Tmall, Freshippo, Xiami, Koala; Bottom: Fliggy, Xianyu, Danniao, CainiaoGuoguo

Art of Naming: World’s Largest Zoo Created by a Chinese Company—How Alibaba Uses Symbolic Naming to Boost the Brand

Have you ever heard of honey badger? Widely distributed in African savanna, honey badgers are known as one of the most fearless animals in the world. Interestingly, Alibaba has just named their new semiconductor company after this legendary animal in Chinese - 平头哥[pīng tóu gē], which translates to “flat head brother”. So why does such a high tech company choose a little animal as its name? Well, the company is on the mission of developing Alibaba’s immense neural network processor, and the honey badger just perfectly reflects the company's spirit of overcoming challenges and forging ahead.

Symbolic naming: Alibaba’s semiconductor company 平头哥
Alibaba’s semiconductor company 平头哥

Alibaba’s Animal Kingdom

Other than “Ping Tou Ge”, Alibaba owns so many brands named after animals, from animals on land, in the ocean, to animals in the sky.

  • Animals on the land are the best represented and the brand “Tmall” is the most well-known. Tmall—called 天猫[tiān māo], which translates to “sky cat” in Chinese—is the sister of e-commerce behemoth Taobao, that yet sells branded products. Cats are known for being elegant and picky, the image of a cat symbolizes the pursuit of fashion and latest trends of online shoppers.
  • Ocean creatures are also part of the Alibaba animal menagerie. The secondhand selling platform 闲鱼[xián yú] literally means “leisure fish” and sounds just like “leftover goods.” 虾米[xiā mǐ], or little shrimp, is for the professional music community. 
Brand naming that uses animals-Top: Tmall, Freshippo, Xiami, Koala; Bottom: Fliggy, Xianyu, Danniao, CainiaoGuoguo
Top: Tmall, Freshippo, Xiami, Koala; Bottom: Fliggy, Xianyu, Danniao, CainiaoGuoguo
  • Birds with their effortless mobility, are popular features in Alibaba’s logistics networks. In addition to the “vegetable bird” or “newbie” - 菜鸟[cài niǎo]—delivering food in cities all over China, and the hummingbird—蜂鸟[fēng niǎo]—for package delivery, the phoenix (丹鸟[dān niǎo]) and wetlands birds (溪鸟[xī niǎo]) are also part of the flock, and account for the fastest delivery platforms across cities in China.
  • There are even cross-breed animals in the legion. Fliggy, or 飞猪[fēi zhū], immediately catches people’s eyes as it enables even the laziest person to enjoy adventures via the platform with no hassle. Amphibians make the list, too, such as the famous grocery delivery service Freshippo, or 盒马[hé mǎ]. (See Labbrand's work with Fliggy here)
  • Last month, Alibaba announced the $2 billion acquisition of NetEase’s Koala (考拉[kǎo lā]), a cross-border e-commerce platform. The cute and amiable Koala undoubtedly adds fresh color to the already lively zoo.

Naming a brand after an animal is not new in China’s Internet industry. Chinese names of Yahoo (雅虎[yǎ hǔ]), Sohu (搜狐[sōu hú]), (猫扑[māo pū]), and Douyu(斗鱼[dòu yú]) all are all related to animals. However, the broad range and systematic usage of animal names in Alibaba’s nomenclature is unique in the business world. In the brand universe created by Alibaba, each animal has its duties to perform and its clients to woo, presenting a harmonious ecosystem that continues to become more diverse as the company expands ambitiously. 

Brand naming that uses animals-Top: Yahoo,; Bottom: Sohu, Douyu
Top: Yahoo,; Bottom: Sohu, Douyu

Building a Brand through Strong Symbols

At the heart of animal naming is the goal of making a vivid, memorable, and strongly symbolic nomenclature. There are plenty of well-known symbolic brand images in the industry. Nestlé is “swallow’s nest” (雀巢[què cháo]), Amazon is self-explanatory (亚马逊[yà mǎ xùn]), Xiaomi is “millet” or “little rice” (小米[xiǎo mǐ]), and the list goes on. 

Strong brand symbols of Nestlé, Xiaomi, Amazon
Strong brand symbols of Nestlé, Xiaomi, Amazon

What impact does such strongly symbolic nomenclature have on branding and communications?

1. Build a powerful, memorable image

Compared with meshing characters together to create a new concept, the vitality brought by a concrete name is so pictorial that it depicts the brand’s personality.

2. Vivid, living image boosts communication

Lifelike images often tell their own stories. It’s easy for consumers to feel an emotional attachment to them.

3. Create super-brand power

A clear, attractive brand image is the perfect foundation for building an “IP brand,” which helps the brand expand with a more diverse product portfolio in multiple dimensions. 

Making Your Symbolic Mark

A vivid, symbolic brand name often packs twice the punch with half the effort when communicating a brand. Whether or not to choose a symbolic system of brand names, and if so, what kind, are strategic questions that require your brand to deeply reflect on along with the brand’s development landscape and values. In doing so, you have the opportunity to create a unique and durable brand name in your industry. Looking to the future, what other unique naming methods will catch people’s eyes? Let’s take the first step and make our own!