From biting the wax tadpole to rushing towards death, why it's important to get your Chinese name right

What's in a name?

Brands taking a casual attitude to creating a Chinese name for themselves do so at their peril. From wax tadpoles to imminent death, translating your moniker is fraught with danger and must be approached not only with care, but with tact and endless patience.

Choosing a Chinese name for your brand can take months, if not years (something The Drum knows all too well, but more on that later). Rather than eureka moments scribbled on cocktail napkins or the backs of cigarette packs, translating your brand for the Chinese market is more a science and likely involves linguists, analysts, marketers and focus groups.

Jolin Guan, executive strategy director at Superunion in Shanghai, says that while the right name is essential no matter the language, in China it is both extremely important and extremely difficult.

“The Chinese language system has unique sounds, shapes, meanings and etymology. A Chinese name might carry more meaning than other alphabetic languages because it has visual depiction, certain imagery and implied stories in its characters. Hence Chinese names serve a similar function as imagery that elicits people’s imagination about the brand.”

And considering the enormous opportunity the country presents for western brands, getting it wrong is not an option. Although a surprising number do.

French wine brand Castel, for example, adopted the Chinese name 卡斯特 (pronounced kǎ-sī-tè) when it entered the market in 1999. In 2013 however, after a lengthy trademark dispute with a local producer, it was fined $5m and forced to issue an official apology and promise to refrain from using the name again. It later rebranded to 卡思黛乐 (kǎ-sī-dài-lè).

And legalities aren’t all a brand need concern itself with. An early phonetic translation of Coca-Cola – 蝌蚪啃蜡 (ko-kä-kö-la) – meant ‘bite a wax tadpole’, while Mercedes-Benz’s 奔斯 (bēn-sī) was supposed to mean ‘going quickly’ but was often heard as bēn-sǐ (‘rushing toward death’). Wisely, Mercedes now goes by 奔驰 (bēn-chí), which means ‘galloping fast’, and Coca-Cola hit upon 可口可乐 (kĕ-kŏu-kĕ-lè), which roughly translates as ‘happiness in the mouth’.

There are four common naming approaches brands take: literation (a translation based on phonetic similarity), translation (based on meaning), transliteration (a combination of literation and translation) and transcreation (which forms a new phrase based on the meaning). Previously, Guan tells us, most western brands used literation – “a name with phonetic similarity to the original but lacking a meaning”. These might be easy to remember, she says, “but they can hardly elicit imagination”.

“This trend is no longer valid, however, and Chinese consumers demand foreign brands better understand Chinese culture and adapt in more sophisticated ways. Take Lexus. In mainland China it uses 雷克薩斯 (léi-kè-sà-sī) – a literation name with no meaning – while in the Hong Kong market it goes with 凌志 (líng-zhì), which means ‘beyond ambition’, a transliteration that sounds similar to the English name with a good meaning. Mainland Chinese consumers wonder why the brand has abandoned a nicer version for their market.”

Vladimir Djurovic, chief executive of brand innovation consultancy Labbrand, says it is essential to get your Chinese name right from the beginning so that it can accompany your brand’s growth in China and connect effectively with Chinese consumers from the earliest stage.

“It is important to stress that the opportunity cost of not being able to use a Chinese name – because the name lacks internal alignment or full legal proofing leading to renaming – is possibly years of positive brand equity that can impact the return on investment of all other actions undertaken in China.”

Some of the clients who have consulted his agency had wasted “months and years in trial and error” without finding a satisfactory name, he says. “It is nearly impossible to stumble on the optimal Chinese brand name out of mere team brainstorming, since most name creations will face either a legal risk or a linguistic issue in some important dialect.

“In most naming projects, the final name is chosen out of several hundred possible candidates that all require careful pruning to single out the best.”

Besides legally risky names and names that are poorly translated, one of the biggest pitfalls, according to Djurovic, is choosing a name that “doesn’t carry the association of the brand and, in turn, creates confusion to the consumer”. He points to Tripadvisor which, when entering the market, went by 到到 (dào-dào) – it means ‘arrive arrive’. “It was cute and catchy but Chinese travelers had difficulty relating it to Tripadvisor because of their overly dissimilar phonetics and many thought it was a copycat of the brand.”

It became clear after a few years it would have to consider renaming, so approached Labbrand for help. The resulting 猫途鹰 (māo-tú-yīng) is “a coined version of 猫头鹰 (‘the owl’ in Chinese that literally means ‘cat head eagle’), with the ‘head’ character (头) changed to 途 (‘journey’) and both characters sharing a close pronunciation with each other”.

Djurovic says: “The new name conveys a clear hint to Tripadvisor’s visual identity – the iconic owl – and removes any risk of confusion posed by copycats. The substitution of the middle character also clearly outlines the brand association with travel planning.”

Guan says the main criteria for getting your Chinese name right are that it should be “easy to read, pronounce and remember, have no negative associations and be able to deliver your brand values while being distinct from others”. For Djurovic meanwhile, the true measure of a brand’s success will be how immediate the association is between its western logo and Chinese name. Shown L’Oréal’s alphabetic-based western logo, Chinese consumers are likely to read it as 欧莱雅 (ōu-lái-yǎ) rather than the alphabetic name that is written, he says.

“This very intuitive bond between the brand identity (logo, color, iconic products) and the Chinese name is a good indicator that the brand has become part of the mental representation of the consumers.”

And so with all these warnings ringing in our ears and examples of best practice set out before us, how should The Drum proceed if pursuing a dedicated Chinese version of our brand?

Djurovic cautions against rushing in, pointing out that naming creation would usually take his company at least four to six weeks, adding that it is impossible to improvise. Nonetheless, he outlines some creative considerations to get us started.

“We would probably start to approach with the semantic route around 鼓 (gǔ), which is ‘drum’ in Chinese, and look at how it might be combined with other characters that would add to the Chinese name associations related to the industry.”

鼓, he says, is a very interesting character that not only means 'drum' but also ‘encourage’ or ‘excite’. “We could then consider playing with this character further to create names like 鼓舞商业资讯 (gǔwǔ-shāngyè-zīxùn, which means ‘inspiring business news’) or simply 鼓手网 (gǔshǒu-wǎng, or ‘drummer network’) to make it simple and catchy.”

兜揽 (dōu lǎn), meanwhile, is a verb meaning ‘soliciting’ – as in ‘drum up trade’ – he notes, “which could be another interesting route to explore“.

“Choosing a descriptor along with the brand name might also be opportune, as the name itself might not sufficiently explain the brand. Would it be ‘magazine’ (报刊,bào-kān) or ‘net’ or ‘platform’?”

Charged with our brief though, he says he would start by digging up the history of our brand and our founders, from our Glasgow origins to the story behind The Drum’s English name. “These can all become interesting sources of inspiration, and a Chinese naming is always a special occasion to revisit the equity of a brand and select elements to reflect.”

Guan, meanwhile, says that in the magazine world it is far more common to see a translation/transcreation approach rather than literation/transliteration. “Wallpaper, for example, uses 卷宗 (juàn-zōng, meaning ‘file’), Vice is 异视异色 (yì-shì-yì-sè, ‘different angle, different color’) and Vogue goes for 时尚 (shí-shàng, or ‘fashion’).”

This approach, she says, allows brands to create a Chinese name with no phonetic limitations, which can sometimes better deliver a brand’s values or philosophy. “There is no right or wrong answer as to which approach to use,” she adds.

Somewhat counterintuitively perhaps, considering what we’ve just heard (but not entirely surprising considering the main argument for a Chinese name is that alphabetic names are perceived to be long, hard to remember and difficult to type correctly into search engines), Guan says ‘The Drum’ could be easy enough to remember as is. “And if you are only targeting audiences from first-tier cities, in this case it might be that a Chinese name isn’t even needed.”

Music to our ears (and by no means a cop-out), this is the approach we’ll be adopting. For now, at least. It is clear, however, there are hundreds of possible names that need to be considered and avenues explored before pushing ahead with a Mandarin edition of The Drum. As we said at the start, choosing a Chinese name for your brand can take months, if not years.

This feature first appeared in the February issue of The Drum which focuses on the opportunities and challenges to be found in China. From its increasingly sophisticated ad environment to its highly developed e-commerce scene and fast-paced tech sector, the world's most populous country holds temptations and obstacles for the marketing industry.

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