Pick your Chinese brand name carefully…

After enjoying your “sparrow’s nest coffee” while smoking your “10 000 treasure road”, you drive your “treasured horse” to the nearest “family blessing”.

Choosing Chinese brand namesMeaning: after having your Nescafe coffee and smoking your Marlboro cigarette, you drive your BMW to the nearest Carrefour.

There are many funny examples of where multinational companies have used Chinese brand names, with the result looking like they’re lost in translation. They may seem weird to foreign ears, but for native Chinese, they zing like music. What’s more, they often give a new meaning to the original name.  (Cartoon © Zhang Chengliang / China Daily)


This is what we’ll be talking about:
Why is having a Chinese name important for foreign businesses? 
Chinese brand names unfolded 
Renaming your brand, piece of cake? 
When companies don’t partake in the name changing game 
Does your brand name really influence success? 
Same story for Chinese brands 

Why is having a Chinese name important for foreign businesses?

Two major reasons:

  1. It helps with penetrating the Chinese market. For sure, how were you otherwise planning on conquering the huge Chinese market when its consumers can’t even pronounce, let alone remember, your brand name
  2. Names are really important in China and more precisely the meaning it represents. Having a meaningful name will make your brand look much more appealing.


Chinese brand names unfolded

When a foreign company chooses a Chinese brand name, there are several possibilities:

1. Literal translation

Using this approach, the disadvantage is that in most cases the new Chinese name doesn’t sound similar to the original brand’s name. These companies will need to spend marketing time and money on building brand awareness and building the association between their original brand name and the Chinese character trademark. 


  Chinese Name Pronunciation (pinyin) Meaning
Apple 苹果 Píngguǒ Píngguǒ: apple
Palmolive Zōnglǎn Zōng:palm
Lǎn: olive
Microsoft 微软 Wēiruǎn Wēi: micro
Ruǎn: soft
Volkswagen 大众汽车 Dàzhòng qìchē Dàzhòng: public, all


2. Phonetic translation

A phonetic translation of a company’s brand name is only beneficial when that company already has a reputation in the Chinese market.

  Chinese Name Pronunciation Meaning
Kraft  卡夫 Kǎfu Kǎ: card
Fu: husband 
Wal-Mart  沃尔玛 Wò’ērmǎ Wò: fertile
Ēr: suffix often used in names to indicate the sound [-l], [-el]
Mǎ: mary
Dior 迪奥 Dí’ào Dí: enlighten, guide
Ào: profound and difficult to understand
McDonald’s 麦当劳 Màidāngláo Mài: general term for wheat, barley, oats, etc. 
Dāng: to serve as, or to be used as
Láo: to work

Kraft Chinese name translation     Subway Chinese Name translation   Walmart Chinese Name translation


3. Combination of literal and phonetic translation

Most companies opt for a combination of both. Having a phonetic translation so your brand name sounds (more or less) the same in Chinese with preferably well-chosen Chinese characters that have a positive meaning and can also describe the company or product.

  Chinese Name Pronounciation Meaning
Nestlé 雀巢咖啡 Quècháo kāfēi Què: sparrow
Cháo: nest
Kāfēi: coffee
Meaning: Sparrow’s Nest Coffee
Marlboro 万宝路 Wànbǎolù Wàn: 10 000
Bǎo: treasure
Lù: street, path
Meaning: 10 000 Treasure Road
BMW 宝马 Bǎomǎ Bǎo: treasure
Mǎ: horse
Meaning: Treasured Horse
Mercedes Benz  奔驰 Bēnchí Bēn: run fast
Chí: go quickly
Meaning: Dashing Speed
Jaguar 捷豹 Jiébào Jié: win, victory
Bào: leopard, panther
Meaning: Swifting Panther
Coca-Cola 可口可乐 Kěkǒukělè Kěkǒu: delicous
Kělè: happiness
Meaning: Delicious & Happiness
Subway 赛百味 Sài bǎiwèi Sài: To surpass, to excel
Bǎi: 100
Wèi: flavour
Meaning: Filled with One Hundred Flavours
Carrefour 家乐福 Jiālèfú Jiā: family
Lè: happy
Fú: prosperous
Meaning: Family Blessing
Lexus 雷克萨斯 Léikèsàsī Léi: thunder
Kè: to overcome with victory
Sà: filler sound that appears in many words like 萨萨 (sàsà ), the sound the leaves make when it’s windy.
Sī: phonetic element
Meaning: All the above results in a wild sounding ride, doesn’t it?
Pepsi 百事可乐 Bǎishìkělè Bǎi: 100
Shì: matter, thing
Kělè: happiness
Meaning: A Hundred Happy Things
Lay’s   乐事 Lèshì Lè: happiness
Shì: matter, thing
Meaning: Happy Event

Coca Cola Chinese Name     Lays Chinese Name     Pepsi Chinese Name

Pay attention to:

  • When going for a phonetic translation, companies need to make sure the Chinese name sounds the same as their original brand name
  • Chinese brand names must be easy to remember
  • Meaning should describe the product or brand in a positive way

Pick your Chinese brand name carefully, wouldn’t you like to drive a Mercedes 奔驰 Bēnchí = Dashing Speed? [Tweet this]


Renaming your brand, piece of cake?

As mentioned above, your Chinese brand name should not be taken very lightly. However, foreign companies most likely lack knowledge of Chinese language or mostly don’t have an in-house Chinese language expert.  This results in the growing popularity of consulting companies specialized in renaming foreign brands.


When companies don’t partake in the name changing game

Some companies decided to not have a Chinese brand name when entering the market. By doing this, they want to stress their exclusivity. However, these brands have picked up nicknames along the way given by the general public.

Chinese Name Pronunciation Meaning
Quaker Oatmeal*  老人牌 Lǎorén pái “Old Man Brand”, name based on logo
Ralph Lauren 三脚马 Sānjiǎo mǎ “Three Legged Horse”, name based on logo
*Quaker Oatmeal has in the meantime adopted a Chinese brand name: 桂格Guì Gé, which literally means “Cinnamon Standard”.


Does your brand name really influence success?

Hard to define. However, here are a few examples that might indicate a relation between a brand’s name and its success in a certain market.

  • Mercedes Benz and BMW are both big car companies in China. Benz’s Chinese name holds the meaning of ‘dashing speed’, while BMW means ‘treasure horse’. ‘Dashing speed’ holds a more masculine connotation, while ‘treasure’ is a feminine trait. BMW is among the leading sellers to wealthy Chinese women.” (Li & Shoostari, 2003) 

Did-you-know: There is also a local variant for BMW: 别摸我 (Bié Mō Wǒ), which literally means ‘Don’t Touch Me’.

  • Search engine Bing has found it difficult to break through the Chinese market. Bing sounds similar to the Chinese word for ‘illness’ 病 (bìng). Although it’s official Chinese name is 必应 (bì yìng), which means ‘very certain to respond’, the resemblance of its original brand name with illness is hard to compete against.
  • Best Buy, 百思买(bǎisīmǎi) In Chinese this means ‘Think 100 times before you buy’ , not the best name for a retail store, isn’t it? The company has been closed down.

Of course, these are not all scientific facts, but it nevertheless gives us some food for thought. Moreover, it’s hard to believe that Chinese people wouldn’t pay attention to the characters any company chooses to use in its brand name.

Fun Fact: There is a local Chinese variant of BMW: 别摸我 Bié Mō Wǒ, which literally means ‘Don’t Touch Me’ [Tweet this]


Same story for Chinese brandstop-brands.jpg

It works the other way around as well. Nowadays, local Chinese firms must also engage in a name changing game as they want to gain more international awareness. For instance, Jiànlìbǎo, a Chinese domestic soft drink brand, had difficulties breaking through on the international market as foreign consumers had a hard time pronouncing its name. Also, a recent study by HD Trade Services shows that a vast majority (94%!) of Americans can’t name even one Chinese brand. This indicates once more that adjusting your brand name to the market is beneficial, if not necessary. (Image © Ads of China)


A small recap

Chinese brand names are not only a game important for foreign companies. When those companies decide to penetrate the Chinese market, they can rely on the expertise of brand naming companies. Only a minority has a single phonetic meaning, whereas most companies opt for meaning in their brand name, mostly stressing the product’s benefits.

Next time someone is talking to you about riding his “swift panther”, don’t frown your eyebrows in huge wonder, they’re most likely talking about their new Jaguar.

Interested in learning more about doing business in China? Check out our two-part series which covers both the language and cultural aspects! Ready to gain the experience and language skills needed to do business in China? Apply today for our award-winning internship or language programs in China.

by Haike Bruneel