Tesla shops for a name for Beijing launch

Updated: 2013-08-23 14:18

By Michael Barris in New York (China Daily)

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A reported plan by luxury electric-car maker Tesla Motors Inc to sell in China under a Chinese name to get around a trademark dispute would be virtually meaningless to customers there, most of whom are non-English speakers, an automotive marketing expert said.

"Most Chinese vehicle buyers don't read English, so having a different spelling of the name on the back of the vehicle would mean little to nothing to these consumers," said Tim Dunne, director of global automotive operations for marketing information provider JD Power and Associates.

InAutonews.com reported this week that Silicon Valley-based Tesla plans to rebrand the cars it will sell from its vast new Beijing showroom later this year as "Tuosule" - a transliteration of the company's English name in a Hong Kong dialect. Tesla's other Chinese showroom is in Hong Kong.

The report comes as Tesla engages a citizen in a dispute over Chinese rights to the Tesla name. Tesla has been trying to buy the rights from Zhan Baosheng, who trademarked the name in 2006, but his price reportedly is $30 million, 10 times more than Tesla's best offer.

Tesla, which had issued no statement on the matter on its website as of late Thursday, didn't respond to a China Daily e-mail asking it to confirm or deny the report.

Meanwhile, the reported name-change plan sparked chatter among the site's users. "Seems like Tesla found a way to deal with Chinese problems," a poster known as teslaver commented in a discussion forum. "Still not sure what Tousule [sic] means?"

Tuosule actually combines three Chinese words: Tu, which means "expand", su, "speed", and le, "fun", or "happiness".

Dunne said the reported name change would be unlikely to alienate buyers in China, since "every foreign brand (in China) is known by a transliteration of its name in Chinese". BMWs, he pointed out, are called Bao-Ma, while Mercedes-Benz are called Ben-Chur. Iconic US names such as Ford and Buick and Japan's Toyota and Honda vehicles also are known by Chinese names, Dunne said.

"Tesla could choose to not put its English name on its vehicle, and instead just use its logo (and perhaps some nondescript Chinese characters) to identify the vehicle," the California-based analyst said. "The challenge is more on the legal end, rights to the name, and rights to the name's use."

The reported name-change gambit could backfire on Tesla, he said. If the company were to build up its Chinese reputation through its vehicles and services, the "Tesla" trademark owner could try to capitalize on the higher profile by merchandising high-end "Tesla" products, such as handbags, shoes, watches and clothing.

Dunne said he never heard of any auto company changing its name because of a trademark dispute.

Tesla's Beijing showroom, nearing completion in an upscale mall, is expected to be the world's largest Tesla store, covering 8,000 square feet.

Tesla has issued little detail about the showroom or its China sales plan since announcing it would open the showroom in January at the Detroit Auto Show. Two weeks ago, it said it would disclose details about the store and its China plan after it announced third-quarter results.

Tesla hopes to capitalize on China's emphasis on low-emission vehicles as a way to rid China of severe smog problems and reduce dependence on oil imports. The State Council has called on the domestic auto industry to achieve production and sales targets of 500,000 pure-electric (battery-powered) and plug-in hybrid vehicles by 2015 and 10 times that number by the end of the next decade.

But general electric vehicle sales in China so far have been limited mainly to government and corporate customers. Tesla is aiming its Model S sedan, which carries a starting price of $71,000, at wealthy buyers who crave expensive US goods.


(China Daily USA 08/23/2013 page10)