Choosing Your Brand’s Chinese Name – What could go wrong?

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Naming so often is left as a last consideration when brands launch themselves or their products in China.  But not completing ‘due diligence’  you are simply playing ‘Chinese roulette’ – unlike the Russian version, no-one will die, but your brand may suffer irreversible damage as a result of a poorly chosen name.

It would be easiest to list the foreign brands with Chinese names that are sinking their brand, and making every day in the market a battle.  But that is not my purpose, I am here to help brands, not criticise them.

So I want to run through logically, what can, will, go wrong if you do not invest full consideration into the Chinese name of your brand or products in China.

Chinese Naming Roulette – Three Watch-outs

You swear at Chinese consumers every time they read or say your brand

Sounds simple, but without checking your name with different Chinese dialects – a character, or combination of sounds, could produce a foul sounding result.    This simply needs to checked – how someone in the South (Cantonese), in the West (Sichuanese), in the East (Shanghainese) and in the North (Dongbeihua) combines sounds and creates slang are a world unto their own.   Better to check first, right.

You are a victim of a hostile takeover.

So often foreign brands, simply translate their names, leading to verbose five-to-six character names that are invariably ‘awkward’ to locals.   In practical terms, no one has time to type five-to-six characters, let alone say them.  In this scenario, Chinese will naturally shorten the Chinese name to two characters – then, that is when you enter ‘Chinese roulette’ depending on what version of your shortened name catches on first, you are stuck with it.   You then lose control of your name, and the potential connotations it has locally.

So our SMART rule, keep it to two characters, unless you are really certain about three – more than three is most definitely out.  Remember most Chinese nouns are two characters-long. 

Assumption that your English name is a backup

Often brands think, a Chinese name is just for registration, packaging and cultural respect – essentially a back-up to their ‘proper name’.  It is also encouraging to hear all those English words being used amongst Chinese sentences in cities like Shanghai.

But here is the reality, using an English name when you are inputting Chinese on your phone or computer is annoying for anyone.  Even the possibility that anyone in a one-to-one conversation or group chat is not familiar with the English name creates an automatic ‘circuit breaker’ to the conversation, and wider discussion about the said brand.  The talk-ability and buzz around your brand in China has to come from a Chinese name – to put this crudely, you can not create buzz if you are stuttering or not being heard clearly.

SMART Naming Creation – Logical, Culturally Correct and Consumer Ready

As part of SMART, we have created a bespoke approach to help brands name their brands and products optimally for China.  We are focussed on a clear set of brand, competitive, cultural, digital and linguistic dimensions that an optimal name must capture to engage effectively in China.

Of the three watch outs mentioned, we do the following …

A full national dialect test (all six major dialects tested) – no chance of accidentally offending with your name.
Testability of name in on- and off-line conversation – check the name fits to local conversations.
Brand Cultural Translation, Cultural Work – ensure name fits client brand, and comes to represent it fully.

Other checks that form part of SMART’s naming approach include

  • Category Benchmarking, Category Fit – ensure name creates logical associations
  • Competitor Analysis – to ensure names are differentiated
  • Individual Character Analysis – to avoid any negative connotations associated with parts of the name
  • Consumer Testing – presenting candidate names to target consumers to get direct feedback
  • Semiotic Check – ensure the name aesthetically fits the brand’s visual imagery (Chinese characters are pictograms, so consistent symmetries and design principles are essential)

For more details on the methodology of our Name Creation Approach.
Contact Jerry – jerry.clode@resonancechina.com

About Author

Jerry Clode

Jerry Clode is Head of Digital & Social Insight at Resonance. He leads Resonance SMART, providing leading-edge research, strategy and naming for brands in China using bespoke methodologies. Jerry also produces Resonance's popular China Social Branding Report, a bi-weekly publication covering modern marketing methods of the world's top brands.

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