A Chinese trademark attorney, Wayne Liu, wrote an excellent article for Managing IP magazine that’s worth sharing. The article describes how cultural differences make it difficult for foreign companies to enter the Chinese market, and that a culturally sensitive Chinese translation of foreign trademarks is a must. He cites two examples of multinational companies who have done this successfully: Microsoft (商标) and Coca-Cola (可口可乐).
The Chinese market is known for its insularity. Liu reminds us that the majority of China’s 1.3 billion citizens are not familiar with foreign languages used as brands. Therefore the translation can’t simply rely on brand name recognition, and needs to resonate with Chinese consumers as though it was a new brand.
Most foreign companies simply transliterate their trademarks into suitable Chinese characters. While this is sufficient as long as the translated trademark is clearly understood, it misses a huge opportunity to also resonate on the character level. What does this mean? In Chinese, the characters that comprise words have individual meanings, in addition to a phonetic sound. Companies can take advantage of this by selecting characters that create pleasing psychological associations for consumers. In some cases, it might even make sense to “rename” the brand in Chinese. For example, the Energizer trademark in China uses two characters (劲量) that read JIN, LIANG. It doesn’t sound anything like Energizer, but it literally means “full of energy,” a great name for a battery company. Head & Shoulders uses characters (海飞丝) which read HAI, FEI, SI. That doesn’t sound like head and shoulders, but the characters can be literally understood as “sea-wave like hair.”
The bottom line is that translating trademarks and brands into Chinese is not simply a matter of direct translation. To be successful, companies need to thoroughly understand the language, psychology and buying patterns of Chinese customers. And a better understanding of Chinese characters and their meanings is a good place to start.