*This is part of a series of articles by Anthony (Tony) Lee, the author of China Trend: Stories You Cannot Find in Search Engines. First published in Korea, the tome offers an objective insider’s look into the inner workings of the world’s most populous nation. Previously based in Shanghai for over 16 years, Tony is also the founder of several media, advertising and PR companies in China.
When I first arrived in China back in 1993, I was faced with many surprises. One such surprise was how the general public did not understand simple English words such as taxi, hotel, and TV. All the English words used on a daily basis are translated into Chinese, not only phonetically but also semantically. This, however, does cause some confusion, especially if the translations are taken literally. For example, a taxi is called 出租车, which literally means “rented car”; and a “hotel” is known as a酒店 or饭店, which translates to “wine store” or “rice store”.
In short, the average Chinese person tends to not be familiar with even the simplest English words. And there are two reasons for this that I can think of. Firstly, the history of English education is relatively short in China. As recently as the 70’s and early 80’s, only those in college had the chance to learn a second language, which at that time, was predominantly Russian. It wasn’t until the late 80’s and early 90’s that English became the required curriculum in K-12 education.
Secondly, Chinese characters are not alphabets made up of consonants and vowels, as is the case in other languages like Japanese and Korean. Each character has an independent sound and meaning. (That’s why an English translation takes up about three times as much space as its Chinese version.) Therefore, only proper nouns such as names of people or cities are phonetically translated with a few exceptions. All other English words like mobile phone, sexy, kiss, tire, monitor, server, etc. are all translated based on meaning.
As a result, foreign brands in their original English names cannot penetrate the everyday conversations of Chinese people. So they get translated largely in two ways – semantically and phonetically. Microsoft (微软), and Apple (苹果) are examples of semantic translation whereas McDonald’s (麦当劳), and KFC (肯德基) are examples of phonetic translation. Then of course, there is Coca Cola (可口可乐) – a masterful translation in both pronunciation and meaning. (McDonald’s and KFC were originally translated based on Cantonese pronunciation, and thus sound somewhat awkward in Mandarin).
Then there are also interesting cases where brand name translations created by consumers become so popular that the brand later has a hard time replacing it with its own version. The official Chinese name for Burberry is now 博柏利(bo-bo-li) but in its early years, it was known as 巴寶莉(ba-bao-li), which sounds closer to its original name. The latter is still widely used in the online marketplace.
Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior are called LV and CD respectively, which again are names (or rather, abbreviations) created by consumers. Abbreviated names, however, have to meet several conditions in order to be “accepted” by the Chinese (translation not required). One such condition seems to be that if more than two letters are used, the name must start with a vowel – as is the case with IBM. Which is why, BMW, as popular as it is in the West, is still translated in Chinese.
The picture above shows the Baidu search index comparison between BMW and its Chinese name, 宝马(bao-ma). Its Chinese name is used in searches over ten times as often as BMW. BMW is not easy to pronounce for Chinese speakers.
Some might argue, “I see more English words on the streets of Shanghai than I do in Japan or Korea”. True, but it should be noted that English signs or English names of Chinese local brands are merely ornaments or symbols of internationalism, which are meant to convey a sense of authority and prestige. In other words, they are there for the purpose of being seen than to be actually read. In other Asian countries like Korea and Japan, it is the norm for English brand names to be written in their own alphabets (Hangul and Katakana respectively).
So here’s my point: If you want to promote your brand in China, a Chinese brand name is a MUST. Unfortunately, however, I have witnessed many cases throughout my advertising career where even multinational companies decide on their Chinese names only after a few meetings with their local staff. Some brands take so much pride in their brand names and have such confidence in their “highly educated” target consumers that they insist on using their original names in their marketing and communications. I find such attitudes hard to understand, especially since the business is trying to embark on the biggest market that the world has ever seen. Chinese brand names should not be taken as lightly as “nicknames” for Chinese consumers but rather, a legitimate name that should adhere to the heart and soul of the brand. It’s worth investing time and money on getting this right.
Lastly, I’d like to share a popular joke in China which might show how sensitive and close Chinese feel towards Chinese names of foreign brands:
A man in his 20’s is Pentium (translated to “奔腾“, which literally means “dashing forward”).
A man in his 30’s is Hitachi (used in its original name in Chinese characters “日立“, literally means “rising daily”).
A man in his 40’s is Matsushita (later changed to Pioneer in the other parts of the world, but the Chinese are still using its original name in Chinese characters “松下“, which literally means “loosened” or “relaxed”).
A man in his 50’s is Microsoft (translated to “微软“, which literally means... well, you get the idea).
Cover image credit: Louis Vuitton