Creating a Localized Brand Name
Changcheng. Does this phrase connect with you? What if you knew this was the Chinese word for The Great Wall? Now it embodies an entirely new package of connotations. This is the power of localization. Without any contextualization, Changcheng remains an unrecognizable combination of sounds in the English language. The same effect applies when international brands don’t introduce a Chinese brand name to their Chinese market.
Sherry Zhao, a highly specialized linguist and partner at Gab China, explains, “Developing a Chinese brand name requires localization.” Brands need to relinquish their English egos and embrace the translating process. Our team loves helping in this process. Sherry has translated, edited, and proofread over a million written words, working with impressive clients, including presidents and royalty, as she is seen interpreting for Prince Andrew in the photo below. This article is derived from her expertise to provide a closer perspective on the translation process.
Literal & Phonetic Translation
Phonetic translation, although appealing, can result in poor impact. “Brands who hold tightly to phonetics usually sacrifice meaning,” Sherry highlights. As a result, company brand names form a strange string of words. For example, Timberland decided on this phonetic translation: 添柏岚 (tian bai lan).
Tian = add
Bai = conifer tree
Lan = fog
What message does this send to Timberland’s market? Consumers have no meaningful message to establish a connection. Sherry uncovers that, since there is no clear meaning, consumers have given Timberland the nickname 踢不烂 (ti bu lan), or “kick-no-break.” This name translates as, “you can kick all you want, and the shoe won’t break.”
Hush Puppies is another brand that chose to match a few phonetic sounds: 暇步士 (Xia bu shi). Xia bu shi translates directly as, “leisure walk guy.” This name did not effectively stick because it was not catchy enough, so consumers usually revert to the English name “Hush Puppies.”
“If your brand name’s translation does not connect with consumers, your consumers will step in and create their own.” Sherry’s experience with localized translation warns companies of this common mistake. The alternative outcome to a lackluster name is that your original brand name will remain, and you will have wasted efforts on developing your Chinese brand name. You can avoid these risks altogether. Although literal or phonetic translations can be a starting guide, it isn’t always possible to derive meaning from them. Instead, dig a little deeper and pursue a brand name that genuinely connects with your market.
For examples of successful Chinese branding, Sherry emphasizes how the companies below chose to be unencumbered by translation rules. Instead, they incorporate one or two similar phonetics (or none) paired with characters that hold a meaningful representation of their company. By releasing the idea that you have to maintain phonetics, you invite space to design an impactful name.
Kiehl’s chose 科颜氏 to represent their company. The first and third characters are phonetically similar, while the translation is relevant to their market: we use science to make skin beautiful. The character 颜 translates to “face” or “skincare.” Adding the common suffix 氏, which appears in many Chinese brands, elevated the name to create a local connection.
Ke = science
Yan = face
Shi = common suffix local Chinese brands use
When phonetics and literal translation align, your brand can maintain its global image while developing new roots. Subway is one of the few brands that accomplished this feat. 赛百味, or Sai Bai Wei, shares a similar phonetic comparison and enhances their brand’s representation. The meaning of this character combination is, “exceeds a hundred tastes.”
Sai = to surpass
Bai = hundred
Wei = taste
Tide combined phonetics with a meaningful message to create a memorable brand image in China. 汰渍, or TaiZi, as you can hear, matches phonetically for the first character. The translation is also perfect for Tide’s branding message, “eliminate stains.”
Tai = to wash / eliminate
Zi = stain
Deloitte, an accounting firm known as 德勤 (DeQin), approached translation with an open mind to send the message, “we work with virtue and diligence.” Despite only retaining one similar sound, they managed to design a fitting Chinese brand name.
De = virtue
Qin = diligent
Procter & Gamble 宝洁
As a company managing a range of personal care brands, Procter & Gamble focused on consumer impact. Their name, 宝洁, translates as “treasure clean.” Overseeing several brands, they needed something memorable with the ability to cover all the products they offer.
Bao = treasure
Jie = clean
If you’re looking for an example of a brand that ventured away from literal or phonetic translation, check Colgate’s Chinese name: 高露洁. Gaolujie demonstrates the brand’s identity to provide consumers with a clear message that their product will leave your teeth feeling clean.
Gao = a high level
Lu = dew
Jie = clean
Coca-cola’s Chinese name, Kekou Kele, is one of the best examples of the coveted combination of phonetics and literal translation. The translation, “good taste, makes you happy,” accurately represents the brand’s global image.
ke le=can be happy
Acronyms & Well-known Brands
If your brand name is an acronym, several brands have successfully maintained their English name in this category. H&M delivered its original name and is known as “HM” in China. APM Monaco also chose to retain their name, and consumers refer to the brand as “APM.”
Even high-end brands that already have an impressive international presence still need to register a Chinese name when entering the market. Louis Vuitton’s Chinese name is purely phonetic since consumers still refer to the English name or LV. Their registered name is 路易威登 (Luyi Weideng). Despite needing a Chinese brand name, brands ultimately decide whether to place their English or Chinese name on marketing materials.
Choosing your brand name
Sherry wants to remind you to prioritize branding and localization when you choose your Chinese brand name. Remember that there are no rules that demand a literal or phonetic translation. Marketing impact and identity are more important than retaining the same sounds or exact words.
Strong branding starts with brand identity. We enjoy working with international brands to think openly about what their brand represents. Then, we reflect this message in a localized name that maximizes this image to consumers. Consumers will be more excited to develop brand loyalty to a localized, catchy name, one that represents a brand’s true identity. It is the consumers, ultimately, who will determine the success of a Chinese brand name. Our team of dedicated translators loves to ensure brand names effectively reach the Chinese market through Chinese translation.