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酷航 Is Scoot’s China name kewel, or krewel?

An updated edit of the Crikey story on Scoot’s adventures in cultural sensitivity

Scoot,  Singapore Airlines’ new long haul low cost airline, has set fire to its hair in the linguistic sense in China, which is more than odd given the close relationship between Singapore’s business elite and their counterparts in the PRC.

It’s CEO Campbell Wilson was in Beijing yesterday announcing that Tianjin, not far from the China capital by high speed rail, would be Scoot’s third destination from this August after its inaugural flights to Singapore begin in June from Sydney and the Gold Coast.

But in apparent deference to the difficulty the ‘s’ sound can present in some languages in Asia, Scoot also announced that its name in China would be ku-hang 酷航 (or Cool Air).

Problem. As a number of Crikey blog Plane Talking readers pointed out, ‘cool’ in China can with an alternative intonation go from meaning ‘kewel’ to ‘krewel’, something that  passengers crammed into its tight fit discount format seating in its Boeing 777-200ERs might find appropriate by the time their cheap flight to Singapore has taxied to the end of the runway even before takeoff.

One China scholar noted that the Chinese word ku 酷 had been quite fashionable in the last few years in the PRC, due to the dominance of several web portals in mainland China which include the word. But it can also mean cruel, punishing, bitter, suffering and extreme, depending on intonation and context, such as being pinned by the kneecaps for eight hours or so in tiny seats never envisaged by Boeing when it first introduced the 777 in 1995 before the low cost revolution.

Scoot is also a difficult term to translate into Chinese and other Asian languages, as in ‘flee’ like a robber ‘fleeing’ the scene of a crime. This is like Qantas insisting on calling itself the ‘Spirit of Australia’ in Japan, which translates as the ‘ghost of Australia’,  which could be apt for those critical of the recent direction of Qantas anyhow.

So will Scoot, or Cruel, invent special names in other markets? Ripper (pronounced rupper) in NZ? Bewdie in Sydney? Bottler in Alice Springs or Darwin? Or Up There in Melbourne? Will different names, sensitively attuned to the cultural nuances of Scoot’s markets, give it the upper hand against major rival Jetstar?

Scoot is probably too busy banking the money at the moment to worry. It has sold tens of thousands of seats in advance to Singapore with opening special from $88 one way in the tiny seats with no food or baggage allowance, and $321 in the big seats in ScootBiz, a premium economy product, complete with all the trimmings, both for tiny fractions of the fares for economy and premium seating on Qantas or parent Singapore Airlines.

The CEO of Scoot and 酷航 Campbell Wilson says he is thrilled by the market reaction to Scoot, which has filled a very large number of jets not just with the promo fares but its full yet inexpensive standard fares, but concedes that the multiple meanings that intonations can bring to Chinese words are a fact of life.

Meanwhile, the Qantas plan to launch Jetstar Hong Kong in a joint venture with China Eastern has raised significant questions  as to whether the SAR’s Basic Law can be used to turn the city state into a flag of convenience hub for airlines rivaling the role of Monrovia, Liberia, for the world’s shipping.

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  • 1
    dc3535
    Posted March 28, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    SIA already has 3 established airline brands:
    - Singapore Airlines
    - Silk Air
    - Tiger
    Some “clever” marketing consultant has convinced SIA to go ahead and establish a 4th brand using questionable colours and an even more questionable name. I hope that they haven’t paid the consultants bill yet.

  • 2
    Last name DT
    Posted March 29, 2012 at 5:37 am | Permalink

    Ben,

    Am a regular reader of your blog and i appreciate your insights into the technical aspects of the aviation industry.

    While i do not claim to be a expert at language translation, i believe that 酷航 is an appropriate name for the airline. 酷 is more applicable in the context of ‘cruel’ when another chinese character 产, is added to it, forming 产酷.

    No major brands in the world apply direct translations of their english names into the native languages. The most famous of them all: Coca Cola was named 可口可乐, which literally means ‘every mouthful is delicious’.

    For something closer to home: JetStar Asia would have translated directly to ‘喷射机-星亚洲‘- a mouthful compared to the shortened (& very well named) 捷欣亚洲, which when reversed translated, says something to the effect of ‘Express-Prosperous-Asia’.

    Doesn’t make sense at all, does it?

    酷航 is short, sharp and catchy in native mandarin. Contrast that to China Southern Airlines or 中国南方航空 and you will appreciate how effective 酷航 is.

    In conclusion, please stick to the basics of air travel: services, planes, routes. Leave the translation and marketing to the gurus.

  • 3
    Ben Sandilands
    Posted March 29, 2012 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    Last name DT,

    Thank you, I think! However Plane Talking does respond as time allows to the concerns of its readers.

    Marketing may involve dishonesty, hence the Angy Flyers Lounge type story, where readers either don’t get what they paid for, or have their money stolen from them by airlines that only cough up when forced to by Small Claims Tribunals, or are otherwise disadvantaged by marketing campaigns that lie.

    In the case of Scoot, it may raise issues as to what a fragmented collection of low cost brands might do for, or against, Singapore Airlines, and for, or against, the consumer interest.

    I’m not campaigning against what either Scoot or Singapore Airlines are doing in these instances, but I am drawing attention to what they are doing. It’s an important distinction. By and large the airline industry works on the premise that the reporters will publish without question whatever they offer by way of editorial content.

    But not here.

  • 4
    comet
    Posted March 29, 2012 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Scoot (or Cruel Air) is not that bad. No worse than JET STARve (who don’t feed you on flights).

  • 5
    TT
    Posted March 29, 2012 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

    Last name DT: the problem is that 酷 has a double meaning in Chinese, and being ‘Cool’ is a more recent meaning which is more associated to the internet age to the younger generation. Where as the more traditional meaning it is taken as ‘cruel’ or ‘extreme’.

    If Singapore Airlines targeted market in China are those 20-something who are internt-savvy then it could be the right word. However, for other generations, some might interpret the name negatively, assuming it is a cruel way to travel. (Bear in mind, Chinese are more superstition than Westerners) I think the point Ben is highlighting is why would Singapore Air gamble with a Chinese name that can carry double meaning?

    BTW, JetStar Asia’s Chinese name is 捷星亚洲 (not 捷欣亚洲 as you described), meaning “express-star Asia”, which 捷 (pronounced as Jie) which sounds similar as Jet, and 星 means Star. Also, China Southern Airlines or 中国南方航空 is often abbreviated by Chinese as 南航 (South Air).

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