Google, China, and brand nationalism

by Ian Rosenwach on 9.5.2009

On Thursday news broke that Google’s China chief, Kai Fun-Lee, was resigning. This was positioned in the media as a blow to Google’s China efforts. This story, translated from Chinese, provides some excellent perspective.

The article in the WSJ had an interesting tidbit:

“Mr. Lee’s departure is the end to a tenure in which some in Google’s China team repeatedly clashed with the Chinese government and, at times, with executives in Google’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters over issues such as marketing, according to people familiar with the matter.”

Later in the article Mr. Lee is quoted saying:

“From the very start, the company’s name was confusing to Chinese users, he said, because the spelling defies the rules of Chinese pronunciation.”

Wow! I could sure see that causing some confusion.

Maybe a re-branding push from China was met with serious skepticism in Mountain View. Google, justifiably so, believes its brand is globally recognizable and a key asset. Chinese web users have proven to prefer local brands. China’s history as a Communist country, and the sense of Nationalism instilled in it’s citizens, could be one reason behind this loyalty to native Internet brands.

Google’s unwillingness to enter China with a more “Chinese” brand could be seen as an indication of hubris from the search giant. In highly competitive global markets, companies should sometimes swallow their pride and acknowledge the fact that foreign users prefer local brands. Even if you are the most valuable brands in the world. In the Chinese language, the word Google didn’t even feel natural (!).

Mr. Lee’s departure gives us some insight into Google’s brand perception and pride.

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