10 ways to choose your brand names wisely
Although I believe that local Chinese brands are becoming stronger every day, Chinese companies have in recent years come up with brand names that give them a certain foreign (read: non-Chinese) feeling. Anything foreign can -through the eyes of Chinese companies- add authenticity and trust to the brand. This effect is gradually decreasing now that Chinese companies become better at branding and customers gain trust in local brands. But that is a whole other story.
The desire to act foreign can lead to interesting exotic made-up names like Biem-lfdlkk (no typo!), Lincolncoln or Giveuphe. Every time I run into brand names like these it makes me chuckle. These brand names vaguely mimic English and would not stand a chance in the Western world but the average Chinese customer will only read: something foreign + the Chinese name.
So having both a Chinese and a foreign name is important but also practical. Imagine a Chinese brand getting introduced to a Western market only using Chinese characters. The brand name would be hard to recognize and impossible to pronounce right. It is the same thing the other way around.
Usually the Chinese name is a translation or a transliteration (words or letters written in the characters of another alphabet) of the English name. The Chinese name for Lincolncoln is 肯 茵肯(or yin ken yin ken in pinyin). Many of these Chinese names have some positive characters in them. In this case we can read the words dream and river.
Foreign companies face the same challenge in finding the right Chinese name. Although the Chinese name is completely unrelated to the word Heineken, the company presents a successful example because the Chinese name is so well known and well-claimed. Heineken is a name that Chinese people won't even begin to pronounce and the Chinese name is 喜力 (or xi li in pinyin), xi means happy and li means power.
Google uses 谷歌 (or gu ge in pinyin) as it's Chinese name. The name is short and powerful. Many other things went wrong, mainly in strategic and political area's. But again, that is a whole other story.
Biem-lfdlkk is the absolute winner of the funny contest, but don't be fooled; the brand has 450 stores and I challenge you to accomplish that. Employees of their stores say that the brand is from Germany where other employees says it is the name of a French designer. The Chinese name 比音勒芬 (or bi yin le fen in pinyin) translates literally into 'compare music rein fragrant'. And it also sound really nice according to my assistant.
I recently worked for a Chinese client that I cannot name right now. For a long time the company was able to let customers -and employees- believe that it was named after the costume designer of Giuseppe Verdi's Aida and that the brand originated from Italy. Apparently the name sounded Italian-enough but Chinese-enough to the founder of the company.
Most recently I helped introduce a brand into China that's called Thomas Baldwin. After the introduction I noticed that many people would only say Thomas or TB. Research taught me that the words were simply too difficult and too long.
Thomas Baldwin may look like 4 syllables to you, but a Chinese will say: Tho-Ma-Se Bal-De-Win. Really? Yes, really! Good luck arguing with 1.3 billion people. Anyway: apparently 6 is too long. Our biggest mistake was that we didn't provide a catchy Chinese name along with the original name.
Companies that not provide a Chinese name are at risk. The local media and consumers will name it for you like in the case Jordan, Michael Jordan's shoe-brand. They chose to name it 乔丹 (or qiaodan in pinyin) which is a clear example of a transliteration for the word Jordan. Someone decided to register the Chinese brandname and trademark. Ever since then Jordan was forced to play games in court. And he was not winning either since the courts decided that the name was not a self-given name by Jordan's company and that everybody with the name Jordan could make the same claims.
10 ways to choose your brand names wisely in China:
1 - Choose a Chinese name as your only brand name if your product and market allows you to,
2 - If this is not possible, then always have 2 brand names, register and protect both,
3 - If you don't come up with a Chinese name yourself, the public will and then you can't control its trademarks, meaning, connotations and sound,
4 - Only choose brand names that in Chinese are pronounced in 4 syllables or less. Pronunciation in 2 syllables is best. Have some positive or meaningful characters in it.
5 - When we think a word has 2 syllables, a Chinese may pronounce it using 3. Test how your English-name sounds pronounced by Chinese people. How do think it sounds? What are their associations?
6 - It is not necessarily a problem if the foreign name is impossible to pronounce but then the Chinese name needs to make up for it in simplicity.
7 - Chinese people love to use letters from the English alphabet as abbreviations since this is what they have all learned in school and it sounds cool and foreign: A Powerpoint presentation is called a P.P.T. , an app is called an A.P.P. and Louis Vuitton is always referred to as L.V. So see if this principle can be applied to your brand name.
8 - If you have the budget, do more research. The brand name of your choice may have different meanings and connotations in some important dialects or territories,
9 - Obviously you want to stay within available trademarks and domain names too,
10 - Chinese customers have all seen the trick of foreign brand names by now and brands should really be able to back it up with their products and services.