Posted: March 1, 2012 |  AUTHOR: KEN FOX | CONTACT ME


Most marketing MBA students are taught the do’s and don’ts of international marketing. This often includes a list of classic mistakes made by U.S. companies in advertising due to not understanding cultural differences or mistranslation of the language. Some classic examples of those involving advertising to Chinese include:

1. KFC experienced problems when the phrase “finger lickin’ when translated into Chinese as “eat your fingers off”
2. Pepsi’s “Come Alive with the Pepsi Generation” slogan translated in Chinese to “Pepsi Brings Your Ancestors Back from the Grave”
3. The Coca-Cola name was first read as “Kekoukela,” meaning “Bite the Wax Tadpole” or “Female Horse Stuffed with Wax,” depending on the dialect. Coke then researched 40,000 characters to find a phonetic equivalent “kokoukole,” translating into “Happiness in the Mouth”
4. When United Airlines started service from Hong Kong they gave their (Chinese passengers) white carnations to celebrate the occasion. When they learned that to many Asians white flowers represent bad luck and even death, they changed to red carnations.

The official language of The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is Mandarin Chinese. These days it is written in “simplified” characters (not letters). Most Chinese words include one or two characters. Traditional Chinese in written language is often used in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Choosing brand names in China can be quite a challenge. Fundamental guidelines for choosing any ”brand” name include: keeping it short, making it easy to pronounce and remember, and to avoid any negative connotations. One Chinese consulting firm states “creating a brand name using the Chinese language will help companies reach more Chinese users. Any company entering China with existing English brand names must check to see if their name can be pronounced, and for its Chinese language meaning. Additionally, the same sound written differently with Chinese characters many have a different meaning. The official system to transcribe Chinese characters into the Roman alphabet is called “Hanyu pinyin.” Hanyu means the Chinese language, pin means spell and yin means sound.
The Chinese name for Tide detergent is pronounced Taizie, whose Chinese characters literally mean “gets rid of dirt.” The same sound written differently could mean “too purple.” Other translation examples of American brands include: Colgate as Gao lu jie or Nike, as Nai ke.

Some companies, such as LinkedIn, have not translated into a Chinese name. Microsoft was careful with their “Bing” search engine name, which translated into Chinese can mean disease, defect or virus. So the company chose a revised name, Bi ying, which roughly translated in Chinese means “responds without fail or must respond.”

A company entering China needs to decide whether to translate an existing brand name or generate a Chinese brand. Some names have been phonetically translated and mean nothing. Others like Coca-Cola, can use Chinese characters and pronunciations to sound like the English brand names. On one hand, having a unique Chinese name may have advantages. Introducing Marvel Comics to China, a Shanghai based company called Labbrand Consulting, came up with “Man wei,” which means “cosmic power.”

Chinese culture plays a role in choosing Chinese names, characters and colors used in logos. One Chinese cultural characteristic is the aspiration for symbolic implications of good wishes and good fortune. Some studies in China suggest that the most memorable form of a Chinese brand name is a two syllable form rather than an expected one syllable English name. This apparently stems from modern Chinese which is disyllabic, that is, the majority of words consist or two syllables. Disyllabic compounds make up about 70% of the basic Chinese vocabulary. This is also reflected in Chinese personal naming, such as: Deng Xiao-ping.

Google alienated a number of its Chinese fans when in 2006 it launched its Chinese brand name as “Guge.” The name in Chinese means “harvesting song,” which to many seemed to sound strange and unfitting, or suggested an old fashion feel associated with agriculture. Many Chinese had trouble pronouncing the Google name or its Chinese name Guge. “According to Google, the company’s Chinese name came from research by its Chinese employees, who listed all the possible combinations of two Chinese characters beginning with “G,” using computers. Then they voted for their favorites and guge emerged as the winner.”

The company Interbrand has released its 2011 Best China Brand Name Report. Many of the top brand names have the word China in it such as: China Mobile, China Life, China Construction Bank, Bank of China, China Merchants Bank, etc. Other Chinese brands cited in the top 25 include:
7. Tenecent-largest internet service portal in China
8. Moutai-produces alcoholic beverages, including wine
12. Baidu-leading search engine company in China
13. Lenovo-one of the world’s largest computer manufacturer
14. Wuliangye-produces alcoholic beverages
16. Tsingtao Beer-largest Chinese beer brand
20 Alibaba-owns multiple websites in China

There are also some very well known Chinese social networks or website brands, besides Baidu, including:
-TaoBao, an on-line shopping website, whose Chinese name literally means “looking for treasure”
-RenRen, a popular social network site, uses pinyin and repetition to enhance brand impression among local users, which translated literally means “a site for everyone.”
-Sina weibo, a micro blogging website

One consultant suggests naming any on-line or e-commerce site, which does not have multiple touch points with its consumers, to have a brand name in the local Chinese language.

I love the brand name Alibaba, which is a widely well known name for a Chinese network company that owns a number of websites for e-commerce, foreign and domestic trading. Other popular brand names I saw in China include Li-Ning, a large and popular sporting goods company, with retail stores by that name. It is named after a leading Chinese basketball player.

To avoid confusion, misunderstanding and to maximize success in China check with a Chinese brand or name consultancy to confirm the best approaches. Two such companies are Brand Union (Beijing) a WPP owned company and Labbrand in Shanghai.

Additional resources:
1. Choosing the Right Chinese Name for a foreign firm, China Daily, Feb. 2, 2010
2. Picking Brand Names in China is a Business Itself, N.Y. Times, Nov. 11, 2011
3. Chinese Naming Online Brands, Labbrand Brand Consultants
4. Brand Naming: A study on Brand Name Translation in China, by Chan Bik Yan, Hong Kong Baptist University, 2007

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