Picking a brand name brings some unique challenges in China

Everyone knows you have to tread carefully launching a brand in a foreign country—even my seventh grade Spanish teacher trotted out the old classic about the failure of the Chevy Nova in Latin America—but launching products in China introduces a whole new level of complexity. Not only do you have to avoid mistranslations, you have to do it in an entirely different alphabet!

In an attempt to provide some guidance on this thorny issue, three professors surveyed 100 multinational brands and compared their Chinese identity to their Western identity. What they found was that there are really 4 approaches you can take:

  • No adaptation: develop a completely new name with a unique sound and meaning
  • Sound adaptation: find a name that sounds like the original but has a different meaning. This can lead to some unfortunate translations, like Sony’s SUŎ NÍ, which reads “Exploring Nun or Priest”
  • Meaning adaptation: find characters that sound completely different but convey the same meaning as the original name
  • Dual adaptation: Find a name that both sounds like the original and has a similar meaning

Obviously the dual adaptation approach is the branding sweet spot if you can achieve it, but it’s not easy to do. Only 22% of the brands the authors looked at managed to pull it off. Perhaps not surprisingly 2 of those brands were Nike (Endurance Conquer) and Coca-Cola (Can be Tasty, Can be Happy).


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