Why Your Business Needs a Chinese Name

Author's Notes
Before expanding a business into any foreign country, it's important to think about how your brand will be perceived. In this post, I discuss why it's important for businesses looking to expand into China need to adopt a Chinese name.

What’s in a name?

If you’re in China — the world’s second largest economy — a lot. In a country where each character carries its own unique meaning, the characters used to transliterate a company’s name can make or break it.

In order for an international company to successfully break into the competitive Chinese market, the characters they trademark must follow a few rules. Allan Max, one of our Chinese Senior Translators, ranked them:

  1. The name should sound similar to the brand’s English name.
  2. It should be easily remembered and easy for Chinese people to pronounce
  3. The characters used should describe or cast the product in a positive light

Allan notes: Sometimes it's difficult to fulfill all three requirements. Brands like McDonald's adhere to the first two, but their name does not explain their product. It does, however, sound similar to Madonna, which implies that their franchise is fashionable.

Let's take a look at a few companies and the Chinese names they chose...

Searching for Success

In 2006, search engine giant Google attempted to expand its ventures into China, taking the similar-sounding name 谷歌 (Guge), in an effort to localize its name and make it easier to pronounce for its Chinese audience. No GugeTheir decision, however, was met with resounding laughter: The Chinese characters the company’s staff had chosen to use for Google’s name translated loosely into “harvesting song”. Dissenters even created the website No Guge, rallying for the company to change its name to something more fitting.

We need only to look at Microsoft’s search engine Bing to see how much a good (or bad) name can affect a company’s ability to succeed in China. This search engine giant — known as 必应 (biying) — also found it difficult to break into the Chinese market, partly due to its unfortunate choice of a name that sounds similar to the Chinese word for sickness: 病 (bing). So far, it's only managed to monopolize less than five percent of the market.

Franchise Failure

However, importance of having a Chinese name is not limited only to search engines. American electronics retailer Best Buy opened its first retail store in China in 2007, under the name of 百思买 (baisaimai), and closed the doors of all nine branches of its store last March after experiencing a lack of success. While some media outlets attributed this closure to the fact that Best Buy’s principles just aren’t compatible with Chinese consumers, others say the name is to blame.

Broken down, Best Buy’s name means something akin to “think 100 times” — not an ideal name for a retail store of any kind. Though its name might not have worked for it, its idea has: After closing its stores, the company acquired Five Star, a leading Chinese appliance retailer, and continues to operate under the more traditional name. A Chinese branch of Best Buy

While it’s difficult to determine whether the aforementioned companies lacked success solely due to their unfortunate choice of characters, it’s difficult to buy into the idea that Chinese consumers don't pay attention to the characters that make up a name — especially when looking at the companies that have been successful in their internationalization: Many of them have adopted names and branding that hint at the good quality of their product.

It’s All In the Description

Alone, the words "Coca Cola" may not mean much — it says nothing about the taste of the beverage itself and is derived from what the drink was originally made from — coca nuts and kola leaves. Chinese Coca Cola can

Before its official debut into the Chinese market, the now-ubiquitous brand knew that it would not be enough to rely on people being familiar with the name of their product, so they took things a step further: When choosing the Chinese characters that would represent them in the world’s most-populated country, the brand included a description of their product within its name, calling itself 可口可乐 (kekoukele) — “delicious happiness”. To the average Chinese consumer, Coca Cola’s claim seems to hold true — the soft drink company dominated 17 percent of the Chinese market at the end of 2010.

Subway in China Out of all the other great examples, we love the Subway sandwich chain's Chinese name the most. Over the past few years, the sandwich that boasts "more than 100 flavors" — the restaurant's Chinese name 赛百味 (saibaiwei) literally means "filled with 100 flavors" — has taken China by storm. With roughly 40 stores in Shanghai alone and over 200 nationwide, this popular sandwich chain is rapidly increasing its numbers... and its revenue. Mmm, tasty.

Why You Should Care

So you’ve read all about how Coca Cola and Subway used their Chinese names to bolster their success, and you’ve been thinking about entering the Chinese market — one of the world's largest economies. What’s the next step? Not everyone has the money to pay for a naming service, but having a native Chinese speaker translate the rest of your content is a good bridge between the two. It’s important to make sure your localized content sounds natural, down to your slogan.

Take Nike, for example. Before introducing their brand into China, they changed their famous “Just do it” catchphrase into 应做当做 (ying zuo dang zuo) — “Do What You Should Do” — a much more digestible tidbit for its Chinese target audience.

Okay, so maybe you’re not a huge corporation (yet). Small business owners should take note as well, though. If your brand name isn’t especially known or recognized in the international sphere — let alone the East Asian one — having an easily recognizable, descriptive name is important for drawing in new customers. So if your company is selling fast cars, having characters that suggest the idea of fast horses — as Mercedes Benz does — will strengthen your brand and leave a much stronger impression. Brands like Marvel also emulate this well: Their Chinese name 漫威 (man wei) means "the power of comics" and is simple and easy to remember.

And myGengo's Chinese Name is...?

We don't have one yet. But we want your opinion about it, so we've created a Question about it. Share your suggestions here. And just a quick refresher: Questions is a place where you can ask the myGengo team (all thousands of us!) anything about language or translation.