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The sound of found is also the sound of sick

Product and company naming is one of those odd and portentous events in a business. Some folks just do it and get on with their lives and others spend millions coming up with just the right name. I’ve been involved in both types of projects. But, as we say in our little discussion of naming in our book, The Startup Bible, you should never skip checking the word across several languages or cultures (some words mean different things to different subgroups).

Case in point.

Microsoft has just announced its new search service, Bing, as a game-changer to Google. It spent, I’m sure, a hefty wad of cash to some agency to come up with that name. The goal: replace “google” with “bing” as the common verb meaning “to search the Internet using a search engine.” Why “bing”? It’s the “sound of found,” like a bell going off. “Bing! I found it!”

A very quick language search reveals that there are four “bings” in Mandarin Chinese. And one of those bings, bing-4 病 means “disease.”

So Microsoft Bing in Chinese means Microsoft Disease.

Oops.

However, in this case, Microsoft may have actually scored a big win rather than messed their cross-language diaper. How so? They actually thought about the name in Chinese. Something very few folks actually do.

Okay, anyone who knows Mandarin will know this isn’t as potentially serious as it looks. There are, after all, three more “bings” in Mandarin — and the word is a popular surname in that country. Each of these “bings” differs in the “tones” used to pronounce them (there are four tones so there are four “bings”). Only Westerners would think of one “bing” as being all bings in Mandarin or Cantonese, but Chinese speakers don’t think that way. Bing number 4 is as different a word from “bings” one to three as “apple” is different from “application” in English (which is one of the reasons it’s so difficult to learn Chinese — you end up saying things like “This horse dung you served me tastes good on my tail”).

But here’s the thing. If “bing” is the “sound of found,” like a bell going off, then it’s going to be pronounced exactly like “bing” number 4, not bings 1-3. If you’re imitating a bell, you’ll start high and lower your pitch as you say the word. So “bing” the sound of found is, indeed, “disease.”

But we shouldn’t be too hard on Microsoft. They have done their homework. In China, Bing is going to be called “bee-ying” 必应, which means “certain to respond,” as in, “ask and you’ll get an answer” 有求必应

So we’re not going to have a replay of the Chevrolet Nova* Chinese-style.

That, in this writer’s and linguist’s opinion, is a darn cool transliteration of the name. In all my time on the creative side of marketing, I have never seen a company take such care to align a product name with a similar name in Chinese.

Google, on the other hand, calls itself “guge” 谷歌 in Mandarin, which means “valley song” if you tried to associate the words with their actual meaning. But Google wasn’t interested in the actual meanings of the words — they just wanted something in Mandarin that sounded like “Google.” And came up with garbage.

In the end, “Bing” is a triumph as a cross-linguistic word. In fact, one of the best I’ve seen. Because of the onomotopeoia, it works well in practically all languages. And, as 必应 “certain to respond,” it is a spectacular product name for the hundreds of millions of Internet users in China.

And I think all the Mandarin-speakers on the English side will probably not be too hung up on the disease part. Hell, I used to go to a Chinese restaurant in downtown Portland called “Hung Far Lo” and it didn’t bug me too much.

However, check this out. One popular game is to make acrostics out of product or brand names, like Ford (Fix or repair daily, Found on road dead) or Delta (Don’t ever leave the airport). What’s the first thing that comes to mind for Bing?

“Bing Is Not Google.”

And that only took me thirty seconds to come up with.

Why is that important? If Microsoft doesn’t deliver on the goods with Bing, the “Bing is not Google” crack will become its brand perception, not just a cute geekworld joke.

As we say repeatedly in our book, however, you can over-invest and over-think a name (and a logo). In the end, Bing will sink or fall on the service it provides to users. If, as Microsoft claims, it is a better, more intuitive, and more relevant search engine than Google, people will transition to Bing over the years. Even if they had called it “bong” or “bung” or “bang.” The real virtue of the name is that it is a simple word and it’s memorable. Once you start adding poetry to the mix, like “sound of found,” you’re probably getting too sophisticated for the market.

*When Chevrolet began exporting the Nova to Mexico, they were stunned that sales failed to take off. No-one, it seems, wanted the car in Mexico. When they put their heads together, they figured out it may have something to do with the fact that Nova in Spanish means, among other things, “no go.”

**For those who have asked, I am, yes, a student of Mandarin and Cantonese since I first started studying those languages in 2005. In fact, I’ve spent hours each day for several years working diligently to be totally incompetent in those two languages. I figure that in another four or five years I’ll achieve near-total incompetence. It’s always good to have a goal to work towards!

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2 Responses to “The sound of found is also the sound of sick”

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  1. [...] competitor’s logo is red, yours should be not-red. If your competitor’s name is Google, your should be not-Google. (And if you follow that link, you’ll see that Microsoft is doing everything it can to brand [...]

  2. [...] your competitor’s logo is red, yours should be not-red. If your competitors name is Google, yours should be not-Google (like Bing). (If you go to that link, you will see that this is exactly what Microsoft is striving to do [...]


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