A 玫瑰 by any other name
It’s the start of a new year in China, and the astrologists tell us that the Year of the Horse has the potential to be more successful than last year, but it will require patience and perseverance. And for any brand looking to launch a Chinese brand name this year (or any other), these are words to live by.
While the appeal of the Chinese market is clear to most, the need for a Chinese name may not be. Given that the average Chinese consumer doesn’t speak English and sees Roman characters as graphic elements, a Chinese name is important just to break through. But there are a host of other reasons: a cultural desire to protect and preserve the Chinese language, marketing support necessary to educate consumers on the English name, and government requirements (e.g., audible Chinese for all TV advertising), to name a few.
When you do jump into Chinese name development, brace yourself for the realities of the screening process. There are 6.27M active trademarks and more than 600,000 filed each year. And China follows a first-to-file not a first-to-use system, so registration can be a bit of a land grab. Beyond that are language and cultural considerations for a successful name: tonality, harmony checks, dialects, simplified vs traditional characters…. As I said: patience and perseverance.
To get to the right names, you’ll have a range of creative strategies at your disposal: creation, translation, literation, and transliteration. The right choice lies in determining the importance of meaning vs. sounding the same as your existing name. Elevating the importance of meaning in Chinese over the sound will aid memorability and recall. And a name that sounds similar will strengthen the connection to the international name and its brand equity. Some brands manage to find an equal balance through transliteration (well done, Coke), but many make the decision to pick one over the other. Nike chose a name that sounds identical to the English and means “enduring and preserving,” while Citibank chose a name that sounds different but means star spangled banner bank. All are valid options, depending on your goals.
Whatever your approach, one of the most important things to remember when evaluating your options is: don’t hear with an English ear. The right word in English is not necessarily the right word in Chinese. Pairings of characters can change meaning significantly, so you can’t look at characters individually. And you can’t underestimate the importance of symbols in Chinese culture, so be sure you are looking at all the layers of meaning the name provides.
This week's guest author, Fell Gray, is Senior Director of Verbal Identity for Interbrand New York. She is also the practice leader for Brand Voice.