Talking Point

Brand awareness

Which multinationals have the best Chinese names?

A woman poses for a picture next to a BMW M3 car during the 15th Shanghai International Automobile Industry Exhibition in Shanghai

Winning horse: BMW’s Chinese name elicits associations with the strong and pacy steeds of imperial China

According to The Thistle and the Jade, Jardine Matheson’s official company history, its Chinese name Ewo began to be used in the early 1840s – after Hong Kong was ceded to Britain. This brilliantly simple and memorable name – which means ‘happy harmony’ in Cantonese – was not coined, mind you, by some ingenious Scottish Sinologist. It was inherited from the old Canton hong of Howqua, a trading firm that for generations had been controlled by the Wu family. Prior to the first Sino-British war of 1839 it had dominated the China trade.

But while Jardines may not have ‘invented’ the brand, using it turned out to be a wise move. Over the next century, ‘Ewo’ became probably the best known foreign company in China. Jardines emerged as a major player in trading, textiles and transport. The brand was even used for the firm’s pilsner lager, Ewo Beer.

(Not surprisingly, the brand disappeared during the Mao Zedong era. However, in the past decade or so Ewo – which has always been a dominant economic force in Hong Kong – has renewed its presence in mainland China.)

The enduring appeal of the ‘happy harmony’ moniker across three separate centuries illustrates that a good brand name underpins corporate longevity (Jardines was founded in 1832, and began using the Ewo name a decade later).

So what are the most successful foreign brand names in China today? WiC has assembled a list of 40 Chinese names that we think resonate particularly strongly with local consumers. It’s a ranking of sorts, but offered with the proviso that it’s not exhaustive. Much like trying to rank the best English poem, it’s a subjective list.

Of course, the topic of names – i.e. choosing one that makes your brand sound good in China – is one we’ve touched on before. But here we make our most ambitious attempt to explain why coming up with a Chinese name is such a complex business.

Different approaches

Broadly speaking there are five different ways that an overseas firm’s Chinese brand may have evolved. For historical reasons some use a name that originated in the Hong Kong market. This means the name was concocted to sound good phonetically in Cantonese (the seven-tone local dialect of Hong Kong and Guangdong province). By design the name will sound quite similar to the Western brand’s native version when its spoken in Cantonese. However, when those same Chinese characters are spoken in Mandarin (China’s four-tone official language and the native tongue of one billion people on the mainland) it sounds radically different.

Take two examples. The Chinese name for the beer Carlsberg is made up of three characters which mean ‘good’, ‘man’ and ‘uncle’. The Cantonese pronunciation of the three characters comes out as ‘Ga see ba’ (say it quickly, and you’ll get the point). But in Mandarin those characters sound a bit less like the Danish original: ‘Jia shi bo’.(For those that might be confused at this juncture: China’s language is unified by its writing system – that is to say, the most commonly used 3,000 characters can be understood by any literate Chinese no matter where they live in the country. However, depending on the specific dialect of Chinese used, the pronunciation of those characters will sound very different when spoken. One of Mao’s legacies was to force the majority of the country’s citizens to speak Mandarin, though even today a vast array of regional dialects like Cantonese and Hakka are still commonly used in family circles.)

chinese brands

Another example: Rolex. For decades Hong Kong has been one of the world’s key spots for luxury watch sales and so it is not a surprise that the Chinese name was largely designed around the Cantonese pronunciation. The three characters that constitute the Chinese name mean ‘hardworking strongman’ and in Cantonese these come out verbally as ‘Lo lik si’. That sounds a lot more like Rolex than the Mandarin pronunciation of those same three characters: ‘Lao li shi’.

Names designed for Mandarin

Given the preponderance of Mandarin-speakers (and their expanding wallets) the majority of foreign firms now give more weight to how their Chinese brands sound in China’s dominant tongue. Indeed in recent years the most creative have gone to some lengths to ensure their names not only sound good in Mandarin but also spark positive or poetic connotations among consumers.

It should be said that the most far-sighted company in this camp is Coca-Cola, which recognised decades ago the value of having a top-notch Chinese name.

When Coke first launched in China in the 1920s, the name ‘Ke-ke ken-la’ was adopted by local shopkeepers. It sounded good, but management in Atlanta wasn’t too thrilled to discover it meant ‘tadpoles bite wax’ in Chinese. A Shanghainese academic later won a company competition (reportedly for a prize of merely £350) to come up with a more considered alternative. He coined what is widely regarded as one of the best renderings of a Western consumer brand into Mandarin Chinese: ‘Ke-kou ke-le’.

It scores very highly on two counts. Phonetically it sounds almost identical to the original American soft drink’s name. But just as importantly, its four characters conjure up all the positive imagery any marketing executive could desire. It means ‘delicious and fun’.

Another brand that scores highly is carmaker Citroen. The French firm’s Chinese name sounds reasonably similar (‘Xue tie long’) but it is the poetic nature of the characters that makes it so distinctive. Sadly, the English translation doesn’t really do it justice: ‘snow iron dragon’. However, when a potential car owner hears this name in Mandarin it is extremely evocative. That’s particularly so for an older generation of Chinese that grew up in or around the Cultural Revolution that spanned the sixties and seventies. In this dismal era many Chinese names featured the characters ‘red’, ‘build’, ‘country’, ‘army’ and ‘defend’. By comparison, Citroen’s name conjures a more poetic, noble feudal tradition, blending the white of the snow with the ancient symbol for China, the dragon.

Other particularly evocative names are those of the watchmakers Longines and Tissot. In the case of the former the play on words is so great there are arguably two plausible meanings to a Chinese ear (either ‘music of the sea’ or ‘romantic music’). With Tissot the name’s translation might confuse. When non-Chinese read ‘celestial shuttle’ they will immediately think of a spaceship; however, the Chinese character refers to the small wooden shuttle of a weaving machine. Owing to the ancient tradition of silkmaking this also has a pleasing effect on the Chinese psyche. It helps too that ‘time flies like a weaving shuttle’ has been a popular metaphor in Chinese idioms and poetry.

Other strong names combine a direct message with admirable phonetics. Four of the better ones are Uniqlo (‘You ki ku’, or ‘top-notch clothes depot’), Hershey’s (‘Hao shi’, or ‘good time’), Unilever (‘Lian-he li-hua’, or ‘work together for China’) and Nike (‘Nai ke’, or ‘enduring and persevering’).

Less creative naming

To come up with names that combine deeper meaning with suitable phonetics, firms normally commission a linguistic expert. But some choose easier routes.

For example, some companies just go for literal translations of what their names mean in English. So Facebook simply uses the Chinese characters for a human face and a book. Microsoft uses the characters for ‘small’ and ‘soft’. Apple uses the character for an apple. Volkswagen uses the characters for ‘people’ and ‘car’, i.e. a direct translation from the German.

A lot of other brands go for names that sound phonetically very similar to their own but whose characters mean little or nothing. Examples are Audi (phonetically pronounced as ‘Ao di’), Adidas (‘A di-da si’), Disney (‘Di si ni’), Wal-Mart ( ‘Wo er ma’), and Gucci (‘Gu chi’).

There are a few rare cases too of Western multinationals that don’t have Chinese names, such as IBM. Although in its case that’s proven a sore point for state broadcaster CCTV. That’s because in 2010 state censors made the somewhat arbitrary decision to ban the use of English abbreviations on TV. That led CCTV anchors to start referring to IBM as ‘Ten thousand countries business machine’, a clumpy six-character phrase that baffled viewers. Presenters have since changed back to using the letters IBM. (The rule is still there but has been largedly ignored.)

An interesting twist is how South Korean multinationals arrive at their Chinese names. In their case it is often deceptively simple, since Korea borrowed much from Chinese culture during the Tang Dynasty. The upshot is that many ‘prestigious’ Korean names are often based on Chinese characters. Thus Samsung’s brand name in Chinese translates as ‘three stars’ (‘San xing’). That’s exactly the same as its meaning in Korean (founder Lee Byung-chull chose it to reflect his hopes for Samsung’s longevity).

Some problematic Chinese names

A bad Chinese name can take a toll on a firm’s success, says Ray Ally, executive director of Landor Associates, a brand consulting firm. For instance, Microsoft’s search engine Bing faced potential ridicule in China when it launched, reports the New York Times. That’s because in Mandarin, the pronunciation of ‘bing’ is the same as the word for disease, virus or defect – all rather inauspicious for a computer product. To avoid this Microsoft elected to change the search engine’s name in China to ‘Bi ying’ – which means ‘responds without fail’.

There are occasions too where a Western company’s name already sounds Chinese. But bizarrely enough that can be a mixed blessing. For instance: the earliest Chinese translation for Mercedes-Benz was ‘Bensi’. That may sound pretty good until you hear it means ‘rush to die’ in Chinese. Likely evoking images of crash-test dummies in the Chinese mind, executives in Stuttgart soon rebranded the luxury car as ‘Benchi’ (meaning ‘to run quickly as if like flying’).

Indeed, the alternate name Mercedes came up with is – in WiC’s view – among the best any foreign firm has devised. However, our verdict on the best name of all – and after much consideration – is BMW.

Many European car lovers know BMW’s famed circular logo is a reminder of its early days as an aircraft-maker. The blue and white quadrants are supposed to convey the idea of fast-moving propellers. But in China the brand is associated with a more ancient means of transport: the horse.

BMW’s Chinese name is ‘Bao ma’, which means ‘precious horse’. It’s a very appealing name for Chinese consumers: it conjures associations with an illustrious breed of horses from the steppe – famed for its speed and endurance in imperial China.

It’s a brand image that subsconsciously draws on Chinese artistic tradition too – since horses were often the subject matter for Tang Dynasty painters (an example being Han Gan). And the equestrian link has a more modern context too, as these days you have to be wealthy to own horses in China.

Of course, to reiterate, our ranking is a subjective view – others might argue in favour of Coke’s excellent Chinese name. We concur it’s a close call, but we think few will disagree the carmaker and the beverage firm are the top two.

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