At the heart of any brand is a recognisable name. Good branding can turn even the most awkward of names into a mainstay, but a good name makes it infinitely easier. In China, a name is crucial. Chinese characters can have multiple meanings, adding a semantic layer which English lacks, so brand names have to be carefully selected with an eye to alternate readings. Famous e-commerce brand “Taobao” can be read to mean “digging for buried treasure,” a name that appeals to those bargain-hunting online shoppers.
Foreign companies, however, might not want to pick a tailored Chinese name from scratch. In addition to losing the recognisability of their existing name, the Chinese are becoming increasingly bilingual; they would likely encounter both versions of the name, and it could cause confusion. Ideally, a name should be phonetically similar to the brand’s original name, while also being a good Chinese name; pithy, easy for Chinese customers to pronounce and remember, and with positive connotations. Some companies like Audi (Ao Di) and Cadillac (Ka Di La Ke) have played it safe, choosing Chinese names that sound close, but have no meaning.
The companies who manage to choose good names which are phonetically similar to their own, such as Subway (赛百味 – better than a hundred other tastes) and Coca-Cola (可口可乐 – delicious and happiness), are finding remarkable success. Bing dodged a bullet by chosing the name “bi ying” (responds without fail) even though “bing” exists in Chinese. It just happens to mean “illness.” On the other hand, Best Buy, whose name could be translated as “think one hundred times before buying,” fared badly against local competitors.
Some companies might be tempted to just dodge the whole naming nightmare and keep their names the same, relying on brand recognition to overcome language barriers. Some companies have survived with their names un-translated, but unwanted nicknames can spring up. Quaker Oatmeal is sometimes called “老人牌“ or “old man on the logo.” Ralph Lauren? “三脚吗,” or three legged horse.
Names matter in the Chinese market. It won’t guarantee success or failure, and it may seem a relatively small part of a market strategy, but in the long run, a little extra effort on picking a good name can avoid any unpleasant puns. Keep the name short and sweet, as close to the original name as possible, and most importantly, have native speakers check all possible alternate meanings. Avoid Peugeot’s conundrum; in Southern dialects, the name they chose is slang for something rather unsavoury.
This is a guest post by Michael Laridan, from accounting firm DX Consulting.