Choosing a Chinese name for your foreign brand: what works and what doesn’t

Often foreign brands question whether to trademark register their name in Chinese before launching in China. Such topic has previously raised controversial opinions. Specifically, brands such as luxury foreign labels may believe that brand awareness is solely based on their foreign names and semantically the Chinese language vastly differs from western languages, therefore, translating their name to Chinese could be viewed as diluting the brand. Equally, brand localisation may not be top priority for some fashion houses since the Chinese name could be deemed as “unfashionable”, and “not elite”.

Despite such concerns, foreign brands have started to trademark register the Chinese translated name, even when the Chinese name is not utilised in their stores, products, packaging, or promotional materials.

The changing perspective is mainly based on market research and evaluation. Foreign brands recognize that there are significant differences between Chinese and Euro-American consumers. For Chinese consumers, foreign brand names can be complicated to remember, additionally many Chinese consumers may not be able to correctly pronounce the original brand name due to language differences.

For brands that do not utilise a Chinese translation name, Chinese consumers may choose a Chinese name for easier recognition and communication. Over time, the Chinese name selected by consumers may gain popularity and recognition, therefore, the name could form a connection with the brand and its products.

Under such circumstances, if a third-party trademark registers the Chinese name before the original owner, the foreign brand can face the risk that its brand products is confused with third party’s products, or the third party who utilises the Chinese name to manufacture counterfeit and poor quality products.

As a result, the foreign brand should trademark register the Chinese translated name with an original name before entering the Chinese market – especially brands in the fast-moving consumer goods industry.

How to choose a Chinese name?

Foreign brands should try to retain the original brand meaning or the Chinese pronunciation should closely resemble the brand’s original name. In this manner, an organic connection or recognition between the two names can form, simultaneously brands may utilise the names jointly or alternatively in sync.

Below are innovative examples of Chinese names selected by foreign brands:

1. Commonly, there are four methods to translate the name: Transliteration, mixed translation, literal translation, or liberal translation:

  • Transliteration: mostly used for personal names such as Hilton, Ferrari, Warner Brothers, Gucci and so forth.
  • Mixed translation: transliteration mixed with liberal translation, like Coca-Cola, Canon, Saint Laurent, and so forth.
  • Literal translation: direct translation of the original brand’s meaning, such as Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, GE, and so forth.
  • Liberal translation: The literal meaning is abandoned to conform to the original content, or find the translation inspired by the brand’s inherent elements, like Nestle (its Chinese name means sparrow’s nest). 

2. Consider the inherent meaning of Chinese characters and words. For example, cosmetic brands often utilise poetic adjectives that describe women’s beauty.

  • Estee Lauder is 雅 (yǎ) 诗(shī) 兰 (lán) 黛 (dài), which means respectively means elegance, poetic, orchid, and pigment, and used for women during ancient times for thrushes.
  • “Lancome” and “Guerlain” both adopt flower plants as their Chinese brand names which reflect contemporary connections to the use of orchid extracts in some products.

Another example is the Chinese brand name selected by “Burberry”. The first Chinese name adopted by the brand was “巴宝莉 (bā bǎo lì)”, and then amended to “博柏利 (bó bǎi lì)” recently. Burberry noted that the first Chinese held feminine connotation, whilst the brand represents a neutral British style and targets both men’s and women’s markets. Hence, Burberry re-positioned the brand in the Chinese market by amending its Chinese name.

3. Select a catchy and memorable name. For instance, BMW first entered the Chinese market with the Chinese name “巴依尔” (bā yī ěr”), which is the literal translation of the company’s full name, Bayerische Motoren Werke AG, later it was changed to “宝马 (bǎo mǎ)” (which means “valuable horse”). The latter is the more memorable way and conveys the brand position and value.

4. Conduct an anteriority trademark search on the selected Chinese name to ensure whether it can be registered. Similar or identical names could be filed or registered by others already. Therefore, selecting more than one name could be considered in anticipation.

If you have questions or concerns related to China trademark or other related matters, please contact Horizons at talktous@horizons-advisory.com to schedule a consultation session. From RMB 1,500 per session, Horizons can provide insight, expertise and the right solutions for you.