How to Localize Your Brand Name for the Chinese Market
“Better than a thousand tastes.” “Anything can be happy.” “Sparrow’s nest coffee.”
Are these phrases, taglines, slogans, or riddles? Actually, they’re none of the above, but rather, the translated Chinese names of three brands you probably know: Subway, Pepsi and Nestle, respectively.
Choosing a name can make or break any brand experience. And as organizations look to expand globally, considering how your name comes to life in new markets—what it means, how it’s pronounced, and what it evokes—is key to connecting with new audiences around the world.
Chinese Brand Names
The Chinese language is character based, and because each character has its own meaning, every brand name can be interpreted as the sum of its parts. What’s more, some characters can have the same pronunciation but a drastically different meaning. Characters that are positive or neutral on their own can become negative when combined. Which means an elegant English or coined name can, if you’re not careful, become impossible to pronounce, confusing or even offensive to native Chinese speakers.
This is why most organizations pair their global name with a Chinese name that replicates its pronunciation to help Chinese consumers say and understand it.
And while a luxury brand may see Chinese consumers fight through pronunciation challenges to use its global name as a sign of a premium product or experience, more middle market brands risk rejection by not adapting their name for this market.
Thinking about translating your brand name into Chinese can feel overwhelming and complicated. At Prophet, with offices in Hong Kong and Shanghai, and the thought leadership of Tom Doctoroff, Chief Cultural Insights Officer and one of the world’s foremost experts on Chinese consumer behavior, we understand the dynamics at play when bringing names to China.
5 Tips When Localizing Your Brand Name in China
We’ve pulled together five tips to help organizations create a successful name and demonstrate relevance to Chinese consumers.
1. Set the Stage – Identify Your Primary Dialect
You probably know that the Chinese language is highly complex, and perhaps better defined as a group of related languages, rather than one universal language.
Used in mainland China and Taiwan, Mandarin is the official language of China and overall, spoken by the most people, while Cantonese is spoken in Hong Kong and the Guangdong province. And while Mandarin and Cantonese share a written system of characters, how a character is pronounced comes down to where in China you are, and what dialect you are using.
Keep in mind, these are just two of the most popular dialects, but there are seven traditionally classified dialect groups, and hundreds of subgroups. But global brands usually focus on connecting with the largest population of consumers, which typically means accommodating Mandarin speakers first. However, conducting linguistic disaster checks are critical to ensure that a perfectly innocent name in Mandarin doesn’t invite ridicule in Cantonese—or any other prevalent dialects in your target market.
You might be wondering—how do I engage with Mandarin or Cantonese without being able to read the language? For English speakers, we often see a Romanized version of Chinese using pinyin, which is the official way to spell and pronounce Chinese characters using the English alphabet. But these sounds can have radically different meanings depending on which characters are being used. Take, for example, ‘yōu’ – characters you can use for this pinyin include: 优 (excellent); 悠 (tradition); or 佑 (bless).
2. Consider Your Options – What Type of Name Does Your Brand Require?
With thousands of Chinese characters, many with multiple meanings, adapting your name for China is a tricky business. There are two main factors to consider here; the phonetic link to your global name (how much they sound alike), and your evocative link (how much the Chinese name conveys the story of the original name). Some brands prioritize one of the other, but many do both.
Strong Phonetic / Weak Evocative Link
A strong phonetic/weak evocative link replicates the sound of the English name using Chinese characters as closely as possible, without mimicking the literal meaning. Adidas, or 阿迪达斯 in Chinese characters, and Ādídásī in pinyin, is a strictly phonetic transliteration. This strategy makes sense for the sportswear company, since it’s a namesake brand (after founder Adolf Dassler), and carries significant equity. While the literal translation doesn’t have a meaningful definition, it is recognizable and consistent with the global brand.
Weak Phonetic / Strong Evocative Link
In some cases, phonetic similarity may not be as important to the brand. For example, Marriott, 万豪 or wàn háo, does not sound the same as its English name, but can be translated to “million” and “grand,” evoking a feeling of luxury and style that reflects its global brand equities.
Strong Phonetic / Strong Evocative Link
Many believe that a best-in-class name brings both a phonetic similarity and strong evocative meaning to bear. Coca-Cola is frequently brought up as the gold standard, and for good reason. Before standardizing their Chinese name, Coca-Cola was transliterated at the local level by shop owners in many ways, having a different literal meaning from one shop to the next (“bite the wax tadpole” is the most infamous). In 1928, Coca-Cola trademarked their official Chinese name, 可口可樂 or kě kǒu kě lè, which can be translated as “makes mouths happy” or sometimes “yummy” and “joy”. They now have a close aural approximation, and one that lends a positive association.
3. What Do You Want Your Name to Say About Your Brand?
While the English name of a brand lends international credibility, “Your Chinese name can be an opportunity to create thematic resonance,” Doctoroff says. “The need to elevate the proposition through the brand name is important both for memorability’s sake, but also to give a sense of what the role of the brand in the consumer’s life is.”
For this reason, many businesses choose to transliterate their names to be aspirational articulations of the brand’s higher purpose and its reason for being, rather than a direct translation of the goods or services. Transliterations often rely on images and metaphors, as well as benefit-oriented language, around benefits like “happiness” and “prosperity”.
For example, take the shampoo brand, Head & Shoulders, which becomes 海飞丝(hǎi fēi sī), translating to “flying silk of the sea.”
The exception? Those iconic brands who not only own a word, but an image. Apple is translated directly to 苹果, (píngguŏ). “Because of its iconic stature, the pervasive use of the apple in its visual iconography, and the fact that ‘apple’ is a real word name, it makes sense for it to be translated, rather than transliterated,” says Doctoroff.
4. Recognize that Your Name Can’t Communicate Everything
It may be tempting to load your Chinese name with many characters to augment your brand’s storytelling. It’s an issue we struggle with in English naming—why can’t my name convey everything about my business or offer? But just as they are in English, considerations like succinctness, memorability and ease of pronunciation are still key in Chinese. Consider the simplicity of BMW, 宝马 (bǎo mǎ), which literally means “precious horse”. It’s meaningful—
and not overly complicated.
As ever, a name is one part of your brand’s overall strategy. When LinkedIn officially entered China with a new Chinese name, 领英 (lǐng yīng), meaning “leadership” and “elite”, they focused on a series of localization moves through press releases, partner endorsements and China-specific offerings. This allowed them to communicate the name change, while activating their value proposition and demonstrating their commitment to the Chinese market.
5. Consider Your Own Brand
One name you may not have considered translating? Your own. While it is common for professionals that frequently conduct business in China to create phonetic adaptations of their names to help Chinese colleagues pronounce them, you can also take this opportunity to create a memorable name that communicates something about your personal brand.
Doctoroff, for example, is known exclusively in China as 唐锐涛 or Tang Rui Tao. The first character points to the Tang Dynasty, the second means ‘sharp’ and the third, ‘a big wave’. Through his name, Tom signals his respect for Chinese language and culture, and conveys his own value proposition to his colleagues and partners.
How you approach crafting a Chinese brand name will depend on your industry, your original name and what you’re trying to achieve. It can seem daunting, but with the right considerations—and the right native speakers on your team to guide you—your Chinese name can be an effective first impression to a discerning new audience.
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