing, and 2point6billion.com.

2 thoughts on “Rebranding Your China Business Globally

    Ralf Ritter says:

    It is remarkable that in Europe Chinese logos are en vogue and this is not limited to Chinese restaurants and supermarkets. Many characters do not make sense, but it is trendy. I often have to laugh especially at the Chinese character tatoos people have and must assume that in most cases they really are not aware of how they have labelled themselves. Chinese logos here tend to indicate, I think, health and well-being (TCM), balance and “being in the loop”.

    Chris Devonshire-Ellis says:

    @Ralf, yes, there’s some trendiness about Chinese characters, especially in Western urban youth culture. I too have seen some rather odd looking Chinese characters (and at least a couple being highly offensive) on the arms of basketball and soccer players that I don’t think really know what they say. (If you really must get a Chinese character tattoo, go with a Chinese friend you can really trust and do it while sober).
    However, questions remain over whether Chinese companies can in fact rebrand globally. There’s a huge difference for example between Tata, Reliance and the Mittals of this world and the Chinese SOE’s. However the need for it, as demonstrated by our own small example, I’m sure is just the tip of the iceberg. Thanks – Chris

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