Coca-Cola and the Story of the “Wax Tadpole”

When Coca-Cola wanted to enter the Chinese market in 1927, they faced the problem of transliterating the Coca-Cola trademark into the Chinese characters. According to Terry Morrison and Wayne A. Conaway it can be particularly difficult to translate English brand names or slogans into Asian languages. Because of that, Coca-Cola worked hard to ensure that transliterating their trademark would not lead to a misleading translation, explains Adam Wooten.

Unfortunately, while Coca-Cola still researched appropriate transliterations, some local shopkeepers who were anxious to capitalize on demand decided to make up their own Chinese equivalents for Coca-Cola. This resulted in meanings such as…

“Bite the wax tadpole” or “Female horse fastened with wax”

Understandably, these were not the transliterations Coca-Cola employees were looking for. Eventually though, they came up with a phonetic equivalent as well as with an acceptable meaning: “K’o K’ou K’o Lê“ – the closest Mandarin equivalent employees were able to find with the meaning “to permit mouth to be able to rejoice”.

What Difficulties did Coca-Cola face in China?

The difficulty Coca-Cola faced in China was to find four separate Chinese characters (Co-ca Co-la) that sounded similar to the English pronunciation. The problem: Out of around 40,000 characters they could choose from, there were only about 200 that were pronounced with the sounds the Company needed. But many had to be eliminated because of their impractical meaning. In the end, they chose to compromise on Lê (joy) for the last syllable because there was no suitable character pronounced “La” in Chinese.

How to Avoid Translation Problems

As posted by the PLGReader, companies can avoid such problems by using a native Chinese speaker to do the translation. Additionally, this helps to avoid potential problems that could arise when certain translations could be misinterpreted because of local slang. Furthermore, the PLGReader advises to do a back-translation into the original language by a second translator who is familiar with the meaning the business name/or slogan should convey. This way the translator can try to keep a similar connotation with the translation.

The blog Internet Marketing Tactics suggests to..

  • make sure that every market and possible language translation meaning is researched properly
  • test the slogan or branded message in a focus group, if possible in the proposed market
  • not just consider the slogan but also think about imagery, and the overall branded message


Finding the right translation or transliteration is possible. What the company should keep in mind, though, is to do a sound research and double-check the solutions they come up with before entering the market. This way there should be no problems.

By the way, Coca-Cola was not the only one who had some problems when entering the Chinese market: In Taiwan, Competitor PepsiCo turned their slogan ‘Come Alive with Pepsi’ into ‘Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave’.

Leave a comment


  1. juliajogs

     /  December 4, 2011

    Saskia, I think you chose a very current topic, due to the fact that the Chinese market is fast growing and almost every western company sees in it as a huge opportunity to gain valuable market share. But as you really nicely pointed out, the Chinese market is very challenging to most western firm. They cannot easily adopt their products and product names to the NEW market, where it is barely known. The Chinese people may behavior in another way, have another lifestyle.
    As I mentioned in my blog post ( Nike also has had challenges in the Chinese market concerning their running apparel, because the people have a negative view on running and do not practice any jogging.

  2. Great post Saskia!
    I really had to smile when I read those translations! I never really thought about problems like that before. I thought one could just say “Coca-Cola” in China just as one does here. But the truth seems to be that companies really have to think about intercultural problems like these. Though I think trying to adapt a foreign product to a new market in a different country it’s a really interesting topic to deal with.
    Thanks for that post!


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