A name is usually the very first thing people encounter of a brand, making it perhaps the most important part a brand’s identity. A good name is a one-second invitation, hooking consumers’ interest. It can be a preview of the brand’s promise, purpose and philosophy, or as simple as the name of its founder. And while international companies usually try hard to create a name that will resonate when they enter China, they often stumble, using translations that are clumsy, confusing or just plain wrong.
Let’s take a look at four common pitfalls that companies run into:
1. Making the Wrong Assumptions about Target Consumers in China
Many international brands have to revisit their positioning in China due to different target consumers. However, they often forget to pay attention to their Chinese name, one of the most important brand assets they have.
A company that got it right is Philip Morris. When they introduced Marlboro cigarettes in China 13 years ago, they knew they needed a name change. Marlboro, named after the London street where the cigarettes were first made, signified its heritage to Western smokers. But a literal translation of that street name wouldn’t create any resonance with Chinese consumers. The market environment also plays an important role to their decision. Foreign
To address this difference, the company named Marlboro “Ten thousand treasure paths” (万宝路) to reflect the idea of success and the brand’s premium positioning. The new name better suited Chinese consumers overall, as well as the shift away from a mass market to a narrower segment of affluent people.
It’s important to understand that a brand’s target consumer in China may be different from those overseas and that even if a name is familiar, it might not have the same impact. The creation of the Chinese name should come hand in hand with the brand’s localization strategies.
2. Underestimating Cultural Differences
Companies also need to make sure the Chinese characters they choose communicate the right meaning in the relevant cultural context. One identical word can be understood differently in Western and Eastern cultures. For example, intelligence (智慧) generally refers to life wisdom in the West. In China, it’s also interpreted as social sophistication.
Best Buy, for example, infers the best value to buy, in English. In Chinese, though, the name translates as “think one hundred times before you buy” (百思买). This translation implies a hesitation and can be read as a lack of quality by Chinese consumers, who are inclined to be more prudent and cautious. After six unsuccessful years, Best Buy left China in 2011.
Cultural differences often cause misunderstandings, both before and during the name creation process. For brands seeking both phonetic similarities and evocative associations, not just direct translations, it is important to understand the meaning of the original name and pick appropriate Chinese characters accordingly.
3. Underestimating Linguistic Differences
Similar to how you could go wrong with a direct translation, you can also go wrong with a pure phonetic name. Chinese phrases with similar pronunciations can have very different meanings. Consider Warsteiner, a German beer. It is translated as 沃斯乐 in China, which essentially has no meaning as a phrase, while the last character 乐 means happiness. Unfortunately, its pronunciation is almost identical to “Wo-Si-Le,” which means “I am dead.” Negative customer reaction clearly jeopardizes its sales.
Even Chinese brands can make the same mistake. Smartisan Smartphone (锤子手机), pronounced in Mandarin as “Chui Zi,” means hammer. But in Sichuan, “Chui Zi” denotes negativity and contempt. The name was eventually changed to “Jian Guo,” which means nuts (which will amusingly cause another cultural confusion if translated directly for the Western market).
Regional differences are critical. There are six major dialects in China: Mandarin, Cantonese, Sichuanese, Minnan, Hakka and Shanghainese. Picking a name without considering various pronunciations in all these dialects can result in embarrassing missteps.
4. Failing to Check for Trademark Originality
Brand names have no value if they aren’t registered properly. China leads the world in trademark registrations, with 17 million trademarks by 2018. New Balance, the global sportswear brand, still does not use a Chinese brand name, since so many possible names have been registered by domestic shoe companies. These brands, with names that are similar to New Balance, are causing consumer confusion and cannibalizing the brand’s sales.
Many brands are even facing legal problems because of improper name registration. Little Sheep (小肥羊), a famous Chinese hotpot brand, has been involved in a two-year lawsuit with competitors using the same name.
Amid fierce competition, it is ultra-important to run a pre-legal check in the creation process to avoid using any names that are already taken. Moreover, registering a trademark in China takes up to 18 months. Even if an international company hasn’t officially expanded to China, it’s still a good idea to have a good Chinese brand name secured to prevent obstacles in the future.
Brand names have a profound impact on consumer perception. This holds true across geographies and cultures. When a brand enters a foreign market, the company should treat the name creation process seriously and carefully. And entering China, they should anticipate even more subtleties. With the right name, a consumer may consider listening to what you have to say and learning more about you. But with the wrong one? You’ll never have another chance to make that first impression.