China ConsumerMarch 9, 2012

What’s in a name

The thorny issue of translating a brand into Chinese

The importance of names goes back a long way in China. More than 2,500 years ago Confucius wrote: “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things… Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses be spoken appropriately.” Bearing in mind this ancient advice, it follows that every foreign company is well advised to carefully consider how their brand translates in Chinese.

Indeed, as our Talking Point last week made plain, the issue of names is very much on the agenda for foreign firms. International brands – such as Apple and Hermès – have found themselves in court defending their trademarks.

CEOs know the importance of brand awareness and likewise the growing influence of the Chinese consumer on their sales. Good names sell more product. That’s why CBN Weekly reckons every multinational should pay close attention to how Coca-Cola got its Chinese name.

It notes that Coca-Cola’s initial Chinese translation was very strange. When it first launched in China in the 1920s, the name ‘Keke Kenla’ was concocted by local shopkeepers. Atlanta wasn’t too pleased to discover it meant ‘tadpoles bite wax’ in Chinese. A Shanghainese academic later won a competition held by the US firm and came up with what is widely regarded as the best rendering of a Western consumer brand into Chinese: ‘Kekou Kele’.

Why? Because it ticks two boxes. Phonetically it sounds almost identical to the original American soft drink’s name. But just as importantly, its characters conjure up all the positive imagery a marketing executive could desire. It means ‘delicious tasty happiness’.

Another good one is ‘Naike’. Nike’s name sounds broadly similar too, and conjures up another evocative meaning: ‘‘Enduring and persevering’.

However, perhaps the best instance of a Chinese name being translated almost perfectly is Audi. In Chinese it is ‘Aodi’, which phonetically sounds identical to the German name. On the downside, neither of those characters really means anything to a Chinese ear.

HSBC’s name, on the other hand, puts more emphasis on meaning than phonetics. ‘Huifeng’ – the bank’s name since its founding in China in 1865 – translates as ‘gathering prosperity’. That’s a powerful name for a financial institution.

Quite a few prominent firms have experienced problems with their Chinese names. For example, the earliest Chinese translation for Mercedes-Benz was ‘Bensi’. That may sounds 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’).

A bad Chinese name can effect 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’ – ‘responds without fail’.

For more on the topic of translating foreign brands: in issue 59 we explained how Carlsberg got its Chinese name, and see WiC99 for why BMW named itself after a horse.

Brand In Chinese (Pinyin name) What it means
Coca-Cola Kekou Kele ‘Delicious/tasty happiness’
Nike Naike ‘To endure and overcome’
BMW Baoma ‘Precious Horse’
HSBC Huifeng ‘Gathering prosperity’
Mercedes Benz Benchi ‘To run quickly as if like flying’
Hewlett Packard Huipu ‘Universal kindness/blessing’
IKEA Yijia ‘Suitable family home’
Marriott Wanhao ‘10,000 Wealthy Elites’
Marvel Comics Manwei ‘Comic Power’
Tide Detergent Taizi ‘Gets rid of dirt’

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