By Any Other Name: A Beginner’s Guide to Branding in Chinese

Article by XIANEASE

With all the so-called “blue ocean” in China, many foreign companies have been trying to break into this rather lucrative market. Just taking a look around any shopping district will give you a sense of which companies are succeeding at this and which are failing. While some of that comes down to the products and customer experience these companies can provide in the Mainland, it’s no secret that a big part of success in this country (like many others) comes down to consumer brand recognition. When a multinational makes their way to the PRC, they will face the task of trying to translate their company name into Mandarin Chinese. It’s, as you might imagine, a delicate process that is much easier said than done.

Generally speaking, there are three ways a company might do this. We’ll be going through all three, with explanations and examples, so that if you’re launching your own business you might find some inspiration or clarity. Or, if you’re not, you’ll at least have some fun facts to share with people at the bar..

METHOD 1: Make a Sound-Alike

The first way a company might port their name into Chinese is to simply make a homophonous translation—meaning one that sounds like the original name. There is a certain logic to this decision, as it’ll surely sound unique, but, as anyone who speaks both languages can attest, there are a couple of pitfalls to this approach. Those pitfalls include, but are not limited to: having a name that’s too many characters long, or devoid of any coherent meaning, which could lead to it not sticking in Chinese consumers’ minds. However, that doesn’t mean that this method of translation can’t be successful.


Chinese: 麦当劳
Pinyin: Mài dāng láo
There are more than a few local-food-weary foreigners who have committed these three characters to memory, but they might be disappointed to know that there’s not a lot of meaning behind them. 麦means “wheat,” 当 is part of some words that mean “serve” (but is usually machine-translated to “when”) and 劳 is often translated as “work” or “labor.” Though in October 2017 their business registration changed the official name to 金拱门 (Jīn gǒng mén), or “Golden Arches,” there have been no plans announced to change their signage away from the phonetic name.

Chinese: 星巴克
Pinyin: Xīng bā kè
Starbucks has had amazing market penetration in China’s cities, and anyone who’s been to the Bell Tower, which has four locations within a block of one another, can attest to that. While they managed to get the “Star” in their name (星), the 巴克 is merely a phonetic approximation of “buck.” Seems catchy enough though, what with the absurd volume of 35RMB java they sling to Chinese coffee drinkers.

Chinese: 卡夫
Pinyin: Kǎ fū
Kraft’s Chinese name, if you had to translate it, would probably come out to “card husband.” While you can probably brainstorm your own silly definition of what that could possibly mean, it’s difficult to argue that the nonsense name is holding them back. With Oreos on shelves in just about every corner store from here to the Himalayas, Card Husband Foods seems to be doing just fine in these parts.

METHOD 2: Forget the original name and focus on meaning

While a company’s name might be catchy in its original language, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be catchy in Chinese. Savvy companies entering the market realize this and eschew homophones and slant rhymes for something completely different. Sometimes it’s a direct translation of the company’s foreign name, or other times it’s another meaning altogether. This gives a brand an advantage when it comes to sticking in Chinese minds and, furthermore, some marketers theorize that a completely different-sounding name might trick low-information consumers into thinking the brand is more Chinese than it really is.

Chinese: 汉堡王
Pinyin: Hàn bǎo wáng
Meaning: “Burger king”
Burger King is Burger King is Burger King, even in Chinese. They may not have the same market penetration that McDonald’s or KFC have, but their expansion and brand recognition are both on the rise in the Mainland, where, just as in English, they have declared themselves the emperor of all things hamburger.

Chinese: 喜力
Pinyin: Xǐ lì
Meaning: “Happy and powerful”
Heineken’s Chinese name is a serious departure, but the two simple and common characters make it easy to say and remember, while imparting heaps of positive connotation. Although, as an aside, anyone who’s had a Heineken might disagree that it makes you feel “happy,” and if you drink enough to feel happy then you’re definitely not going to feel “powerful” the next day.

Chinese: 雀巢
Pinyin: Què cháo
Meaning: “Sparrow’s nest”
This name is probably confusing for anyone who hasn’t seen Nestle’s logo for a while, but that’s where the people who brought you Nescafe took inspiration for their Mandarin branding. Like Heineken, the two characters are succinct and easy to remember, and, as mentioned synergizes with their visual branding.


The third way to translate your name is, of course, to both make the Chinese name sound like the foreign name and impart it with a nice, catchy meaning. It’s a delicate balance, but when it works it can be an extremely powerful force in Mainland marketing.

Chinese: 可口可乐   Pinyin: Kě kǒu kě lè
Meaning: “Happy delicious”
Coke is among one of the most popular and widespread foreign beverages in China, and their Chinese name is good branding in spades. First, it sounds almost identical to its English name; second, its more literal translation of “happy and delicious” is probably exactly the connotation they want to give locals about its product; third, the “Kě kǒu” sounds a lot like the Chinese word for “thirsty,” which surely has brought this brown, bubbly cola to the minds of more than one parched Mainlander.

Chinese: 家乐福       Pinyin: Jiā lè fú
Meaning: “Happy, blessed family/home”
French retailer Carrefour is crushing Wal-Mart in China, and their interesting Chinese brand name is just one sign of their savvy in this market. It has that slant-rhyme kind of translation, while connoting what they would like their shoppers to feel after a trip to one of their supermarkets: that they’ll be bringing good things back to make their happy family happier (and perhaps blessed).

Chinese: 宝马       Pinyin: Bǎo mǎ
Meaning: “Treasure horse”
BMWs are an ever-present status symbol for the more affluent sectors of Chinese society. While branding isn’t the be-all-end-all of becoming successful in a certain market, it’s probably not a coincidence that it was the preferred luxury car of wealthy Chinese women (one marketing blog attributes this to the “宝,” which apparently has a more feminine connotation). BMW is also a special case, in that locals have thought of their own clever slang name for the car maker: 别摸我 (Bié Mō Wǒ), or “don’t touch me,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that a BMW owner would probably prefer that you keep your grubby loser hands off their car.

While there are many more examples of these, these nine cases should give you a good idea of how the branding game works for foreign companies. But lest you think people are putting too much importance on this, ask Bing (whose first attempt at branding sounded like the Chinese word for “sick”) and Best Buy (who failed to survive in this market and had a name that roughly translated to “think 100 times before buying”) what they think about it.

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