If the 2009 Shanghai motor show has proved one thing, it’s that it’s time to take the Chinese car industry seriously.
The products are now almost uniformly convincing, the reliance on joint-venture products and hand-me-down platforms is dwindling ever more rapidly, and copycat designs are no longer commonplace. There’s only one remaining stumbling block to Chinese companies becoming serious global players, and that’s branding.
It’s understandable, to an extent, that western eyes and ears are going to be troubled by such an alien language and culture, but the Chinese makers will have to deal with this obstacle if they are to become serious forces outside of their domestic market.
JAC, for instance, showed a very credible Mondeo-sized saloon, but it, as far as we can make out, is called the JAC HFC7240. However you spin it, this is not a catchy name. And although the Great Wall Coolbear (pictured above) seems like a genuinely with-it rival to the Scion xB or Nissan Cube, that name sounds more like a 1970s soul singer than a youth-oriented MPV.
Still, there were definite signs at Shanghai that the Chinese industry is sorting its branding issues. Both Chery and Geely, two of the most internationally minded Chinese car companies, chose Shanghai to launch a range of sub-brands. Chery launched the Karry, Riich and Rely names, while Geely gave us Gleagle, Emgrand and Englon.
They might not trip off the tongue, but these names show that the Chinese are thinking hard about all-important market positioning.
Pronunciation problems may prove a little more difficult to overcome, however. Karry is pronounced Kai-rui, Riich comes out as Rui-qi, while Rely, rather astonishingly, becomes Wei-lin. Just shows the branding tightrope any Chinese company wanting to export to world market is going to have to walk: how do you stay Chinese, while making sense to a western audience?
There is an amusing by-product of the pronunciation problem: SAIC’s choice of Roewe as the replacement for the Rover badge. That, ironically, should be pronounced ‘wrong way’.