Our Simplicity Talks podcast gathers insight from across the global Siegel+Gale network on the issues and trends shaping the business landscape.

What’s in a name? More than you might think in fact. In this week’s Simplicity Talks we are crossing continents, languages, and emotions to discover the opportunities and pitfalls for brands when it comes to naming their business, services or products in the world’s most important markets – China and the USA.

Subscribe to Simplicity Talks on iTunes and on Spotify

Robert Costelloe: Today we’re delving into one of the more unique weapons in the Siegel+Gale armoury. We’re going to be exploring naming, specifically why naming is important and some of the thinking that goes into naming a business or a brand, especially for one that is trying to enter new markets and resonate with different international audiences. Taking us on this journey we have with us Susie Jiang, strategist and naming guru at Siegel+Gale in Shanghai, and Gabriele Zamora, our senior naming strategist out of San Francisco. A truly global episode for a time when brands are trying to be more global than ever and quickly realise how their presence can be cut short because of failures to understand local language, interpretation, and metaphor.

Mitchell Kirkham-Cooper: Gabriele can you quickly explain how the global naming team here at Siegel+Gale works and why it works?

Gabriele Zamora: The global nature of our team is something that really differentiates us here at Siegel+Gale. We not only have 9 namers around the world – three in San Francisco, three in New York, two in London and one in Shanghai – but we also collaborate on the majority of projects no matter where we are. We really bring this global perspective to each and everything that we’re working on and we’re thinking about all of these challenges quite literally from different places, applying our cultural knowledge in different perspectives and creative styles.

Robert Costelloe: What is naming to the both of you?

 Gabriele Zamora: Naming is really important. At Siegel+Gale we like to say, in the world of naming it’s the first word in the conversation a brand has with its audience. It’s really an opportunity to start the story of a brand in a very simple, compelling way that feels meaningful and relevant. Its job is to pique interest and really set the right expectations and then other brand elements like visual identity, messaging and experience really continues the story the name starts. But because it’s your introduction it’s really important to get that one, two, three words right.

Susie Jiang: I agree that naming is the start of the story for a brand. It’s not just a random word that you choose for the business. You want to name your brand based on a combination of logic analysis of the message you want to convey to the audience and creative thinking about a great idea in concise words.

 Mitchell Kirkham-Cooper: How do you actually go about of ensuring your signaling the right things? How do you create that compelling start to a conversation?

Gabriele Zamora: Our philosophy here is to keep it really global. Something that we’re always talking about in the global naming team is how we most effectively create brand impact through naming and of course across cultures and across different languages. One of the most compelling conversations we’ve had recently as a team revolves around this idea of metaphorical names and what makes them so universally powerful. It’s that figure of speech we learn about in primary school where you’re describing something through something else. We actually use millions of metaphors in our lives and that’s kind of why it was so interesting and why it’s so compelling in terms of naming.

We found this study that expands on why metaphors make such great names. Metaphorical names are powerful for the obvious reasons. They paint a very simple image in people’s minds. The example we like to use is Amazon. So, when you hear the word Amazon, you think big impressive river, and that really sticks with you. They can tell more than one story over time because they’re these big, broad images or ideas. But the really interesting thing we found from this study was that they have more of a social-emotional role in our lives and I think that’s why we use them so frequently throughout their lifetime.

This study argued that metaphors really work to connect us as individuals and they serve as an invitation between two people. An example I can give is, “Susie you’re just a shining star”. I’ve given you an invitation to consider my goals and intentions as the user of the metaphor. Then I am highly tuned in to see whether you’re going to accept that invitation and try to understand what I was trying to convey. If we apply this thinking to a brand and its audience, a metaphorical name, or a suggestive name as we like to call it, is that invitation. So, between Amazon and its audience, Amazon is really begging us to try to understand the story it starts – the story about scale and abundance and growth.

Mitchell Kirkham-Cooper: Obviously, metaphors are used differently in different cultures. Do you see something similar in Chinese cultures whether it’s Mandarin or Cantonese?

Susie Jiang: Definitely. First, I need to give a little background to the language. The Chinese language is actually a pictorial language. It’s different from the alphabet-based, English language. The basic unit in the Chinese language is characters. So, each character has its own rich meaning. You can say the language itself amounts to the existing world and behaviors. That makes naming in Chinese a very playful art for the imagination – everyone is born to have a metaphorical perspective.

Mitchell Kirkham-Cooper: Absolutely. Do Western businesses struggle with Chinese names? Are there any nuances that affect Western businesses entering China?

Susie Jiang:  Sometimes the English name is very hard for the local audience to pronounce so that audience will come up with a name by themselves to call certain brands.

Gabriele Zamora: There are some strategies we typically employ when we’re advising Western cultures on how to choose their Chinese names.

Susie Jiang: Yes, the first one is very easy – phonetic translation. For example, if we take the computer technology giant Dell, it’s Chinese name is 戴尔 (Dài ěr* – See endnotes for information on Chinese pronunciation). It doesn’t mean anything, but it sounds very similar in Chinese to its original English name. The second one is sexier – literal translation. So, we take Apple for example. Its Chinese name is 苹果 (Píng guǒ), which literally means ‘apple’ in Chinese. Apple also symbolises wisdom, knowledge, and joy. The literal translation goes across different cultures to represent the same thing. This is a very simple method. When you adopt this strategy, it is naturally decided by the name itself.

Mitchell Kirkham-Cooper: Do you lose some of that brand equity though with the literal translation strategy? Using the Apple example, it’s not recognisable as referring to the company or the fruit unless you speak both English and Mandarin?

Gabriele Zamora: I think you certainly have to work harder to build meaning into the brand with that type of naming strategy.

Susie Jiang: Yes, the third way is creative combination. It can be very creative,  like the name for technology firm Oracle, whose Chinese name is 甲骨文 (jiǎ gǔ wén). The name refers to the ancient Chinese scrolls used for divination. And this works for Oracle the company – it’s a system that gives answers to all questions. These ancient scrolls also give answers.

Gabriele Zamora: The metaphor is similar in English. An oracle is a person or thing through which a deity speaks. It’s all about giving wise answers. It’s an example where we see the metaphorical idea really carried across languages.

Robert Costelloe: I think an obvious question to ask here is what can you tell us about the Siegel+Gale name? Is there a Chinese one?

Susie Jiang: The Chinese name for Siegel+Gale is 思睿高(sī ruì gāo). So means thinking, ruì means smart, and o means high level. Again, you need some metaphorical perspective to interpret the Chinese name here. It can be taken to mean ‘the peak of smart thinking’. When you use a metaphorical perspective to understand this name, we actually express our brand assets of smart, nice and unstoppable.

Gabriele Zamora: Is this idea of literation a thing of the past in terms of how Chinese consumerism is changing? Our company is instead wanting to create Chinese names with really compelling meanings to capture people’s attention.

Susie Jiang: When you think about those different approaches, we are adopting them to create a Chinese name for foreign companies. There is always something to do with the consumer perspective. So, in China literation was a really popular thing in the 1990s, when Western brands were super aspirational among Chinese consumers. Literation made brands in China clearly more visible as being Western brands at first sight. But with Chinese consumers growing more mature, the market becoming more crowded, a culturally relevant name is more compelling and catching. Like we said before, it’s the beginning of your story and you want to make sure to grab the Chinese audience attention. It gives you the chance to tell your story.

Robert Costelloe: I think Chinese consumers are a lot more sophisticated nowadays. To some extent there is a challenge in English – Chinese is so beautifully built as a language to create metaphor because metaphor is embedded in the characters themselves. You see how Chinese characters evolve over history and they change in these really interesting ways. You don’t have all these levels of meaning within a single letter of the alphabet. Is English limited in its ability to create metaphor in terms of naming brands or companies?

Gabriele Zamora: I’m not sure that it’s limited. I think we just have to train ourselves to think in a more metaphorical way. And something we try to do as namers is really focus on imagination. So instead of trying to approach names with logic and reason and data, really just reacting to them in a natural way and having that first impression with a word and letting imagination kind of soar with that word helps. We’re trying to train them in the metaphorical.

Robert Costelloe: Western companies looking to establish their Chinese presence – is that all about instant emotion. What are some of the other things that they might possibly be doing and can you give us a couple of examples of that?

Gabriele Zamora: Just a clear brand story is important. So one of my favorite Chinese names is Coca-Cola. In Chinese, it sounds very similar to the English but is pronounced 可口可乐 (kě kǒu kě lè), which means ‘delicious happiness’. That’s a great example of how a Chinese name starts to convey a brand story almost better than the American name. It pushes that foundational story of happiness and optimism really to the forefront of the conversation. This is what we want our name to do. It’s something simple for the audience to latch on to.

Susie Jiang: When it comes to naming there are always two important aspects – the pronunciation and its meaning. On top of that, there are nuances of association you have with that name. Another good example of a Chinese name in the western brand world is LinkedIn 领英(lǐng yīng). The Chinese word means ‘leading elite’. It tells a story that the brand is taking customers to the next level of their career.

Robert Costelloe: One thing you said that was really interesting was with regards to Coca-Cola and those two elements – sound and brand story – that are thought about with the Chinese name. I feel that there’s also this additional element of how the name looks graphically. Coca-Cola’s Chinese name has the 口(kǒu) character which basically means ‘mouth’ and is used in many characters when it comes to consumption. It links to Coca-Cola by how you drink it!

Susie Jiang: It originates from the object itself and how that character looks to also give consumers a feeling of their name.

Mitchell Kirkham-Cooper: What about going the other way? We’ve spoken a lot about Western businesses trying to break into China and build trust and awareness and understanding in the Chinese market. China is perceived differently now to how it was perhaps 10 years ago in the West. What does that mean for businesses like Alibaba for example who are growing in prominence over here?

Susie Jiang: Since you’ve brought up Alibaba, we think Alibaba is a really good name – the main character from One Thousand and One Nights.

Gabriele Zamora: It’s this universal symbol that everyone can relate to and understand when you say the name Alibaba. We immediately think “open sesame”. So, because it’s well recognised globally, it works as a name across different audiences, nations, languages. Another Chinese company I like is Lenovo and I think they’re doing pretty well.

Mitchell Kirkham-Cooper: Well that is quite interesting. Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, must have had a global outlook when he originally chose that name, whereas Lenovo started with a Chinese name and they’ve evolved into a western name.

Gabriele Zamora: Lenovo is actually more of an empty vessel which is why I like it. It came from ‘legend’ plus ‘novo’ which means new. It doesn’t necessarily sound like a Chinese name and it doesn’t really sound like a Western name. it kind of sits in the middle. I feel like it can more easily scale across different countries and cultures.

Susie Jiang: Actually, this topic has become more and more important for Chinese brands nowadays as they grow more globally, particularly when it comes to how they consider pronunciation and meaning and associations. The other example is Huawei.

Gabriele Zamora: Pronunciation is big. When I first heard that name (Huawei) I was almost scared to say it and to talk about it with my friends, my family. I was scared I was going to pronounce it wrong. It is an example of a missed opportunity because they have had to put so much time, energy and effort into teaching people how to pronounce it. They even have a little video that shows you how to pronounce the name.

Mitchell Kirkham-Cooper: Let’s educate our audience. Could that issue have been avoided?

Gabriele Zamora: I think the name is finally catching on but maybe at the beginning, they could have thought a little bit more about the audience they were trying to break into and how they would respond to a name like that.

Susie Jiang: I think when the Huawei business first started they didn’t think in the same global way as Alibaba. I’m not sure if they thought they’d go global in their first stage. For Chinese companies that are now entering the international marketplace, it’s extremely important to recruit local experts to make sure you do it right.

Mitchell Kirkham-Cooper: I think a lot of us are aware of the famous example of a car manufacturer that tried to make a big splash in the Spanish market and made a huge mistake on name….

Gabriele Zamora: It’s a myth! It’s something we talk about – it was the Chevy Nova. In Spanish ‘no va’ means ‘don’t go’. But there’s no tendency in any language to break things up like that. It would be the same if we had a furniture store and we called it ‘Notable Furniture’. Who would see the name as ‘No table Furniture’?? You have to get more in the minds of the audience and think about how they would interpret the name. But yes, that’s one of the examples that everyone gives. You don’t want to no va a Nova.

Robert Costelloe: I mean Susie, from your perspective what are some of the other big flops that you’ve come across, in particular for Chinese companies going to the west and vice versa?

Susie Jiang: You reminded me of a hilarious example – Airbnb. We’ve talked a lot about metaphors and the Chinese language is truly a metaphorical language, besides the pronunciation, meaning, and all the imagination around it. For Airbnb, the Chinese name is 爱彼迎 (ài bǐ yíng). Put together it’s supposed to mean ‘welcome each other with love’. When you look at each character individually it looks great. And when you translate it back into English it’s also great. But together in Chinese, the feeling and meaning in Chinese become awkward. Some people have associated it with sexual meanings. When Airbnb first entered the Chinese market, my friends always told me their English name was hard to pronounce. I really like the brand, but after I heard the Chinese name I wish they would have just kept their hard to pronounce English name.

 Gabriele Zamora: It’s another example of how in Chinese you don’t just piece the words together as you might in English. Instead, you have to really create an image in the mind of your audience. The image has to be culturally appropriate.

Susie Jiang: It’s not put-together units, but it’s the image of the whole that matters. There is always room for imagination in this language. That’s why we see metaphor as being so important in naming, particularly in Chinese naming.

Gabriele Zamora: I think the biggest takeaway here is, when we’re naming things we should be thinking as global namers, not just Chinese, US, or European namers. So, even if this isn’t something that we’re focused on doing now for our company, it might be something we’re focused on in the future. So, we should be thinking ahead of that.


Send us your thoughts, suggestions, (constructive) criticisms and praise (if you feel that way inclined) on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram @siegelgale. And remember, subscribe on iTunes and Spotify

Gabriele Zamora writes more about naming and metaphors here!

Music: Your Story 2 – Tim Reilly, Jeff Dale, James Scholes – Get it at audionetwork.com

*Note on Chinese characters:

Standard Chinese characters can be Romanised to be visibly pronounceable by non-Chinese speakers by using the Pinyin system developed in the 1950s.  This system is still widely used today for Chinese language learning.

The system includes 5 tones – 1. Flat (e.g. mā), 2. Rising (má), 3. falling-rising (mǎ), 4. Falling (mà), 5. Neutral (no tone) – that convey the distinctive pitch a character should be given when spoken. This ensures characters with the same Romanised pinyin spelling are not confused – they will commonly have a different tone, designated by the tone over a key vowel.