Full Disclosure: This was an essay I wrote, verbatim, while on study abroad in China. My views may or may not have changed since. I think it’s a fascinating time piece. Everything is left as is, including any grammar or spelling mistakes, with the sole exception of added hyperlinks for ease of the reader.
June 3, 2015
Brand Names in Chinese and English
From Marco Polo to Thomas Friedman, globalization has been and will continue to be the subject of both adoration and scrutiny. Especially as China has emerged from the repressive days of the Great Leap Forward into the world’s second largest economy (largest by some measures), the interconnectivity between countries becomes both necessary and inevitable. As the Chinese start to become the largest group of overseas tourists and students, American and Chinese culture will start to blend, and this will result in a mixing of language in a myriad of ways. This will occur from English to Chinese, and vice versa, and furthermore it will happen across classes, from the business world to commonplace vernacular. In particular there will be a transfer of loan words across languages, and these will be done both through translation and transliteration. And as companies penetrate foreign markets, there has been and will continue to be a large consideration for branding and naming. Lastly, it’s interesting how names are translated, namely from English (or any foreign languages) to Chinese, as the characters used all carry denotation or connotation. The selection of characters used for any loan word is extremely important, as it evokes certain, yet vastly different feelings for Chinese and American consumers alike.
Linguistic Differences in Chinese and English
In order to understand why loan words are so difficult to adopt effectively from English to Chinese and vice versa, it would prove useful to explain the underlying linguistic difference in the two languages. That Chinese is a logographic language and English is an alphabetic one cannot be overstated, particularly in how they relate to loan words between the two. An alphabet refers to a system in which each grapheme corresponds to a certain phonological component, which is then interpreted into lexical meaning. Because of this, speakers and readers of English first interpret sounds and then meaning; however these are interpreted concurrently with native speakers. In a syllabic system, like Japanese, a single grapheme represents a full syllable, which is then interpreted similarly to an alphabetic system. In a logographic system, a single grapheme contains morphemic information and quite frequently phonetic information as well. In the case of Chinese, there is little predictive ability in determining the holistic pronunciation from an internal radical, but limited phonetic information does exist. Furthermore, Chinese is a tonal language, for which lexical tones carry inherent semantic meaning; Brown-Schmidt and Canseco-Gonzalez argue that lexical tones are processed as linguistic information, and that tones are fundamentally different from intonation in English.
These inherent differences have importance for how meaning is interpreted through the written word, and ever further, how it relates to the adoption of loan words in the two languages. First, the simple syllable structure of Chinese doesn’t map particularly well with English. For instance, Chinese often doesn’t have initial consonant clusters at the beginning of words, and it also lacks a final consonant sound outside of an enunciated “n” or a nasalized “ng” sound. (There is also the “er” sound, but this is a syllable unto itself, and no other phonemes are attached to this sound.) Thus, when transliterating brands from English to Chinese, most yield awkward results ending in vowel sounds, when a consonant sound is to be expected. This means a straight transliteration for many words and companies is inadequate. Thus a direct transliteration often can come across as simplistic as a new wave of companies enters the Chinese market; a more nuanced approach is necessary. Second, although these tones are incredibly important for understanding the language within a sentence, often tones do not matter in creating linguistic connection with individual characters out of sentential context. A great example of this is the connection many Chinese make between the number four and the word for death, si. While si in the third tone is death, si in the fourth is the number four, the Chinese attach a great superstition to the two characters. This means that tone isn’t always as important as the pronunciation when making connections between words. This is relevant for companies selecting a Chinese name as they may intend for one definition of a phoneme, but connote a litany of unintended results. Even homophones with different tones carry correlation, leading to another difficulty in a crafting a good brand name or loan word.
A third point in relation to the idiosyncrasies of the Chinese language in relation to English is that of multi-syllabic words. As Yang and Wang state, “The fact that Chinese has a large number of multiple-syllable words makes determining the meaning of such words more complicated than just a simple summation of each character’s meaning. This is especially true for multiple-character words that express abstract meanings.” Given that there are no spaces in the Chinese script between words, native speakers of Chinese process multi-character words much differently than a native speaker of English would process a multi-syllable or even a compound word. The Chinese process a multi-syllable word by instantaneously contextualizing the surrounding words; further, native speakers of Chinese do not view the characters as exclusive from one another. Therefore, while the words zhu (pig) and rou (meat) comprise the term zhurou, native speakers process the double-character word as “pork,” not as “pig-meat.” Therefore, nonsensical characters in a brand name do not carry any semantic meaning. Many of the early players in China, such as KFC or Intel in the 80s, adopted transliterated names with abstract or borderline nonsensical characters taken out of context. Taking the brand names holistically, they mean nothing, and thus are harder to remember than brand names with inherent semantic meaning, which is precisely what brand names are supposed to be. The analog would be trying to name a company in a Western market as Brave-Unique-Er and question precisely why the marketing is going poorly, which is what Intel means, or Wheat-Accept-Labor for McDonald’s. In short, it is important to bear in mind the nuances of the Chinese language, instead of blindly imposing an ill-fit brand name in the market.
How brand names are formed
With a better understanding of how the Chinese language works and specific quirks that make it difficult to craft suitable brand names, one should then understand in general how loan words work across the two languages. By understanding how simpler words are translated, it can serve well to elucidate the difficulties in Western companies branding and marketing. First, the paper will address Chinese words into English, and then the influence of English on Chinese. This will be done using examples from food and from countries. Lastly, these examples will be used as a touchstone for various companies’ names.
One of the most interesting aspects about loan words is which words tend to be absorbed, namely political terms, culinary words or pop culture imports. Of particular note for loan words from Chinese to English is that the most relevant or popular appear to involve food and cooking vocabulary. Some of these include: bok choy, wok, chop suey, chow mein, lo mein, dim sum, kumquat, wonton and tofu. This is primarily attributable to the great number of Chinese-Americans being from Southern China, using the Cantonese dialect. Even Chinese food itself in American is based on Southern cooking, and so the loan words reflect this. Also interesting is how English has taken these loan words as official, namely that they aren’t italicized generally to indicate that they are, indeed, foreign words. English is a malleable language that allows for the intake of these words; however in Chinese often times through the use of transliteration, certain words indicate clearly they are loan words. Sometimes in Chinese the loan words even take the form of Latin script being used in place of characters themselves, such as T恤 (T-shirt) or 卡拉OK (karaoke.) As pinyin is fairly integral to modern Chinese, it seems there’s a certain universality to the alphabet which allows for it to be used in slang.
Next, there are three ways in which an English word can be adopted into Chinese: translation, transliteration, or a combination of the two. A good example of this is in place names, particularly in the naming of countries. Examples of transliteration are Agenting (Argentina), Baxi (Brazil), Eluosi (Russia), Bali (Paris) or Yindu (India). None of these are denotative of anything meaningful. Using Yindu as an example, yin means “to mark” and du means “a limit.” This is a fairly neutral meaning. A strict translation of a place name is uncommon, but there are examples, such as Jiujinshan for San Francisco, which means “Old Gold Mountain,” in reference to the days of gold mining. Another example is Bai’eluosi for Belarus. Bai means “white” and elousi means “Russia,” which is a literalist reading of Belarus. A combination of translations and transliterations is quite common for Western nations, and in fact carries general positive meanings. Examples are Meiguo (America), Deguo (Germany), Faguo (France), and Yingguo (England). All of the place names have guo as the second character, meaning “country.” The first character also reflects the first sound of the corresponding country, where De reflects Deutschland instead of Germany. Secondly, the first character also represents some sort of quality. De means virtuous, Mei means beautiful, Fa
means lawful, and Ying means brave. Thus the combination tends to carry the most positive meaning. As one can see, there is a lot more positive energy available in a Chinese translation of a Western place name, tha n the other way around.
Out of these loan words, however, emerge a litany of Western brand names into Chinese. Some of these carry a happy connotation, while others simple evoke no emotional attachment. Sometimes that success is built upon the timing of their market penetration, like KFC who were one of the first Western fast food chains to enter the Chinese market, while others built their success upon shrewd business and a clever name like Coca Cola. The company may have happened upon the recipe for success for a Western company selecting a Chinese name. It seems there are three criteria. First, it should sound something like the original English name. Second, it should evoke a happy meaning. And third, the characters should be integrated seamlessly within the branding. Coca Cola has achieved the trifecta with Kekou Kele. While it certainly is not identical to the original sounds in English, it is differentiated enough to have its own branding in the Chinese context and still retain the primary original sounds. It also possesses an incredibly positive meaning in Chinese, with kekou meaning “tasty” and kele being the generic term for “cola.” Taken holistically, it means, “tasty fun.” And last, the highly simple and recognizable characters, 可口可乐 have been integrating seamlessly on the can in a cleverly stylized manner.
Western Brand Names in Chinese
Oddly enough, it seems even Chinese brands are adopting a Westerly-focused gaze in naming. Some companies have been taking on Western names in attempting to garner a larger consumer base with mixed results. To some degree, as the country has “opened up to the West,” brand names stylized in that manner have carried a certain legitimacy to it. KFC has been a staple of China for so long, one is just as likely to see legions of late night goers at the American chain as at a Li Xiansheng, a Chinese fast food chain. Because of this, some Chinese companies have adopted names such as, Chrisdien Deny, Frognie Zila and Hotwind. However, the success of these choices is inconclusive. Similar to how Western companies simply adopting a transliteration of their company’s name, Chinese-based companies using a meaningless transliteration isn’t particularly helpful to capturing either a Chinese or Western user base. For instance, the company Biemlfdlkk (which is a bizarre, unfamiliar name in Western circles) is transliterated as Biyinlefen, meaning “compare music rein fragrant.” Obviously this is absolute gibberish for both groups; furthermore, the origin of the name is unclear and consumers are unsure what it even means.
Another interesting phenomenon, now that Chinese companies are beginning to gain worldwide recognition, is how they incorporate their names into Western markets. Interestingly, the main players in the game are either massive state-owned, formerly state-owned enterprises or immensely popular companies, meaning many of them didn’t particularly need a name change, especially with a language like English that generally adopts foreign words into its lexicon easily. Because of the wave of “China opening to the West,” it appears there’s a certain sensationalism to Chinese companies entering Western markets, as evidenced by the wildly popular and strangely mysterious Alibaba IPO. A laundry list of companies has entered the English-speaking world relatively easily, in terms of using its original name; however, many have, in fact, changed their name for reasons that may mirror Western companies. Companies like Haier and Lenovo have long been in American markets. Lenovo initially entered the West in the 80s, and apparently in a move to don a more Western sounding name combining “le-” from the word “legend,” and using “novo” which is Latin for “new.” This is very similar to translation idea Western companies like Starbucks or Burger King have employed, with a somewhat
Awkward, yet memorable direct translation. However, Haier entered American markets much later, around the turn of the century, and they simply kept their name from Chinese Haier. This mimics luxury brand companies that have entered the Chinese market late, and simply kept their Western name. Both of these companies, though, much of the American audience has adopted as a “normal” brand and are not outright considered Chinese.
Chinese Brand Names in the West
Other companies have entered the English-speaking world in the last decade or so, and have largely kept their name, such as Huawei, Baidu, Sohu and Tsingtao (which has actually retained its Wade-Giles stylized name.) These companies have built enough of a reputation that American audiences interested in Chinese markets have simply recognized their brand name and adopted it. These companies have donned the method of simply retaining their name. Some companies like Sina, Sinovel and Tencent have used a sort of transliteration method, where they maintained the original sound of the brand name, but having a reasonably Western sounding name. Other companies such as Bank of China, WeChat or the Agricultural Bank of China have used the direct translation method, and have all garnered reasonable following. However, in the case of these businesses, they have Western alternatives that have seemingly impenetrable market share, much the way Google and Microsoft struggled to enter China. However, in terms of branding alone, they have gained traction. And last, there is the popular app QQ, which has no phonological equivalent in Chinese, meaning this is a Chinese property using a Latin script and English pronunciation. This is a simple recap of just a few Chinese companies, but there is a range of Chinese companies’ name-making that mirrors that of Western companies’ policies.
How do Western Companies Creat Chinese Brand Names?
Lastly, this paper will address how companies generally arrive upon these names. Many Western companies simply do not have the knowledge when it comes to the Chinese language, resulting in a reliance on consulting companies. These consultancies have a wide range of prices and clients they offer, but seem to be from a couple thousand dollars to $50,000. Some of these firms include Zentron Consulting, Good Characters, Nanjing Marketing Group and Labbrand, which has taken on many big name American companies like Wrigley, Levi’s and Pepsi, among countless others. In crafting a name, a company must initially work within a bureaucratic constraint, namely that foreign names must follow governmental rules. First, it mustn’t include terms like “National,” “China” or “International.” These terms are reserved for special companies that genuinely warrant the title. Second, it must be written entirely in Chinese characters. And third, it must follow a general pattern following, but not limited to: place name, company name, industry and firm structure. An example of this is Bank of China Joint-Stock Limited Company or McDonald’s China LLC. The exchange between the consultant firm and the client seems to be a fairly simple back and forth. First, the client will name values inherent to the company and what they generally want from the name. Next, the consultancy with their language fluency will create hundreds of examples and bring them back to the client. In general they select examples that contain positive connotations across all major dialects, (namely, Mandarin, Cantonese and Shanghainese) are easy for the Chinese to pronounce, and that are a good combination of translation and transliteration. They bring a handful to the company, usually with a top pick, but the executives of the clients always have final say. Using all of the techniques laid out in this essay, top executives in Western companies essentially attempt the pure genius of the Coca-Cola paradigm.
In conclusion, branding is a huge business both domestically and in Chinese markets for American and Western companies. Although giving a company a name that already has a viable brand may seem like a superfluous, bureaucratic step, it can mean all the difference for a company. (Consider that Best Buy is already out of China.) This paper first attempted to show the idiosyncrasies of the language that make each character carry primary semantic rather than phonetic weight. Thus, as companies try and select a perfect Chinese name, they must balance sound and meaning. Next, the paper showed a sampling of terms and loan words across English and Chinese, namely in food and in place names. These are two of the largest examples of loan words, and outside of finance and tech firms, the food industry seems to be the largest entering with Chinese names. Third, the paper laid out guidelines that companies generally attempt to follow when crafting names, building on the quirks from the first section. And finally, the last section concluded by revealing the process by which companies actually arrive upon these names through consultant firms. All in all, there’s much at stake in a brand, and as the Cantonese proverb goes, “To be given a bad name is worse than to be born with a bad fate.”
Western Names in Chinese
|Western Name||Chinese Name||How It’s Adopted||Meaning|
|Coca Cola||Kekou Kele||Combination||Tasty Fun|
|Bing||Bing (or Bi Ying)||Combination||Certain Response (Connotation: sick)|
|Nike||Naike||Combination||Endure and Overcome|
|Best Buy||Baisimai||Combination||Think 100 Times Before You Buy|
|BMW||Baoma||Combination||Treasure-Horse (reaches female audience)|
|Mercedes-Benz||Benchi||Combination||Dashing Speed (reaches male audience)|
|Subway||Saibaiwei||Combination||Filled With 100 Flavors|
|Pepsi||Baishi Kele||Combination||100 Happy Times|
|Ralph Lauren||Sanjiao Ma||Given/Unofficial||Three-Legged Horse|
|Colgate||Gaolujie||Meaning||Clean and Happy|
|Volkswagen||Dazhong Qiche||Translation||People’s Car (from German)|
|Burger King||Hanbao Wang||Translation||Burger King|
|KFC||Kendeji||Transliteration||Agree-Virtue-Base (intended as an acronym)|
Chinese Names in the West
|Chinese Name||Western Name||How It’s Adopted||Meaning|
|Sinovel||Huarui Fengdian||Combination||China + Velocity|
|Chrisdien Deny||Chrisdien Deny||European Name||Name|
|Frognie Zila||Frognie Zila||European Name||Name|
|Li Xiansheng||Li Xiansheng||Nothing||Mr. Li|
|Zhongguo Yinghang||Bank of China||Translation||Bank of China|
|Biyinlefen||Biemlfdlkk||Transliteration||Compare, Music, Rein, Fragrant|
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