When Almonds Are Apricots: A Tale of Naming Woes in China

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“I wish I could say this was a strategically thought out name choice supported by consumer research but it’s really a story of crisis management.”

So begins the tale, as John Talbot, Vice President of Global Market Development for the Almond Board of California told brandchannel, about how California Almonds recently rushed to rename its product in its largest export market and how it spun the branding crisis to its advantage.

It all starts 40 years ago and ends with the Farsi word for almond.[more]

One of the quirky characteristics of China is some of the market situations created by an immense language difference and a slow opening of its consumer segments. Without an alphabet and the way new products enter the market in unofficial capacities in vastly different regions, imported products come to be identified by a number of names.

These circumstances conspired to sow the seeds of a naming crisis that would bloom decades after California almonds first entered the China market. Today, China is the largest foreign consumer of California almonds, importing in the neighborhood of 240 million pounds per year.

Four decades ago, California—the source of 80 percent of the world’s almond output—began exporting to China. With no attempt at consensus, importers used dictionaries to name the nuts, resulting in almonds being sold under at least three names, with 杏仁 (xìng rén) the most common. While 杏仁 does mean almond, the dictionary also identifies it as “apricot kernel.”

The first hint of trouble came a decade ago as China’s consumer power began to explode and its markets became more mature. At that time, the Almond Board of California realized there may be some confusion with the dual meanings and moved to rename its products “美国大杏仁,” or “American Large Almonds.”

“After peacefully coexisting for many years we were recently told—by a trade association representing Chinese apricot kernel growers—that we have been deceiving consumers,” said Talbot. China’s apricot kernel growers were accusing California almond growers of maliciously misleading consumers about apricot kernels and demanding a name change.

“At the direction of the Ministry of Commerce this trade association was told to work with the China nut industry to develop a new standard for the Chinese name of California Almonds,” recalled Talbot, adding that the Board was not to be part of this discussion.

Meanwhile, China’s press ganged up to accuse the Almond Board of California and its importers of deception. The allegations went as far as petty charges that the board of failed to file some of the proper paperwork 16 years earlier when it established its promotional office in China.

“With all this negative publicity and the threat that retailers would start removing product from their stores the almond importers then agreed to a name change,” said Talbot.

The trade association tasked with naming California’s almonds for the China market arrived at two options. The first name, 扁桃仁 (biǎntáorén) literally means “flat peach kernel.”

“That didn’t make any sense to us,” said Talbot. “If we were being accused of deceiving apricot kernel consumers why would this be any different?”

The only other option for California almonds was 巴旦木 (bādànmù), which doesn’t have any meaning but is a phonetic translation of the Farsi word for almond, “badam.” This was the name that was finally used.

The Board’s crisis is not an atypical China story and shows how, even after years of smooth business, the world’s second largest market holds surprises even for the unprepared. Ironically enough, the name change for California almonds could prove to be beneficial.

Due to food security concerns, imported almonds (and other produce) face a welcoming market in China, where “U.S.-grown” is a badge of cleanliness and safety in a market full of unknowns. One recent scandal involved retailers in Zhengzhou selling walnuts packed with chips of cement. Another saw products from large China nut manufacturer Qiaqia facing charges of product mold and decay.

Correctly leveraged, the name change could be an opportunity to raise awareness of California almonds’ foreign pedigree. Already, sites such as search giant Baidu have updated and posted information pages using the new nomenclature.

“We decided to go with the lesser of two evils and adopt ‘badammu’ as the name we will use in all our marketing activities,” concluded Talbot. “The good news is that this name has no real meaning to the average Chinese consumer so at least we can start with a clean slate.”

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