Brand name check: Common Linguistic mistakes when entering the Chinese market

Written by Victoria WhitewickVictoria Whitewick

In today’s crowded market, a brand name is one of the most critical aspects of a business. It is much more than just a label as it represents a company’s identity, values, and personality. A good brand can help differentiate a product or service, build recognition and loyalty, and contribute to a strong brand image.

Nevertheless, brand naming is a challenging task, and numerous prominent businesses have made mistakes. Resulting in negative consequences for their marketing and sales endeavours. This blog article will highlight some of the most common brand naming blunders, how to avoid them and the importance of brand name checks!

Translating brand names into other languages

Maintaining the brand’s identity can be a challenging task when translating brand names into other languages. Particularly, when localisation is necessary for languages with semantic or phonetic discrepancies. It is not as simple as translating words from one language to another. The translation needs to be culturally appropriate and linguistically accurate while keeping the brand’s personality and values intact. Therefore, it requires a creative approach that considers the brand’s unique personality and the local market’s preferences and cultural values.

The difficulty of adapting to the Chinese market

One of the most common challenges that companies face when localising their brand names is when they use transliteration strategies. For example, when companies want to adapt their English brand names to a completely different writing system. Such as in the case of the Chinese script.

When using transliteration strategies, the goal is to find a Chinese pronunciation that sounds similar to the original English brand name. For instance, Carrefour opted for a phonetic-based approach in choosing its Chinese brand name, “Jia-le-fu”. This translates to “home/family-happy-fortunate” in Chinese, reflecting its positive meaning in the local culture.

Some not so successful examples when translating to Chinese

The most notorious example of a failed brand name translation into Chinese is that of Coca Cola. Who first entered the Chinese market in the 1920s. The company faced major challenges in translating its brand name into Chinese characters. The initial translation of its brand name was “ko-kä-kö-la” as it sounded similar to the original in English. However, the translation was problematic as the characters had a completely different meaning when combined. It resulted in the unfortunate translation being “bite a wax tadpole” (蝌蚪啃蜡) in Chinese.

This translation was not only meaningless but conveyed some very odd imagery. This resultingly led to some negative connotations towards the well-renowned brand. Subsequently, Coca Cola realised their mistakes and developed a much more appropriate translation which is “kěkǒu kělè”. This means “tasty fun”. This name is now linguistically correct and appealing to Chinese customers. Which has helped to increase the brand’ selling’s in China.

KFC, finger-licking good or eat your fingers off?

Another instance of a brand naming mishap occurred with the widely popular fast-food chain KFC. Concerns were raised among Chinese consumers when its slogan “finger-licking good” was translated to “eat your fingers off.” This unfortunate error is particularly astonishing given KFC’s overall success story in China.

This serves as a reminder of the importance of meticulous attention to detail and cultural sensitivity when it comes to brand naming. Particularly when expanding into foreign markets. If companies fail to carry out linguistic and cultural brand name checks, then they could experience a loss of consumer trust and negative brand perception.

Mercedes Benz’s turn in failing to understand the Chinese market

Moreover, Mercedes-Benz entered the Chinese market under the brand name “Bensi”. This was meant to sound similar to the company’s name and still convey a sense of luxury and prestige. However, this name translates to “rush to die” in Chinese. This is a phrase that is considered extremely inappropriate in Chinese culture.

Despite the initial negative connotations of the brand name, Mercedes-Benz was able to establish a foothold in the Chinese market. Since, it has become one of the most popular luxury car brands in the country. They released a new EV car brand names “Hengchi (恒驰)”. Which is Mandarin for “forever galloping” and sounding similar to “Benchi”, which is Chinese for “Mercedes Benz” and has many more positive connotations in Chinese.

It’s important to stand out from the crowd

Furthermore, it’s not uncommon for businesses to fall into the trap of selecting a name that closely resembles an existing brand, which can prove to be a costly mistake. Choosing a generic or indistinct name might appear as a quick and easy solution, but customers can easily forget it or confuse it with other brands.

In order to stand out in a crowded market, it’s important for your brand to be distinctive and memorable, setting itself apart from competitors in the same niche. Failure to choose a unique name may result in confusion amongst customers and potential legal repercussions. To avoid such complications, it’s crucial to conduct thorough linguistic and cultural brand name evaluations, to ensure that your brand name is both available and appropriate in all relevant cultures, without any negative connotations.

Ultimately, brand names hold great importance

A brand name is much more than just a label; it holds immense power and potential to shape a business’ identity, values, personality, and success. Selecting a brand name that is both distinctive and legally sound will help to build your brand identity, establish trust with your customers, and ultimately drive business growth. Therefore, it is crucial for businesses to invest time, effort, and resources in developing a strong and memorable brand name.


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