Brand Adaptation: Picking the Right Brand Name in China

Posted in Content Marketing, Branding, Marketing, PR by John Sutton

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet;”

There’s a reason lovesick teenage girls like Juliet aren’t international marketing managers, because if they were, the already lengthy roll call of brand name fails in China would be even longer.

This month, Airbnb became the latest brand to enter the pantheon on companies whose Chinese name made consumers and commentators scratch their heads.

Aibiying means ‘To welcome each other with love’, says the company, but it seems plenty in China disagree.

Some of the words, like bi and ying, have sexual connotations, meaning this makes Airbnb seem like the sort of accommodation you rent by the hour. Other people have commented it is awkward and difficult to pronounce - these aren’t characters that many Chinese copywriters would normally put together.

The brand name can be the driver of a healthy relationship between a customer and the business, particularly for companies new to the Middle Kingdom. And we only get one chance at a first impression, which is blown if the name is off.

Today, there are four main approaches that companies can take when tackling the brand name questions in China:

No Adaptation

This means that the Chinese brand name has nothing in common regarding the sound or meaning of a brand. Companies like Pizza Hut – Bi sheng ke – and Heineken – Xi li – belong into this group.

Sound Adaptation

In this approach the idea is for the brand is to sound like the original name without delivering any related meaning. Big global companies like Sony – Suo ni – and Audi – Ao di – have chosen this path. This method carries its own risks, as the Chinese rely on characters for words, not phonetics. Every character or a combination of them has a meaning, and if two characters aren’t perceived to fit well together, then that’s a problem.

Meaning Adaptation

The new brand name will sound completely different, but it delivers the intended image and identity. General Motors chose the name “Tong yong qi che” which means exactly the same, but in Chinese. General Electric did pretty much the same by choosing “Tong yong dian qi”, which translates to “General electricity”.

Dual Adaptation

The new brand has the sound of the original while also carrying a meaning. Nike or “Nai ke”, means “endurance conquer”, a pretty strong message for all those joggers and keep-fit enthusiasts. Dual adaptation is the hardest one to execute, but it has the best chance of becoming successful in China.  There are many great examples of dual adaptation. Coca-Cola’s Chinese name – Kekoukele – indicates that the product tastes nice and is linked to good times. Tide’s detergents – Taizi – literally translate to getting rid of dirt, while Reebok, or Rui bu, means quick steps.

When it goes wrong, it’s rarely through carelessness. The options for global megabrands will be put through focus groups, discussed and debated, but can observer’s paradox kick in here? Are people reticent, or do they not want to be seen to be disrespectful by questioning choices? There are a myriad of cultural factors to consider.

Brands looking to go to China should make sure they are using people they trust and who are candid when giving them feedback. You don’t want a tragedy like poor Romeo and Juliet after all, this should be a happily ever after.

About John Sutton

John Sutton is a Brand Strategist and UK Director at Brandigo, and loves developing a close working relationship with clients to deliver original, high quality work. Outside the office, he can be found biking round the Cheshire countryside or elegantly falling from a surfboard on the coast of North Wales.
Visit my website or connect with me on:
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