It’s well known, that Airbnb’s naming faux pas attracted a lot of attention among the Chinese, it again becomes clear that China is a special market to enter. Airbnb, choosing the Chinese name “Aibiying” 爱彼迎 (translated as “welcome each other with love”), received a lot of complaints on Chinese social media platforms and even suggestions from the population of how it easily could have been improved. On one hand, bloggers referred to the difficult and strange pronunciation when reading it quickly. On the other hand, they argued about similar-sounding characters which would give the brand a completely different meaning. China, therefore, is not only a nation full of opportunities and business potential but also encompasses challenges to overcome when operating within the country. Starting with the branding process – which is of high importance no matter where you run your business – naming is one of the most critical parts to master.
In China, however, it is even more relevant than one would think. Whereas in the Western world, for instance, naming is ‘just’ a sequence of letters, it may be quite a big discussion in China and can result in misunderstandings. Not only do names have a much deeper significance in China, but also the process of naming is much more complicated if you don’t want to become the subject of ridicule in Chinese minds. The name and the logo are in most cases the first thing people will see from a new brand or product, and lousy naming may, for instance, result in lower brand awareness, bad reputation, or a wrong image of the company. Thus, learn from the mistakes others have made and check out the top 8 naming tips in China to avoid a flop and misunderstandings and create a favorable brand image instead.
8 Naming Tips in China
Same, same but different
Imagine you picked the perfect Chinese name for your brand, having everything you wanted: sounding similar to your western name, supporting the brand’s image and having a meaning which underpins the nature of your business. However, not weighing all the possibilities when picking Chinese characters can end with profound consequences. You need to be aware that in China, the same characters can have different meanings such as 等 “děng,” for instance, which means “to wait” as a verb, but as a particle, it means “etc.”.
It’s all about the right combination
Moreover, it is not only crucial to know the different meanings of individual characters; additionally, you also need to be aware of their significance when you combine them. Let’s take a look at the example of Nike (耐克). In 2016, the year of the monkey, Nike released limited-edition trainers and provided characters to choose from to add on the back of the shoes. The characters 發 “fā” and 福 “fú”, with each of the characters itself having a positive meaning, translate in combination as “getting fat.” The company explained they considered cultural aspects, and the characters just added two more additional options to the existing ones. However, social media is hard to convince, which brings us to the next point in the line; it became a huge topic on Chinese platforms.
Nike’s limited-edition trainers in the year of the monkey translate in combination as “getting fat”.
The power of social media and WoM
Chinese rank among the world’s most active social media users. Inappropriate naming may set off an avalanche of sharp tongues over your brand and spread like wildfire. Additionally, it is common practice in the western world as well. Enjoying an outstanding reputation helps a brand establish a clientele in China as recommendations and opinions of the beloved ones are vital for the Chinese. Don’t underestimate the power of social media and WoM in China, watch out to not make a naming faux pas which could have been avoided.
A lot of naming failures happen by not considering similarities of sound in Chinese. Many characters are pronounced the same but have a different meaning. Several companies already renamed their brands in China due to that issue, such as the famous Mr. Muscle line of cleaners. 肌肉先生 “jīròuxiān sheng” – the formerly brand name – translates as Mr. Muscle. However, 肌肉“jīròu“ sounds exactly like “chicken“ – different characters (鸡肉), but same pronunciation. Therefore, today the brand is called 威猛先生“wēiměngxiān sheng,” Mr. Powerful.
Mr. Muscle’s formerly brand name in China sounded like Mr. Chicken.
Different regions, different dialects
It is not enough to take care of which characters you choose, which combination, what meaning and which sound they have. You also need to consider the many different spoken dialects in China. Where one spelling might be appropriate for a particular area, it might be hard to pronounce the word in another area or even result in misunderstandings. For instance, the car manufacturer’s Chinese name of Peugeot is 标致”biāozhì” in China. The pronunciation is close to the European one. However, it is also close to the Chinese slang in southern China for the word “prostitute,” which provoked a lot of dirty jokes.
Another important aspect to consider in China is the relation of the name to the nature of the business or the industry. Whether the translation can be unsophisticated or not, really depends on the firm, industry or product itself. For instance, a very easy game does not necessarily need a keyword-heavy name. However, if you’re an expert in a field, you need a name that conveys that image in China. A lot of brands, not all, have at least some sort of meaning behind their name. It is an aspect, which is really worth to consider. For instance, the consumer electronics retailer Best Buy had decided for Chinese name 百思买 “bǎi sī mǎi”, where the translation of the first part focuses on sounding similar to Best, in combination with the direct translation for Buy. Unfortunately, the chosen name had not been the best choice to support their business as it translates as “Think 100 times before buying”. Best Buy closed its branded stores in China in 2011 and completed the sale of its Jiangsu Five Star business in 2016. However, the company did not completely exit the Chinese market as it continues with its private-label operations in China.
The electronic retailer’s Chinese name translated as “Think 100 times before buying”.
Lack of understanding the culture, literature, traditions, and history
Crucial when entering a foreign country is to have an understanding of the culture, habits, and traditions. The Chinese search engine 百度 “bǎidù”, for instance, made use of a very famous piece of poetry in China written by Xin Qiji (辛弃疾), a great poet in the Song dynasty: 众里寻他千百度 […] “zhòng lǐ xún tā qiān bǎidù […]”. The poetry says, “Having searched for him hundreds and thousands of times in the crowd, [suddenly I spun around and saw you standing amidst thin lights]”. It describes the difficulty of finding his beloved girl, and 百度 “bǎidù”, translates as searching for something specific a hundred times. Thus, it underlines the understanding of Chinese culture while additionally, relating the name of the business to its nature as a search engine. Not being aware of those facts opens the doors to competitors to easily outperform you.
The meaning of numbers
If you are thinking about putting numbers to your brand or products’ name, think twice about which ones you pick. In China, numbers can convey meanings, such as 4 being an unlucky number or 8 being a lucky number. Also, be aware of how special number combinations are pronounced. For instance, the Chinese pronunciation of 520 sounds similar to the Chinese words for “I love you.” Even the Chinese electric car company, BYD (比亚迪), made some car owners take the number combination 542 off the front fender. It happens to sound similar to “I am stupid” in Chinese while it should refer to the acceleration under five seconds, a four-wheel drive, and fuel consumption of two liters per hundred kilometers.
The number combination 542 sounds similar to “I am stupid” in Chinese.
Don’t forget to take care of other important aspects – such as the color
When establishing a name, logo, or brand, also consider the color, or typeface. Each color has its meaning, and colors are often associated with emotions. As a hospital, for example, you would never choose the color red as it links to a celebration; On funerals, Chinese wear – compared to the western world – white, as it is a color of sadness. Nowadays, however, Chinese sometimes use the color white also for weddings as the influence of the west keep things changing in China. Nevertheless, as a brand operating in China, color is an important element to consider, depending on the product or service you offer.
Of course, there are many more aspects to consider that will make or break your business. If you want to know more about how to find a brand name in China, don’t hesitate to send an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sinonym by Daxue Consulting, is offering savvy naming by having a comprehensive knowledge of the Chinese culture, literature, traditions and history. Our experienced team will help you to outperform in the Chinese market by setting the keystone for your business in the branding process while triggering your customers emotions.
To know more about Naming Tips in China, please don’t hesitate to contact us.
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