Claim: Coca-Cola’s initial transliteration of its name into Chinese produced a rendering whose meaning was “bite the wax tadpole.”
When Coca-Cola first entered the Chinese market in 1928, it had no official representation of its name in Mandarin. It needed to find four Chinese characters whose pronunciations approximated the sounds
nonsensical or adverse meaning when strung together as a written phrase. (Written Chinese employs about 40,000 different characters, of which about 200 are pronounced with sounds that could be used in forming the name
Coca-Cola had to avoid using many of the 200 symbols available for forming
This representation literally translated as “to allow the mouth to be able to rejoice,” but it acceptably represented the concept of “something palatable from which one receives pleasure.” It was the real thing, with no wax tadpoles or female horses, and
as its Chinese trademark in 1928.
Both this advertising tale and the apocryphal story about the Chevy Nova‘s sales failure in Spanish-speaking countries are often cited as examples of the hubris of American corporations who fail to take cultural differences (specifically language use) into account when marketing their products in foreign countries. Both examples are untrue, and in this case the claim is especially egregious, as few companies can match
Last updated: 19 May 2011
Allman, N.F. “Transliteration of ‘Coca-Cola’ Trade-Mark to Chinese Characters.” Coca-Cola Overseas. June 1957 (pp. 10-11). Ricks, David A. Blunders in International Business. Cambridge, U.S.A.: Blackwell, 1993. ISBN 1-55786-414-4 (pp. 34-35).