What’s In a Name?

September 10, 2008

Talking about Hollywood film stars with Chinese friends can be a bit of a trial at times. Maybe it is because of laziness, but I like to think that there are more deep rooted cultural reasons why I find calling Tom Cruise tangmu kelusi faintly ridiculous and therefore refuse to learn their Chinese forms. Poor Julia Roberts has her name mangled in Chinese into something that when pronounced without full care actually sounds like Chinese for ‘radish strips.’ Whether you sell cars or movies, in this world, brand recognition is everything and being recognized as Miss Radish Strip is hardly going to help your career. Admittedly Brittany Spears fares a little better in Chinese as xiao tiantian or ‘little sweetie’ and our very own Beckham has recently become xiaobei or ‘little treasure’ after being known as beikehamu for many years. If all of this matters so much for celebrities, then how much more important is it to get your naming right when entering the Chinese market for a product that doesn’t have its picture plastered over every counterfeit DVD cover in China?

We have already touched on the importance of the written word in a previous article, talking about the way that the written language binds China together and how people are used to the sight of slogans everywhere. Given that the Chinese language is a thing of such beauty with hidden meanings and cultural associations going back thousands of years, the naming of your brand in Chinese is an extremely important and yet incredibly difficult process that may just help to make the difference between success and failure in such a large market.

There are three main ways in which brands have gone about naming their products in China. You can opt for transliteration of your brand name, i.e. choosing Chinese characters that sound like the original English name. Famous examples of companies that have chosen this method include MacDonald’s maidanglao and Sony’s suoni, names that are instantly identifiable even in Chinese. Another option is to choose a name with a similar meaning to the name in English. Apple Computers becomes pingguo diannao, and many of the Japanese brands simply leave the Japanese kanji characters when naming products in Chinese, leading to the slightly odd fengtian meaning ‘abundant field’ for Toyota in Chinese. Some companies use a name with a more Chinese meaning like that of Marriott Hotels who become wanhao in Chinese which loosely translated means ‘infinitely luxurious.’ Certainly not a bad name for a hotel, but this leads to huge confusion for first time visitors to Shanghai when trying to explain to a taxi driver that you wish to go to the Marriott The third option is to change nothing and leave the product in English. This is by far and away the least popular option and can lead to problems with brand recognition; LG have managed to get away with it well and are a popular brand on the mainland, Calvin Klein seem to have been less lucky with this strategy.

There are some products that when you hear the Chinese name you instantly think, ‘wow, that’s clever!’ It may be no surprise to hear that many of the companies that fit into this category are the large fast food and beverage companies with huge marketing budgets and access to experts all over the world. No article on clever naming of products would be complete without mention of Coca-Cola’s kekoukele in Chinese which not only sounds almost identical to the original English but also means ‘tasty and delightful’. Pepsi cola have also managed to come up with baishikele which roughly means ‘100 loveable things.’. To this day I have never worked out what these hundred things are but until then I shall stick with Evian on health grounds. Sprite is called xuebi which although sounding less like Sprite combines the characters for ‘snow’ and ‘emerald jade’ which sounds rather cold and refreshing. Whilst the duller transliterations of MacDonald’s and KFC have seemingly done little to slow their mission to create a Chinese addiction to fast food, Pizza Hut has gone further with bishengke which can be translated as ‘cannot fail to win over customers.’ Judging from their long lunch queues and their sky-high prices, they certainly weren’t wrong.

The Japanese firm Canon have done very well with jianeng, jia meaning ‘fine’ or ‘distinguished’ and neng ‘capabilities’. Clearly this is not the only factor in their huge market share over their boringly transliterated rivals Epson aipusheng and HP huipu but the name has surely not done them any harm. Chinese firms are now catching on themselves with Legend rebranding themselves Lenovo on the international stage and the ‘Higher and Higher’ campaign by white goods manufacturer Haier.

Car companies have not escaped the need for clever branding in China either. BMW is called baoma, taken from the American habit of calling them ‘Beemers’ but the fact that the name was used to describe the best horses in ancient China will also not be lost on the Chinese. Mercedes Benz has had a more difficult job on their hands as the word ‘Benz’ when pronounced in Chinese could either mean ‘rushing to death’ or ‘stupid to the point of death’, a common way to insult someone. Neither of the names would be ideal for a luxury car manufacturer so they have come up with benchi on the mainland which gives the idea of speed and agility that they would rather conjure up in the minds of potential buyers.

Any regular visitor to the Far East will be quite used to seeing some hilarious English brand names, many quite unprintable in a respectable publication; one of my personal favourites is Pocari Sweat. As a drink it doesn’t sound great but in hot climates is quite a life saver. Some Chinese brands clearly need to put a little more thought into their English branding- the electronics store called ‘Go Home!’ sends a mixed message to their customers and baoxiniao (bow she neeow) who make the best men’s suits in China has probably embarrassed some foreign customers when they try to explain to friends where they bought their suit and then fail miserably to pronounce the name. Among western brands, Calvin Klein took a gamble that may not have paid off when leaving their name untranslated- the sounds of CK ‘cee kay’ don’t exist in Chinese and probably has a similar effect on the Chinese as that of baoxiniao on westerners.

So how has The Sino Group faired in the name game? Rather than outsource the naming of our Chinese arm to a major London consultancy we decided to brainstorm it with our Chinese staff and friends and came up with shinuo, loosely translated as ‘world promise’ and a transliteration of Sino. Earlier suggestions to mirror the Sino name had been put down as the sound si is the same as ‘death’ in Chinese- ‘death promise’ whilst great for a company in the contract killing business would probably not be ideal for a company offering business services. Changing the si to shi made all the difference to the name and it was put forward. However, this was not the end of the process as the name had to be checked against various company details to check if it was auspicious. It was certainly lucky for the Taoist monk who did the check as he ended up fifty dollars richer and following his complicated calculations it was declared that shinuo would be a lucky name for us.

Even in this day and age it seems that in China, there really is so much in a name. Apart from brand recognition, ease of remembering the name and the similarity with the English form, you also have to consider the thousands of years of culture that may be associated with your company name. Nobody would ever suggest that your company’s success depends solely on a name, but getting it right first time certainly won’t hurt!


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