Airbnb just launched itself as a sex hotel in China — by mistake. Here’s how.
Airbnb announced its launch in China on March 22, with a brand new Chinese name: 爱彼迎 (Aibiying).
It remains unclear whether the internet giant will succeed in the Chinese market. But the controversy over its Chinese name — and its semblance to a sex hotel — has already played out on social media.
Here are just a few of the comments on Airbnb’s Weibo account (the Chinese equivalent to Twitter):
“The names makes me feel you are opening a sex hotel”
“What an example of failed marketing. Combining the logo and the colour scheme, this name makes Airbnb like a dating app”
So why did the new brand name fail?
The new name — 爱彼迎 (Aibiying) — is made up of three Chinese characters. Translated literally, the phrase is a short version of “welcome each other with love”, as Airbnb’s spokeperson explained.
But that’s where the problems start.
Ai (爱), which means “love”, is fine to use in other contexts (although it is cheesy and over-used). But when the word is used in the context of a hotel, it becomes more ambiguous.
In Asia, “love hotel” (情人酒店) is a well-known expression. These hotels are normally sold by the hour for lovers to get together. The character “ai” therefore associates Airbnb with a love hotel, surely not what the brand’s marketing department wants.
Bi (彼), which means “each other”, is also problematic. It has the same pronunciation as a Chinese slang word (one so rude I won’t even write it here!), which means “female private parts”.
When used on its own, this association isn’t too obvious, because the two characters have different tones. However, when used together with Ai, the homonym becomes hard to avoid, again associating the brand with sex.
And it's not just the first two characters that are a problem.
The name “Aibiying” itself neglects an important side of Chinese culture — subtlety. Airbnb’s spokeperson was right to say it means “welcome each other with love”, but in a way that’s too explicit in Chinese.
In China, love is rarely expressed so directly, so an explicit expression likes this risks sounding cheap. A better approach is to work with images that link indirectly to the intended message, rather than saying it out loud.
In general, subtlety should never be neglected when choosing a Chinese name for a company — particularly for a high-end brand.
So what should Airbnb have done?
One company they could learn from is their most direct Chinese competitor, “途家” (Tujia). Its name means “a home on the journey”. It gently delivers the message that the properties listed on its website have the qualities of a home — trustworthy, cosy and heartwarming — rather than shouting it into the user’s face, like Airbnb’s Chinese name does.
Another good example is Uber’s Chinese name, “优步” (Youbu). This name means “premium/superior steps”, which suggests that Uber is a better way to travel than other means. It also boasts a simple and memorable two-character structure and a nice combination of syllables.
So why did Airbnb choose Aibiying? (According to a report from Chinese news website The Paper, they’ve registered 11 names in China.)
My guess is the process let them down. Had they used a focus group to test their new name in the Chinese market, surely Aibiying would have failed. Commissioning market research to test the suitability of a name in the target culture is no less important than transcreating the name in the first place.
If anything, it might be even more important. After all, it would have saved Airbnb a whole lot of embarrassment.