Chinese Brand Naming: Why and How?

China represents a key market for a significant number of foreign brands. In 2018, Chinese consumers spent more than US$4 Trillion on online and offline shopping, representing a 6.2% year-on-year increase. 

Establishing a good brand presence on the Chinese market is a fundamental condition for grasping all these opportunities. Defining your Chinese brand name is the first pillar towards a successful presence in China, and the challenge that numbers of foreign brands face at some point

Why Does Your Brand Need A Chinese Name?

A brand name is the essential pillar of a sound communication strategy as it is often the first contact that your target consumers have with your brand. It is therefore important to convey the right message from the very beginning. 

Chinese consumers still perceive a brand’s international origin – firstly conveyed by its English name – as a guarantee of quality. However, pronouncing it often represents a daunting task for them. In that case, a good Chinese name will help local consumers spread the word about the brand. For instance, they refer to Nike as “nai ke” (耐克) and BMW as “bao ma” (宝马). 

What if the company doesn’t come up with an official Chinese name? Consumers with varied opinion may create one or more names for you on their own that may convey an incorrect or unflattering message. Therefore, a Chinese name is essential for foreign brands to establish a meaningful communication with local consumers and take control of their brand image. 

However, finding a relevant Chinese name is a challenging task due to the important cultural and linguistic differences between English and Chinese and the availability of the local trademark. Generally speaking, companies can adopt two main approaches when naming their brands in Chinese: a semantical translation and a transliteration of sounds (also called “phonetical approach”) as explained below. The ideal Chinese name will combine both approaches. 

How To Name Your Brand In China?

1. Semantical Approach: Identify Your Brand Feeling 

Start by identifying the feeling and lifestyle that your brand intends to convey towards its Chinese target audience. For instance, banks must give consumers the feeling of financial safety, trust and rigor. A luxury brand will want to express a sense of prestige and showcase its heritage and craftsmanship. Regardless of the industry, the number one rule is to select the right characters that match with your brand feeling since there are various Chinese characters for the same pronunciation or pinyin. 

BMW, the German high-end automobile brand, is committed to providing ultimate magnificent driving experience to consumers. The brand chose the Chinese name “Bao ma” (宝马), which literally means “precious horse”, presenting itself as a luxurious transportation mode. Meanwhile, the character “Bao” embodies feminine traits in Chinese culture. This brings a sense of elegance and refinement to match with the brand’s high-end positioning.  

2. Phonetical approach: mimic the original sound of your brand name

Choosing a Chinese name which is phonetically similar to your original brand name is a way to enhance your brand recognition all over the world. For example, both Adidas and McDonald’s Chinese names, respectively “A Di Da Si” (阿迪达斯) and “Mai Dang Lao” (麦当劳), are random characters with no specific meaning but similar sounds. Interestingly, some Chinese brands also use this naming approach to create an international brand image and attract more consumers. 

Foreign brands must be culturally sensitive when selecting their Chinese name. No matter what approach the brand chooses, it is essential to thoroughly check any possible cultural misunderstanding to avoid controversies. A successful brand name or communication campaign in other countries could trigger a backlash in China because of cultural and historical differences. 

In 2017, Japanese automotive company Toyota named its new SUV Prado “Bao Dao” (霸道) meaning “to rule by force” in China. To show Prado’s masculine and powerful brand image, Toyota featured stone lions – which stand for dignity and power in Chinese culture – bowing to the car in its advertisement. This advertisement reminded people of Japanese imperialism and its terroristic acts in China, which provoked an outcry against the brand. As a result, the Chinese government censored the advertisement and Toyota changed the SUV name into “Pu La Duo” (普拉多). 

In order to create an ideal Chinese name to connect with local consumers, the best choice is to combine the semantical and phonetical approaches. Coca-Cola is a good example: the Chinese name “Ke Kou Ke Le” (可口可乐) not only sounds similar to the English name, but also has the meaning, tasty and happy, which perfectly expresses the brand feeling. However, it is not always applicable for every brand as it may sometimes be challenging to identify a name that both conveys the brand feeling and sounds like its original name. In this case, it is better to favor a phonetical approach conveying the brand feeling over than a purely phonetical approach. 

What is a good Chinese brand name?

  • It is easy to pronounce and remember for Chinese consumers. If consumers can’t even pronounce your brand name, it would be very difficult to nurture consumers’ brand recognition and loyalty to your brand. 
  • A good brand name is evocative and meaningful. It contains the core message that the brand intends to convey to its Chinese audience.
  • It must be consistent with your brand identity. For example, the name of an insurance company should express safety, security and rigor. A Chinese name failing to convey your brand identity will give audience wrong perceptions and will not be appealing to your target consumers. 
  • It is still available. A legal check is essential to verify the copyright status before going any further in the naming process. 

Brand naming in China can be particularly challenging as it requires a scientific research, a creative expertise and an in-depth understanding of both Chinese value and a brand’s original essence.