SMPL Q&A is a blog feature in which we interview experts on all things relevant to branding, design and simplicity. In this Q&A we speak with brand strategist Chelsea Zou about what Western brands should consider when naming for the Chinese market. 

Why is it important for Western brands to strategically select and invest in their Chinese names?

It is easy to understand why so many companies set their sights on China, with its vibrant marketplace and sustainable economic growth. For many global brands, a Chinese name is necessary when entering the market in order to become relevant to Chinese consumers, both linguistically and culturally.

China is experiencing rapid urbanization. The quality of life for the population as a whole is on the rise, particularly for those from a historically lower socioeconomic status. As a result, an increasingly large consumer base is gaining access to world-class brands.

In China, cities are often categorized into tiers based on factors like GDP, population and political administration. Tier 1 cities, like Beijing and Shanghai, are well established within the global economy and mirror characteristics of other urban capitals including consumer behavior, income levels and local trends. Tier 2 cities, including Shenzhen, Chengdu and Wuhan, are catching up and becoming fertile ground for Western brands. However, to be successful in these new markets, brands need to break down language barriers to connect with a wider spectrum of Chinese consumers.

Widespread access to the internet and increased mobile searches create the opportunity for companies to raise their brand awareness across the country. If Chinese natives cannot search, spell or pronounce a name, then that brand will have trouble building brand awareness and loyalty. Alternatively, brands that strategically invest in a Chinese name grow in new markets and generate brand awareness and loyalty.

For example, British grocery chain Sainsbury’s adopted the Chinese name, 英佰瑞

(yīng băi ruì), which emphasizes its heritage and carries a meaning of “the source of good and meaningful things.” A month after the release of the Chinese name, it ranked as the #1 searched keyword for Sainsbury’s on Tmall, the largest B2C online marketplace in China.

When localizing a brand’s name, it is very important to demonstrate an understanding of cultural nuances within the market. Chinese names consist of two to four characters, which compose the first and, arguably, the most important part of a brand’s story. Each character holds profound meaning that is deeply integrated within Chinese culture. With something as short as a name, you can communicate a complex and nuanced idea. Confucius said, “名正,则言顺,” which translates to “If the name is proper, your words will carry weight.”

What challenges do Western brands face when localizing their names in China?

There are several ways to come up with a Chinese name, varying from phonetic transliteration to phrase creation. For example, Adidas—阿迪达斯 (ādídásī)—has adopted a phonetically similar composition of characters for its name. Although the characters don’t tell the story of the brand, the company has built connections with local audiences through different means. Nike—耐克 (nài kè)—on the other hand, has chosen a name that means to endure, conquer and overcome. It captures a phonetic similarity, while imbuing tonality and imagery.

Companies must consider the spectrum of different translation methods when determining the most powerful way to localize. Choosing and pairing the right characters is challenging, and requires a unique skillset that combines linguistic knowledge and a deep understanding of many cultures. Small nuances can present significant obstacles for brands. For example, Airbnb’s name—爱彼迎—translates as “welcome each other with love,” a phrase which represents the company’s overall mission. Although each character in itself is positive, “爱 ( ài ) love,” “彼 ( bǐ ) each other” and “迎 ( yíng ) welcome,” when strung together, it resembles a curse in several local dialects. In the hospitality industry, Airbnb’s name sounds like, “filthy love hotel.”

Because Airbnb already existed within the market, Chinese customers were aware of its English name. The Chinese name, which launched recently, did not reflect its pre-existing brand equity or local perceptions and most important, it conveyed a poor understanding of local culture. The name incited a strong, negative reaction from consumers; people began posting their ideas for a better name on the internet, calling for an open poll on the company’s website. Recently, several local startups have popped up to compete with Airbnb and have seen success, perhaps due to their deeper understanding of Chinese culture and linguistics. Airbnb’s blunder reinforces the fact that selecting the right name, which speaks to the brand’s promise in both cultural contexts, is crucial.

What are the essential attributes of a successfully localized name for a Western brand?

Different brands face different challenges in brand naming for the Chinese market; some brands want to resonate with local culture while others want to emphasize their Western provenance. Before choosing a name, companies should consider the following:

  1. What is your brand’s promise to the Chinese market?
  2. What localized brand story do you want to tell?
  3. What message do you want the Chinese name to convey?

Nevertheless, there are some basic naming considerations all brands looking to localize should consider:

  1. The name should be easy to remember and pronounce.
  2. The characters should be easy to recognize and understand.
  3. The meaning should have positive associations in all local dialects.

What are some of the most successful localized names?

In the auto industry, BMW, Citroën, and Mercedes-Benz set the standard for great Chinese names.

BMW’s Chinese name—宝马 (宝 (bǎo) precious, jewel, treasure/ (mǎ) horse)—means “precious horse.” The name preserves a degree of phonetic similarity and conveys a rich meaning tied to the well-known phrase, “汗血宝马” ( very precious horse that is famous for its endurance and speed.) Historically, this phrase was used to describe a horse that only the royal family could own. Therefore, the name illustrates and resonates with the story of the ultimate driving experience and the exclusivity of BMW’s cars.

Citroën—雪铁龙 (xué tiĕ lóng)—means “an iron dragon breaks out of the storm,” and Mercedes-Benz—奔驰 (bēn chí)—translates to “speed, gallop.”

Outside of the auto industry, some successful Chinese names include: Coca-Cola – 可口可乐(kĕ kŏu kĕ)—meaning, “great taste and joyful”; IKEA—宜家 (yí jiā)— connoting “benefit for home and comfortable home”; Marvel—漫威(màn wēi)— illustrating “comic power.”

This post was edited and condensed by Alison Carreon & Julia Zhu.