Crafting and creating Chinese Brand Names for Global Companies

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The name of a company is a fundamental aspect of its brand identity, ubiquitous in every aspect of its presence, from Google searches to business cards and even coffee cups. A powerful example is how the mere sight of a logo, like Nike’s swoosh, instantly evokes the brand name in people’s minds. Such is the power of a name, exemplified by Anderson Consulting’s massive $100 million investment in rebranding to Accenture. Venturing into China, businesses often mistakenly assume their brand identity will remain unchanged. However, adapting to the cultural nuances is crucial for resonating with Chinese consumers.

The Western Brand in China: More than a Name

Consider the Chinese perception of “America,” romantically termed 美国 (Měiguó) or “Beautiful Land.” This reflects not just a phonetic connection to “America” but also assigns a positive attribute, beauty, to the country. Similarly, Germany, known as 德国 (Déguó) or “Virtue Land,” suggests a land of moral and cultural richness. These examples illustrate the potential in Chinese naming – where phonetic elements can subconsciously link a brand or country to desirable attributes.

Beyond Names: The Significance of Imported Products

In China, products from countries like Germany, synonymous with quality, enjoy a high reputation. However, simply highlighting foreign origin is inadequate. Western brands often need to offer clear, tangible value beyond their origin, whether through quality, distinctiveness, or messaging.

The Art of Naming in China: Apple, Brave Horse, and 100 Flavors

Western brand names can be challenging for Chinese consumers to pronounce or might inadvertently convey negative connotations. Therefore, choosing an appropriate Chinese name is a strategic decision.

  • Classic Translation: Some brands opt for direct translations. Apple becomes 苹果 (Píngguǒ), and Microsoft is 微软 (Wēiruǎn), translating to “micro/tiny” and “soft” respectively. However, direct translation can sometimes backfire, as seen with Mr Muscle’s initial translation 肌肉先生 (Jīròu Xiānshēng), which also meant “Mr Chicken Meat” in spoken Chinese.
  • Translating the Essence: To avoid such pitfalls, Mr Muscle rebranded to 威猛先生(Wēiměng Xiānshēng), or “Mr Powerful,” which better conveyed the brand’s essence.
  • Phonetic Transliteration: Many brands adopt transliterations that sound similar to their original name while also embedding positive meanings. Examples include BMW’s 宝马 (Bǎomǎ), meaning “precious horse,” and Coca Cola’s 可口可乐 (Kěkǒukělè), translating to “Tasty and making happy.”
  • Combining Translation and Transliteration: Starbucks in China is known as 星巴克 (Xīngbākè), combining the translation of “Star” and a transliteration of “bucks.”

Practical Considerations in Developing Chinese Brand Names

Creating a Chinese brand name requires more than just translation or transliteration. It demands cultural insight and an understanding of the local context. Therefore, this task should involve individuals with deep knowledge of the Chinese market and consumer behavior.

Here are several illustrative examples of how international brands have successfully adapted their names for the Chinese market:

  1. Nike: The sports giant’s Chinese name, 耐克 (Nàikè), translates to something akin to “persevere and conquer.”
  2. BMW: In China, BMW is known as 宝马 (Bǎomǎ), which means “precious horse,” evoking notions of luxury and prestige.
  3. Reebok: Their Chinese name, 锐步 (Ruìbù), translates to “quick steps,” apt for a brand associated with athleticism and dynamism.
  4. Hummer: Known as 悍马 (Hànmǎ), or “brave horse” in Chinese, it aligns with the brand’s robust and rugged image. Horses symbolize honesty and endurance in Chinese culture.
  5. Marvel: The entertainment giant’s name, 漫威 (Mànwēi), translates to “comic power,” with 漫 (Màn) also being a part of 漫画 (Mànhuà), meaning “Manga.”
  6. Mercedes-Benz: This automotive brand is represented as 奔驰 (Bēnchí) in Chinese, meaning “to run quickly” or “gallop,” suggestive of speed and elegance.
  7. Subway: The fast-food chain’s name, 赛百味 (Sàibǎiwèi), intriguingly translates to “compete with 100 flavors.”
  8. Coca Cola: Its Chinese rendition, 可口可乐 (Kěkǒukělè), conveys the idea of “tasty and happiness-inducing.”
  9. Pepsi Cola: Translated as 百事可乐 (Bǎishìkělè), it implies “100 happy things.”
  10. Ikea: In China, Ikea is 宜家 (Yíjiā), meaning “suitable home,” echoing the brand’s focus on home furnishings.
  11. Carrefour: The retail giant adopts the name 家乐福 (Jiālèfú) in China, combining 家 (family) with 乐福 (blessing), symbolizing the company’s well-wishes to families.

Each of these translations not only captures the essence of the brand but also resonates with cultural nuances and consumer expectations in China.

IKEA Chinese Brand
Coca Cola Chinese Brand
Pepsi Cola Chinese Brand

Selecting a Domain for Your Chinese Website

International companies often use their English brand name for their .com domain and create a China-specific section (e.g., www.apple.com/cn/). Alternatively, some register a .cn or .com.cn domain. Maintaining an international domain with a Chinese brand name on the website can effectively communicate the brand’s global identity while showing adaptation to the Chinese market. For Baidu SEO we highly suggest to a) register a new domain and not user the option of a Chinese sub-domain or folder for the Chinese market. The reason is, that Baidu prefers mono-lingual Chinese websites. b) a Chinese TLD is not a strong ranking factor, but it is a clear signal to the user, that you are targeting the Chinese market.

The search for “平果” (apple) on Baidu reveals that most people want to see the iphone (Apple even bought an large ad-space on top) and information about the brand and the company. But some few results show actual apples.

Strategic Approach to Crafting Your Brand’s Chinese Identity

In the journey of developing a Chinese identity for your brand, merely translating or phonetically adapting your brand name is insufficient. It requires a deep immersion in Chinese culture and a grasp of the local lifestyle to ensure your new brand name resonates effectively in the market.

Rushing this process is ill-advised, as is relying solely on translators or expatriates for this task, regardless of their proficiency. The ideal contributors for this venture are those with an in-depth knowledge of your business and its offerings, who are based in China and keenly aware of potential challenges. This approach ensures a more authentic and successful adaptation of your brand name to the Chinese market.

Would you like our help as Chinese native speakers and professionals? Please reach out to us!

Your Experience and Thoughts?

How has your journey been in branding your company or products for the Chinese market? Have you faced challenges, undergone rebranding, or achieved success on your first try? Chinese native speakers, do you have a different perspective?

I invite you to share your experiences and thoughts on creating Chinese brand names in the comments below this article.

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