“A U.S. company in Hong Kong was dumbfounded when it received very few calls after its grand opening,” reports Suzanne Fox in The China Business Review. As she explains, the company’s phone number was “414-1414, which in Chinese sounded like ‘death, want death, want death, want death,’ and few Chinese would dare dial those numbers.”
“You know, you Americans do things the wrong way,” said NEC’s former chairman of the board Koji Kobayashi to a U.S. senator. “You put four golf balls in a package, and they don’t sell. Why don’t you find out the reason? The Japanese don’t buy things packaged in fours. Four means death. And so, they are not going to buy the golf balls, packed in fours.”
Companies entering Asian markets would be wise to consider the effects numerology, the study of meaning in numbers, may have on their brands. In Asian cultures, numerology is not something to be taken lightly. In America, some of us joke about dates such as Friday the 13th, but those in cultures where numerology is widely respected will respond less cavalierly to the use of “bad” numbers. Sometimes the meaning behind these numbers originates from words that sound phonetically similar to numbers, while at other times the implication of the number is backed by centuries of tradition. Positive numerical connotations can translate into success for one company while poorly selected numbers can spell death for another.
Many international marketers are wise enough to successfully adapt to these numerical preferences. Tourism Queensland’s strategic plan, released last month, aims to attract more Chinese tourism in Australia by noting that Chinese travelers prefer to avoid staying on fourth floor hotel rooms. To sidestep this problem, Hong Kong Disneyland hotels do not designate any floors as fourth floors – they skip to five – and they fill the destination with lucky numbers, like eight, for instance, by having an 888 square foot ballroom.
This adherence to the directives of Asian numerology can complicate attempts to count the floors of a hotel. According to The Wall Street Journal, the developer of a Hong Kong condominium skipped floors 40 to 59 so it could avoid many unlucky numbers and instead use “luckier” numbers with sixes and eights. The top three floors are labeled 66, 68 and 88.
Similarly, the 42-story Mandalay Bay casino in Las Vegas similarly attempts to appeal to Asian guests’ hopes for luck by skipping floors 40 through 59 and by putting the penthouses on floors 60, 61 and 62. Similarly, in a move catered toward our own Western superstitions, the Hong Kong condominium mentioned above skips the 13th floor, just as many U.S. hotels do. For the same reason, Nippon Airways reportedly labels no seats with the numbers 4, 9 or 13.
Hotels are not the only businesses with an eye for “lucky” numbers: Hong Kong Disneyland opened on Sept. 12 because the Chinese almanac listed it as a favorable date, and the Beijing Olympics began on 8/8/08 at 8 p.m. for similar reasons.
Naturally, the explicit inclusion of lucky numbers can also be beneficial to a brand, according to author Jeffrey E. Curry in "A Short Course in International Marketing," where he says, “The widespread acceptance of 555 cigarettes in China and 333 beer in Vietnam has much to do with the luck associated with these numbers in their respective countries.”
“In more than 50 percent of the cases we studied, the creation of brand names was based, in part, on a 'lucky' number of total strokes drawn in creation of the characters that spelled out the brand name,” report Taiwanese professors William Li Change of the China Institute of Technology and Peirchyi Lii of Asia University. “Reinforcing that finding was the discovery that brand names comprising a lucky total-stroke number were more common in high-uncertain than low-uncertain market environments.”
Numbers also factor into intercultural gift exchanges, flower giving and fingers in a hand gesture. Unfortunately, as meanings change from one market to another, knowing the meaning of a number in one country is not always enough to keep a marketer out of trouble.
“The number seven is a particularly tricky number,” explains author David A. Ricks in his book Blunders in International Business. “It is considered good luck in many countries, but bad luck in others. It even has magical connotations in parts of Africa.”
U.S. consumers share some of these superstitions as was evident recently on Nov. 11, 2011, when the U.S. echoed the booms of increased weddings in China and scheduled Caesarean-section births in South Korea. Still, many Americans who consider themselves less superstitious may find it difficult to understand how strong connotations can be associated with a number and cause a culture to avoid it whenever possible.
Perhaps U.S. citizens will better understand an aversion to certain numbers, based on tradition, when they consider diverse connotations associated with the Japanese symbol called the manji. The manji is the mark of 10,000, is a metaphor for good fortune, is frequently displayed on Buddhist temples and also means “temple.” However, some Westerners participating in the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, felt very uncomfortable seeing or displaying this symbol because it looks very similar to the Nazi swastika, which is reversed left to right and tilted 45 degrees. Though the symbol is a positive one in Japan, a Japanese company would be wise to avoid using it in marketing campaigns meant for the U.S.
As with all the potential cultural differences cited in this column, chances are no one will be able to memorize every potential numerical pitfall in every country. However, a simple awareness that misused numbers can lead to serious business blunders may suffice to keep us vigilant and motivate us to seek out the appropriate expert help when entering new international markets.
Adam Wooten is director of translation services at Lingotek. He also teaches a course on translation technology at Brigham Young University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at AdamWooten.