For the past couple decades, foreign companies across every sector have tried to stake a claim in the Chinese market. It’s no secret that the rising Chinese middle class, with its increasing income and penchant for Western brands, is an integral part of many multinational companies’ customer bases. Last year in 2015, Chinese consumers spent US$1.97 Trillion on online and offline retail shopping, up 9.5% from 2014 and 69.7% from 2010. So how do you introduce your foreign company to the Chinese market? That is a problem all foreign companies have faced, regardless of industry or scale. No matter what, your entry strategy must include giving your brand name in China.
Brand Name in China: Understanding the Chinese Consumers
Although Chinese consumers are fawning less over Western brand names these days, you will find most brands in China have English names, regardless of country origin. What is counterintuitive for many foreign companies, however, is that Chinese consumers will see an English logo but pronounce its Chinese name. The blue and white BMW logo becomes “bao ma” (precious horse), while Nike becomes “nai ke” (enduring). It is still hard for many Chinese consumers to pronounce English names, but they like the idea of buying Western products. Thus as a foreign company, you need a brand name in China that resonates with consumers. Unlike English letters, Chinese characters have their own meaning and linguistic nuisance. When giving a Chinese name to English brand, some choose for a transliteration of sound only, while some go for a brand feeling extension. While the best names extend both the sound and feeling, the number one rule is to be culturally sensitive.
Here are some things to do when coming up with a brand name in China:
Identify Your Brand’s feeling
The first step is to identify the feelings and lifestyle your brand wants to convey. If it’s a beauty brand, is it youth, effortlessness, classiness? For a health tech brand, is it futuristic or family-friendly? Nonetheless, choosing the right characters to fit those feelings is key, as there are often multiple Chinese characters for one pronunciation or pinyin. For BMW, they wanted to convey the driving experience as magnificent and luxurious, and the car as a prized possession. The Chinese name became “Bao Ma,” which literally translates to “precious horse,” expressed the car as a prized mode of transportation. The character “bao” also embodies traditionally feminine traits, and unsurprisingly, BMW is a leading seller to wealthy Chinese women. The cosmetics brand Maybelline wanted to convey youth and beauty. It chose the name “Mei Bao Lian” which literally translates to “beautiful precious lotus
Keep your Brand’s Sound for Easy Pronunciation
If no good names for feeling extension come up, keep the sound. Sometimes if it’s a well-known brand, but is mildly hard to pronounce, you can just choose Chinese characters that sound like your brand’s syllables. Adidas chose (A Di Da Si), KFC became (Ken De Ji), and McDonalds went with (Mai Dang Lao). All three Chinese names translate into gibberish are just random characters. What’s funny is many domestic Chinese brands are also gibberish and are made to seem like English translations. Most brands, especially apparel and footwear ones, choose only English names. This way these Chinese brands can appear as Western brands, and attract more customers.
If you don’t come up with a Chinese name, then most times it’s the retailers or customers who begin naming your brand. Although it looks like less work for you, the translations may not always be in your favor. The new name could negatively influence the identity of the brand. For example, retailers named Coca-Cola “Ko Ka Ko La,” which conveyed ludicrous images of a female horse fasted with wax. Luckily Coca-Cola chose a new name, “Ke Kou Ke Le” which means tasty and happy, perfectly matching their “open happiness” brand. If the sound extension is a no-go, then the direct translation is always viable. The car brand Mustang became “Ye Ma,” literally “mustang.”
Always Be Culturally Aware and Sensitive
So whether you choose to extend your brand’s feeling or sound, always hire a branding expert to check for possible misinterpretations and controversies. A brand name or marketing campaign that is a hit in America could be a million-dollar loss in China due to cultural and historical differences. When the Japanese auto company Toyota released its SUV Prado in China, it called the car “Ba Dao,” which means “rule by force, and featured two lions bowing to a car in an advertisement. In an effort to convey the Prado as a masculine, powerful vehicle, Toyota conjured up images of Japanese imperialism in the 1900s and its terror on Chinese citizens. As a result, the Chinese government censored all the ads, and the outraged public called to boycott Toyota.
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