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How to Nail Brand Name Localisation for the Chinese Market

Published on: June 12, 2024

How to Nail Brand Name Localisation for the Chinese Market

So, you’ve spent ages perfecting your brand’s identity in the West. It’s sleek, it’s polished, and now, you’re setting your sights on the Chinese market. But here’s where you hit your first snag — the brand name. Why not just leave it as it is or simply translate it, you wonder? Well, because this is where it gets devilishly complicated.

You see, it’s not a matter of dusting off your dictionary and picking the closest translation. It’s about capturing the very soul of your brand and transplanting it into an entirely different linguistic and cultural soil.

Imagine it as a high-stakes game of cross-cultural charades. If you muck it up, it’s not just hilariously embarrassing — it can also be financially ruinous. As the popular saying in China goes, “Don’t fear being born unlucky, but fear being given a bad name.”

So let’s dive into the complex world of localising brand names for China. It’s a lot more complicated than you’d think.


The Challenges of Localising Brand Names for the Chinese Market

Mercedes-Benz, with all its German engineering, rolled into China in the 1980s with the name 奔斯, bēnsī, a harmless transliteration for Benz. Except, Chinese is a tonal language. A tiny tweak in tone and you’ve got yourself “rush to die” (奔死) or “very stupid” (笨死).

Nailed it, right? Because nothing screams luxury like the promise of a swift demise or brainless decision. Eventually, they went with 奔驰 (bēnchí), which translates to “run quickly” and it’s still in use today.

The crux of the problem is this: Chinese characters are a double-edged sword — they’re both phonetic and semantic. Directly translating a Western brand name can land you in all sorts of awkward, if not outright hilarious, predicaments. You need to find a name that sounds good, fits the culture, and avoid any unfortunate connotations.

How to Nail Brand Name Localisation for the Chinese Market - Benz
The Chinese brand name used on Mercedez-Benz's website varies depending on region.

Now, add Cantonese to the mix, and things get even more complicated.

Spoken in Guangdong Province, Hong Kong, Macau, and by the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia, Cantonese cranks up the difficulty with its 9 tones compared to Mandarin’s 4. It’s a linguistic minefield.

Big brands very often zero in on connecting with Mandarin speakers, forgetting to check if their name works in Cantonese. A name that’s fine in Mandarin can often fall flat or be hilariously mangled in Cantonese.

Take Mercedes-Benz again. They had to come up with not one, but three different Chinese names depending on the region. In Cantonese-speaking regions, they use 平治 (ping5 zi6), which sounds less awkward than the Cantonese pronunciation of 奔驰 (bēnchí).

Volvo’s Chinese name, 沃尔沃, is a tongue-twister that doesn’t sound like the original when pronounced in Cantonese. It also uses characters that aren’t commonly seen. Like Mercedes-Benz, they also had come up with second Chinese name.

This is the extra layer of complexity you’re up against when localising brand names in China.

The Art of Localising Brand Names for China

Now, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of localising brand names in China. There are 3 main strategies here, each with its own set of quirks, challenges, and charms.

1. Sounding It Out

First up, we’ve got transliteration. This is where you create a Chinese name that echoes the original sound. Think of it as phonetic mimicry with a twist — the resulting characters need to convey a positive or, at the very least, neutral meaning.

Take Coca-Cola, for instance. It’s transliterated as 可口可樂, kěkǒu kělè in Mandarin, which sort of mimics the original pronunciation while meaning “tasty and fun.” Genius, right?

But here’s the rub: transliterated brand names generally only work in one Chinese dialect. Coca-Cola’s Chinese name in Cantonese? ho2 hau2 ho2 lok6 — it sounds nothing like the original but at least it still rolls off the tongue nicely.

Other brands aren’t so lucky. Nike’s Chinese name 耐克 (nàikè) and Mercedes-Benz’s 奔驰 (bēnchí) are non-starters in Cantonese-speaking regions like Hong Kong. Why? Their Cantonese pronunciations are about as graceful as a bull in a china shop.

2. Translating the Essence

Then we have translation, which focuses on the meaning rather than the sound.

This strategy involves translating the brand name into a Chinese equivalent that conveys the same message or value as the original. It’s all about capturing the essence of the brand, even if it means taking a bit of creative liberty with the original name.

Take BMW, for instance. Its Chinese name, 寶馬 (bǎomǎ, bou2 maa5), literally means “precious horse.” It’s simple and effective.

And then there’s Apple, which is directly translated to 蘋果 (píngguǒ), meaning, well, apple. Straightforward and effective, especially given Apple’s global clout.

3. The Hybrid Approach

Now, the hybrid method is where things get really interesting.

It combines both sound and meaning. A classic example is “Burger King,” which translates to 漢堡王 (hànbǎo wáng), meaning “Hamburger King.” This method maintains the essence of the original name while fitting snugly into local linguistic norms.

How to Nail Brand Name Localisation for the Chinese Market - Tabasco
Tabasco adopted the brand name 辣椒仔 ('little chilli peppers') given by Hong Kong fans who found the original transliterated name difficult to remember.

How you approach creating a Chinese name will depend on your industry, your original name, and what you’re trying to achieve. Phonetic and semantic aspects play a crucial role. Chinese is a tonal language, meaning the tone in which a word is pronounced can change its meaning entirely.

And let’s not forget cultural sensitivity.

Chinese consumers are highly attuned to nuances and connotations. A name that evokes positive imagery or feelings can significantly boost a brand’s appeal. Conversely, a name that unintentionally references something negative can sink a brand’s reputation faster than a lead balloon.

Why Your Brand Name Needs to Speak the Local Lingo

So, why go through all this trouble? Why is localising brand names such a big deal?

In China, a well-localised name can work wonders for your brand identity. It makes your brand feel like it belongs in the local market rather than coming off like a clumsy foreigner trying to flog something. It can mean the difference between soaring success and catastrophic failure.

A name that sounds good, carries positive vibes, and is easy to remember can significantly enhance your brand’s appeal.

Take Porsche, for instance. Their Chinese name, 保時捷 (bǎoshíjié in Mandarin or bou2 si4 zit3 in Cantonese), is not only phonetically similar to the original but also brimming with positive connotations. The name communicates strength, dominance, and speed, making it a perfect fit for the Porsche brand. The characters are commonly used, making them easy to read and remember. Since “Porsche” is a bit of a tongue-twister for Chinese speakers, a strong Chinese name takes on increased importance.

Porsche China's Douyin page

And then, of course, there are the legal reasons.

Even if a brand has no intention of entering the Chinese market, it may still be worth their while to create or register a brand name in Chinese. China operates on a first-to-file basis for trademarks, so you might want to protect your trademark from being snapped up by some opportunistic chancer. Or you might want to use the name in social media to attract the massive and growing volume of Chinese speakers outside of China, be they tourists or part of the diaspora.

Navigating Brand Localisation in China

Steering through the complexities of brand name localisation in China requires more than just a decent grasp of the language. It demands deep cultural insights and market expertise.

With 19 years of experience in the Chinese market, WPIC has turned Chinese localisation into an art form. We get that a brand name is more than just a collection of words — it’s an identity and a ticket to market success.

At WPIC, we’ve seen it all — the pitfalls, the triumphs, and the in-betweens. We know what it takes to navigate your brand clear of linguistic landmines and cultural faux pas.

So, why risk going it alone and ending up as the punchline of a cross-cultural joke? Partner with WPIC and leverage our unmatched experience to ensure your brand name hits all the right notes. Get in touch with us today and let’s make your brand a household name in China.

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