8 min read

Western brand names in China.

By Gina Dollen, GMK Markenberatung.

Brand names: they are one of the first – if not the first – points of contact between an audience and a brand. A brand name generates an identity, conveys values and makes for uniqueness. It provides a distinction, ensures memorability and creates connections. However, what happens to Western brand names in a country such as China, when they must create all of the above in a place where the Latin alphabet is not even the main one used? Where words, values and the meaning of language differ significantly from Western standards? This calls for the utmost attention, diligence and creativity. A well-considered transfer of a brand name to the Chinese market can not only maintain a brand’s usual standards, but also capitalise on new opportunities for brand positioning.

A precious horse, a fisherman’s treasure and the proper home – all three are known brands that every one of us is familiar with. Perhaps they don’t ring a bell, though? That is because they are three examples of famous brand names being translated into Chinese. They refer to BMW, Fisherman’s Friend and Ikea respectively. At this point it is probably already clear that a simple word-for-word translation is usually not enough. A Western brand name can be translated into Chinese in a wide variety of ways, from literally to allegorically or even by retaining the original logo.

Any solution can prove to be useful, depending on what the brand name offers, how well known the company is and the intentions behind the transfer to the Chinese market.

Overall, a distinction can be made between four different methods:

Image: LG Electronics

Method 1: no change

This method is probably the simplest since the logo as well as the word mark remain just as they are. As easy as that may sound, brand managers should consider this decision very carefully. This method is most suited to brands that already possess a certain degree of familiarity, one example being LG. In addition, this option may be good for companies with products that inspire trust thanks to their Western origin. Praline manufacturer Lauenstein Confiserie, for example, used this method to orchestrate its transfer into the Chinese market. German chocolate in particular enjoys an excellent reputation in China, so the German name Lauenstein Confiserie prompts high expectations and trust in the product. This phenomenon applies in reverse, too. Would you buy your well-known Tiger Balm in English (or German) packaging, or would you prefer the traditional Chinese version?

Brands taking this route must know for certain that they either have a high degree of familiarity or produce the right product. In particular, food items and technology products from Western countries, and especially from Germany, are highly regarded. However, even with all the benefits, caution is still required. If a brand name includes a large number of umlauts, is unusually long or is simply difficult to pronounce, consumers may end up making unintended mistakes or even reinvent the name. Citibank, for instance, became the “Colourful Flags” Bank. The “reinvention” in its case had thoroughly positive connotations which the company simply took on as its own. Nonetheless, such reinvention can also take a turn that is not conducive for the brand.

IKEA Logo with translation

Method 2: complementing with a translation

The second option aims to retain a characteristic appearance whilst still adapting. If a word mark is contained within a logo, the combined graphic and word mark can stay with an additional Chinese translation of the brand name appended to the logo. There are a few things to be considered when a company then takes the plunge and translates its name. Language has a vastly more important status in Chinese-speaking countries and can be interpreted in many ways. Words that connote a single meaning in Western countries can describe many entirely different things in Chinese by just changing tone or being pronounced slightly differently.

There are four tones in total that each attach a different meaning to words. Some brands simply work with the sound of their name, including for example Audi and Nokia, which are called “Ào Dí” and “Nuò Jī Yà” in Chinese, while Sony opted to translate itself as “Suǒ Ní”.

Words that connote a single meaning in Western countries can describe many entirely different things in Chinese by just changing tone or being pronounced slightly differently.

The fact that Chinese characters are generally logograms – where a character represents a syllable or a monosyllabic word – can also aid the translation as much as it can hinder it. Each character is associated with specific things. One example of a company using them to its benefit is the Braun brand. Its translation, “博朗”, pronounced “Bó Lǎng”, is a very good play on the meaning of the characters. The character for “bó” in this case stands for wealth while “lǎng” means clarity. Two utterly positive attributes that make a direct, positive contribution to the brand’s values. What’s more, China has numerous regional dialects that require businesses to consider where in China they wish to gain a foothold. Do local dialects need to be factored in? How prevalent in the relevant region are the Latin alphabet or languages such as English or German? If a literal translation fails, there is still the possibility of using a second variation.

Translating the content

A translation of the name’s content provides particularly good opportunities for making the brand and products more understandable at first glance, perhaps even more understandable than if just using the Western name. Interpretations can be played with and meanings can be used and combined to reap dividends. Siemens, for example, found a positive solution. Its translation, “Xī Mén Zi”, means “master from the West” – a critical factor in sales, because everybody likes to buy from the master and, moreover, one from the highly positively connoted West. Our example in the introduction used a similar translation: BMW is known as “Bǎo Mǎ” in China, which translates as “the precious horse”.

An extremely positive word association: this car has connotations of horsepower.
Image: Pixabay/Pexels

Side essay: Trust

Consumer trust in brands plays a very large role in China, as in most other countries. Western businesses in particular can benefit from this since they generally enjoy an excellent reputation in China. One typical example of this stems from the baby formula scandal in China where harmful substances were discovered in Chinese milk and infant formulas. Chinese consumers started looking explicitly for Western brands as a result. The ones at an advantage were those that had stuck with their Western name or made a play on the language and characters that clearly identified them as a Western brand.

While Ikea did not bank on the trust factor, it did pin its faith on a feeling: well-being. This feeling is well known to be at the heart of the Ikea brand, which essentially says, “Feel good in your home.” A choice was therefore made in favour of “Yí Jiā”, which loosely means “agreeable home”. Coca-Cola developed a bold solution with its “Kěkǒu Kělè” translation, meaning “tastes good and makes you happy”. Who wouldn’t want a sip?

“Translations like these are of course the jackpot,” says Bernd Müller, Director International at the German Design Council, “Brand names also need a bit of luck for such translations to be available; they cannot always be translated like this.”

Another possibility is to translate the word directly, as Apple did. Its Chinese name is simply “Píngguǒ”, which means “apple”. However, this works mainly because most people were already familiar with Apple and no longer needed a big explanation of the product or service. Microsoft also chose a very direct translation, namely, “Wēi Ruǎn”, meaning “micro” and “soft”.

In some cases, the sound of the translation can be mixed with the content of it. Nike, for example, is called “Nài Kè”, which closely resembles the sound of the original while also expressing “endurance overcomes” in its meaning. Starbucks opted for another form of mixed translation. The first character of its translation stands for “star” and is thus a direct translation. The second character sounds similar to “bucks”.

Lidl Logo, chinese version

Method 3: complete transfer

This option involves a complete transfer whereby the Western word mark is replaced by the Chinese translation. This is a solution used by Lidl and Pizza Hut, for example. LinkedIn also decided to make use of a full transfer and works with a word mark composed of Chinese characters. Only the characteristic blue square with the “In” lettering remains in the Chinese version of the logo.

Method 4: starting over

If a brand can afford the luxury of daring to start afresh, doing this while transferring to the Chinese market can have good effects. Very strong brands that are already known, for example, should avoid taking this step as they could lose their status. Brands that are still unknown, on the other hand, can develop a fully new name for the Chinese market and harness the benefits of this extremely rich language very nicely. Overall, however, it can be said that this method is only applicable in a small minority of situations.

What not to do and tips

There are a few things that companies should not use when they transfer their brand name to the Chinese market. For example, there are numbers that would not do any good at all in a brand name. The number four is pronounced similarly to the word for “die” and the number 14 is also associated with death. There are even high-rise buildings in China that do not mark a fourth or 14th floor for this reason. In contrast, numbers such as eight, which stands for prosperity, have very positive connotations. The number nine is also popular, standing for the dragon and perpetuity in Chinese. Alongside them, plays can be made on numbers and genders, since even numbers stand for femininity and odd numbers for masculinity. Colours in logos should also be thought out, with red and gold generally having very positive associations for instance.

The dragon stands for fortune, goodness and intelligence in China and is a very typical symbol. It is associated with the number nine, which can have a very positive effect for brand names. Image: Unsplash/Ryan Moulton

Summed up: there is no one-size-fits-all solution

Each of the methods described above can provide its own benefits; however, in the end each brand must know for itself what its objective is and how that can best be achieved. “The way that Western brands are transferred to the Chinese market has changed over the years,” says Bernd Müller from the German Design Council. Initially, most brands attempted to adapt themselves fully, translate everything and be perceived as a Chinese brand. This changed as time passed, firstly because Western brands were associated with trust and quality, and secondly because an increasing number of Chinese people speak English, for example, or sometimes even German. The Latin alphabet is taught at school and is even used to learn the standard pronunciation of Chinese characters. Techniques such as method two – complementing with a translation – are therefore becoming more popular and easy to implement.

“In today’s age, if companies are to become international, they should be mindful of their name and logo being able to work everywhere right from the brand development stage,” remarks Bernd Müller.

In the end, every Western brand should convey the right feeling, trust and the right values in the Chinese market through a name. It is entirely up to the company to decide whether that means leaving its name as it is or developing a completely new one.

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