Challenges in creating Chinese brand names

Translation of brand names for the Chinese market provides some challenges that do not occur in when transferring a name to other countries. But does a brand name even have to be translated into Chinese?

Reasons for translating brand names into Chinese

Chinese caractersOf course, a name for the Chinese market does not necessarily need to be translated. Companies such as IBM, BP and LG operate under their Western names in China.

A large part of the Chinese population is not proficient in a Western writing system, though. Consequently, these brands are perceived as figurative marks rather than word marks. Therefore, it is recommended to adjust brand and product names before introducing them to the Chinese market.

Relevance of pronunciation and meaning of characters

When introducing a new name in China, the name and its pronunciation have to be easy to understand. However, the Chinese writing system differs from the Western one. It does not consist of letters but of symbolic characters which carry different pronunciation variants and also carry their own meaning.

When developing a name in the West, one has to consider pronunciation and the meaning of the whole name. In China, due to the writing system, one also has to take a look at the meaning of the characters it contains. Only symbols with an appealing meaning and positive associations should be chosen.

Chinese people are punsters

Since Chinese is a tonal language, there are many opportunities to assign a completely new meaning to an existing word by slight changes in tone. Chinese has only a few hundred syllables, so an unwisely chosen brand name can often be easily converted into a pun with a different meaning.

As Carl Crow, the first founder of a Western advertising agency in Shanghai, said in 1937: "China is the paradise of punsters, and the most sedate phrase may, by a simple change in tone, be turned into a ribald quip which will make the vulgar roar."

Therefore, translating a brand name into Chinese needs to be done carefully.

Important aspects of a brand name in China

Generally speaking, when creating Western and Chinese brand names, the same rules apply. However, there are some additional aspects you have to keep in mind when creating a brand name for the Chinese market.

Dos for brand names in China

A brand name in China should have the following characteristics :

  • Memorable: A short and crisp name with two to three syllables is considered ideal for a brand name in China.
  • Easy to pronounce: The name's pronunciation should be adapted to the Chinese syllable structure in order to avoid embarrassing moments for the customer when trying to order or describe the product or brand.
  • Emotional response: It is particularly important for a brand name in China to evoke positive associations.
  • Similar pronunciation and / or meaning to the western original: Not absolutely necessary, but of high importance for perfect international branding.

Don'ts for brand names in China

The following features should be avoided when creating a Chinese brand name:

  • Don't evoke negative associations: neither in terms of pronunciation nor with regards to the meaning of the characters it contains.
  • Don't offer opportunities for (negative) puns: Puns are much more easy to create in Chinese than in Western languages. Carefully check your name for possible puns.

Regional characteristics with Chinese brand names

It is important to consider regional pecularities in China. It's often all too easy to forget that China is as large as the USA and has even more linguistic variety with its countless dialects. If you want to sell just in one region, you should choose the correct pronunciation variant. Large companies may even allow themselves to develop several names.

As a rule of thumb, you can distinguish between traditional mainland China and Hong Kong, with its British past:

  • Meaningful name for mainland China: for demanding Chinese customers from the mainland, a brand's meaning is an important criterion.
  • Names with similarity to the original name for Hong Kong: Due to their British heritage, residents of Hong Kong put more emphasis on names which remain similar to their original Western name. This is especially true for a similarity in pronunciation.

Consider Chinese numerology

In Chinese culture, not only characters, but also numbers bear certain meanings that are to be considered when translating product or brand names.

It is recommended to avoid the following numbers for Chinese product names:

  • 4: The word for four is similar to the Chinese word for death. Therefore, this number should be avoided.
  • 13: Just like in the western world, 13 is considered an unlucky number, which stands for disorder and imperfection.
  • 14: Since 14 ends with four it is also a symbol of bad luck in China. Most skyscrapers even lack a 14th floor due to this belief.

The following numbers can be used safely in Chinese product names:

  • 8: Eight stands for wealth and is therefore a number which is commonly used.
  • 9: Nine is the symbol of the dragon and also stands for eternity.

By the way: Odd numbers are generally considered male (except 7), while even numbers are regarded as female.

Last week we took a look at the requirements for brand names in China. We found that transferring pronunciation as well as meaning of the original western name is important for the success of a Chinese brand name.

Today we present four practical methods that can be applied when translating a brand name into Chinese. Each of them is being used successfully by international corporations - from Heineken and Sony to Porsche and Mercedes-Benz.

Method 1: Creation of a new brand name

About 11 % of all companies that enter the Chinese market do not do so with the original Western name, but rather develop a new name. It is a good opportunity to communicate exactly what you want to Chinese consumers, without any restrictions.

When using the method, the new brand name has no phonetic or conceptual similarity to the original. This method makes the most sense for brands that are not yet known in China. It can also serve as a Plan B if the following three methods do not yield any good results.

Examples of brand names without adaptation:

  • Heineken - Xi Li (Happy Strength)
  • Quaker Oats - Lao Ren (Old Man)
  • Pizza Hut - Bi Sheng Ke (Certainly Brings Guests)

Method 2: Phonetic adaptation of the brand name

The most common method for translating a brand name into Chinese names is phonetic transfer. About 43% of all Western-to-Chinese translations use this method. The pronunciation of the western original is altered in order to fit the Chinese syllable structure. The meaning of the new name is not relevant in this case.

With this method, it is particularly important to check that the new name cannot be turned into a negative pun. One problem with this method is that the resulting names are often very long. This can be easily solved by using only the first two or three syllables .

Examples of brand names with phonetic adaptation:

  • Audi - Ao Di (Brighten Profoundly)
  • Nokia - Nuo Jiya
  • Adidas A Di Da Si
  • Sony - Suo Ni (Search Nun / Priest)

Method 3: Semantic adaptation (translation) of the brand name

About a quarter of all brand names are translated literally for the Chinese market. This is only possible if the name is not a made-up word but carries a real meaning. Therefore, the method is useful for brand names which carry a strong message.

This method does not care about phonetic similarity. Some meanings can be adjusted if a literal translation wouldn't evoke the same positive associations in China as in the West.

Examples of brand names with semantic adaptation:

  • Red Bull - Niu Hong (Red Bull)
  • Microsoft - Wei Ruan (Small and Soft)
  • Volkswagen Dazhong Qiche (Car for the Masses)
  • General Motors - Tong Yong Qiche (General Motors)
  • Fisherman's Friend - Yufu Zhi Bao (Treasure of the Fisherman)

Method 4: Phonetic and semantic similarity

Undoubtedly the best way to transfer a brand name into Chinese is chosen by 22 % of all companies: take the time and trouble to find a translation that both sounds similar to the original and also has a similar or related meaning.

This method requires detailed knowledge of the Chinese market, the Chinese language, and the values ​​of the brand. The effort is worthwhile, however, because a consistent international branding can be achieved.

Examples of brand names with phonetic and semantic similarity

  • Ikea - Yi Jia (Pleasant Home)
  • Jägermeister - Ye Ge (Wild Character)
  • Coca-Cola - Kekou Kele (Tastes Good and Makes You Happy)
  • Porsche - Buo Shi Jie (Secure, Fast and Timesaving)
  • BMW - Bao Ma (Noble Steed)
  • Nike - Nai Ke (Endurance Wins)
  • Siemens - Xi Men Zi (Master of the West Gate)
  • Mercedes -Benz - Ben Chi (Canter)
  • Allianz - Anlian (Security Alliance)

The ideal Chinese brand name

To conclude: The ideal Chinese brand name is easy to remember, easy to pronounce and has a similar pronunciation and meaning as the Western brand name. Therefore, don't forget to work with native experts to find your perfect Chinese brand name.

If you're still looking for a Western brand name to start out with: Find it easily with our smart naming tools.

Looking for creative name ideas?

With NameRobot's name generators and tools you can find the dream name for your company, product or project.


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NameRobot Team

This blog post was created by the NameRobot team or in collaboration with other brand naming enthusiasts. Would you also like to submit an article on naming? Please send us your topic suggestion (new/unique/professional) to social@namerobot.com.


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