Adapting brand names for the Chinese market

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In my last blog I explored how Chinese companies adapt brand names for the global stage. Now let’s examine the strategies Western companies are using to adapt their names for the Chinese market. 

There are three general approaches: transliteration, hybrid and translation. 

Transliteration (or phonetic): The goal with transliteration is to maintain the phonetic similarity to the original name without concern to its meaning. Brands accomplish this by carefully selecting Chinese characters that carry a similar sound and are devoid of any negative meaning or associations. It’s also important that the name resonates on an emotional level or carries some sense of “Western cache.” Luxury fashion brands such as Louis Vuitton (“Lu Yi Wei Deng”) and Chanel (“She-ahng Nai er”) often take this approach to highlight their Western provenance while also evoking a sense of prestige and quality. Also following this naming strategy are hospitality, technology and real estate brands including St. Regis (“Rui Jee”), HP (“Hui-Pu”) and Simon Property Group (“She-Meng”). 

Hybrid: This is currently the most popular approach—and what we often recommend to our clients. Not only does it provide brands with a great opportunity to dial up their stories, but it also offers them the flexibility to speak to broader audiences. This is ideal for well-established brands seeking to retain their Western identity while appealing to Chinese consumers. A great example is Coca-Cola, whose Chinese name translates to “live on the Coke side of life: joy and happiness.” Not only does it carry the same sound as Coca-Cola, it carries an even richer, more relevant meaning. Other brands like Starbucks and Jaguar follow the same strategy, with successful results. 

Translation: This method is for brands more interested in retaining the original meaning of the name than matching the sound phonetically. It works best when a name exists in both cultures and can be easily translated. Microsoft uses the name Weiruan, which in pinyin combines “Wei,” meaning “micro” or “tiny,” and “ruan,” meaning soft. In this case, straight translation worked well. But often direct translation results in losing some meaning or creating entirely the wrong meaning or impression. For example, Microsoft’s “Bing” could be translated to “sick” so the company added another Chinese character to the name, changing the pronunciation to Bi-ying. This is an example of how the well the hybrid approach can work.

On the whole, there is no perfect method. But the right name—along with carefully chosen visual and messaging elements—can help brands succeed in the growing Chinese market.

My next blog will offer an insider’s view of branding in China, and how Chinese companies can stretch the limits of creativity and establish the next “Amazons” of the world. Stay tuned.

Cecilia Yu is a strategist for the Siegel+Gale Shanghai office.

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