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Brand Names in Chinese

By Bianca Basciano
From Brill’s Encyclopedia of Chinese Language and Linguistics (online and in print)

Brand names play an important role in determining the success or failure of a new product or service (Armstrong and Kotler 1997), influencing its acceptance by the public (Charmasson 1998). Thus brand names are a crucial component of marketing strategies. A well-made brand name should suggest positive connotations and the relevance of the product, be short, distinctive and easy to memorize (Robertson 1989; Kohli and LaBanh 1997). In choosing a brand name one should take into account phonological, morphological and semantic aspects (Chan 1990; Chan and Huang 1997; Chan and Huang 2001a); hence, the specific characteristics of a particular language significantly affect the creation of brand names.

1. Chinese Brand Names

From a linguistic point of view, Chinese brand names have some particular features that distinguish them from brand names in Western languages. These are related to the considerable structural differences between Chinese and Indo-European languages. Modern Chinese is a tonal language and is characterized by a quasi-perfect correspondence between syllable, morpheme and character. However, most morphemes are bound, and thus they must combine with other morphemes to form words: the majority of Chinese words are combinations of two or more morphemes (either free or bound), each represented by a character in writing. In particular, Modern Chinese shows a strong tendency to form disyllabic words:  before 200 BCE, disyllabic words were roughly 20% of the lexicon (at least in the written language); a stronger tendency to disyllabification developed during the Hàn period (206 BCE–220 CE), and estimates for disyllabic words in the modern language are above 80% (Shi 2002:70–72). Moreover, since words are formed mainly by combining existing lexical morphemes/characters, i.e., content units, Chinese names tend to be more meaningful than names in languages like English, such that the meaning of the name’s components should be carefully chosen. Whereas in English, which is written with a phonographic alphabet, one can make up a word from a phonological string without any meaning as, say, glapt, in Chinese each grapheme normally conveys a meaning; thus, if we make up a word such as lóng-dèng 隆瞪, the constituents have a meaning of their own, i.e., ‘prosperous’ and ‘glare’, despite the fact that the word as a whole does not make any sense.

Furthermore, the differences in writing system seem to affect crucially the creation of brand names. Research has shown that native speakers of Chinese seem to be more receptive towards writing cues and consumers are more likely to rely on visual representations, while English native speakers seem to be more receptive towards phonological cues and consumers apparently rely mainly on phonological representations  (Schmitt et al. 1994; Pan and Schmitt 1995; 1996)

In Chinese, names can be composed less freely than in a language like English (see Chan and Huang 2001a). The phonographic system allows English to form a name simply by scrambling letters (e.g., Kodak, Wii), by creating acronyms, by compounding, by blending, by clipping, by adding a (non-meaningful) syllable to an existing word (e.g., Motorola), etc. In contrast, Chinese brand names are formed mainly by: 1) “borrowing” an existing term, such as a geographical name, as in Tiānzhù shān 天柱山 ‘Tianzhu mountain’ (a cigarette brand), or an existing word, e.g., Jiěfàng 解放 ‘liberation’ (a truck brand); 2) abbreviation, e.g., Zhōngguó yīqì 中國一汽 ‘China one-car’, from Zhōngguó dì-yī qìchē jítuán gōngsī 中國第一汽車集團公司 ‘Chinese automobile factory No.1’; 3) compounding, e.g., Jīn hóu 金猴 ‘golden monkey’, a leatherwear brand (see Chan et al. 2009). Different corpus-based studies (e.g., Chan and Huang 1997; Chan and Huang 2001; Chan et al. 2009) have demonstrated that the most commonly used means is compounding, mainly of the modifier-head type:

1. 飛馬 Fēi mǎ ‘fly horse’ (bicycles)
白貓 Bái māo ‘white cat’ (detergent)
雪洋 Xuěyáng ‘snow-ocean’ (soft drinks)
冷香 Lěng xiāng ‘cold fragrance’ (cosmetics)
金獅 Jīn shī ‘golden lion’ (bicycles)

Other strategies can be found too, e.g., reduplication (see Zhōngguó míngpái wǎng 中國名牌網 ‘Chinese brand names net’):

2. 加加 Jiājiā ‘add-add’ (soy sauce)
力力 Lìlì ‘strength-strength’ (ceramics)
杉杉 Shānshān ‘Chinese.fir-Chinese.fir’ (male Western-style clothes)

Another strategy consists in creating names like Àilìsī  愛麗絲 ‘love-beautiful-silk’ (cosmetics), which are not structurally analyzable, since they are not formed by a particular word formation strategy (see Chan and Huang 2001a, Chan et al. 2009). In these names, syllables are chosen and arranged to evoke the sound of a foreign name (as ‘‘Alice’’ in the example above), and characters are carefully selected to suggest proper (positive) meanings; they are created to attract female consumers through connotation of exoticism, uniqueness, beauty, romance, etc. (see Chan and Huang 2001a, Chan et al. 2009).

Some acronyms or initialisms can be found too (see table 1; Zhōngguó míngpái wǎng ‘Chinese brand names net’).

Table 1. Brand names formed by acronyms/initialisms
Company name Brand name Product/service
a. 大連機床集團 DMTG machine-tools
Dàlián jīchuáng jítuán
‘Dalian Machine Tool Group’
b. TCL 通訊設備 TCL telecommunications
TCL tōngxùn shèbèi
‘TCL Telecommunication Equipment’

(TCL = Telephone Company Limited)

c. 萬年青運動器材
Wànniánqīng yùndòng qìcái WNQ body building equipment
d. 比亞迪 BYD automobiles and rechargable batteries
Bǐyàdí

Acronyms/initialisms can be formed from English (a–b) or can originate from the (romanized) Chinese name of the company, choosing the initials of some of  its syllables (c–d).

There are some particular cases, too, as shown by table 2:

Table 2. Brand names formed by (pseudo-)acronyms/initialisms
Company name Brand name Product/service
a. 橫店集團聯宜電機    LINIX electrical machinery
Héngdiàn jítuán liányí diànjī
b. 中捷縫紉機 Zhōngjié fèngrènjī ZOJE sewing machines
c. 瑞立集團 Ruìlì jítuán SORL auto parts
d. 中興通訊 Zhōngxīng tōngxùn ZTE 中興 telecommunications
Zhong Xing Telecommunications Equipment

The name LINIX (a) seems to be formed simply by scrambling letters (in LINIX, only ‘LI’ is the first part of the syllable lián 聯); in ZOJE (b),  ‘Z’ and ‘J’ and ‘O’ and ‘E’ can be traced back to the first two syllables of the name of the company, but their selection does not follow any obvious pattern along the initial/rhyme boundaries within these syllables. A particular case is represented by SORL (c), where ‘R’ and ‘L’, the initials of the first two syllables of the name of the company, are preceded by two other unrelated letters, ‘S’ and ‘O’. These brand names can be considered as pseudo-acronyms.  Finally, ZTE 中興 (d) is formed by combining a (pseudo-)acronym (possibly created by putting together the first syllable of the Chinese name and the initials of the English Telecomunication Equipment) with a Chinese name.

In addition, there are alphanumeric brands too, e.g., 555 (batteries and cigarettes), 5A (toothbrush), or brands formed by characters and figures, e.g., tàifēng 泰豐 888  (telephones). The numbers used in these brands are generally all considered as favorable numbers in Chinese culture (see table 3).

Chinese brand names can be formed by one to five syllables (Chan et al. 2009), but given the tendency of Chinese towards disyllabism, there is a strong preference for brand names to be formed by two syllables (see exx. 1), which are easier to memorize (and also correspond to a minimal prosodic word in Mandarin; see Féng 2001), followed by three syllables names, e.g., 步步高 Bùbù-gāo ‘step.by.step-high’ (mobile phones) (see Lǚ 2005, Chan et al 2009). One-syllable names are not frequent and are often followed by pái 牌  ‘brand’ (see Lǚ 2005), forming a disyllabic name, e.g., Hǔ pái 虎牌  ‘tiger brand’ (forage).

From the phonological point of view, corpus-based studies have shown that there is a strong preference for two-syllable names in which the second syllable has a ‘high’ tone (either first or second tone): according to Chan and Huang (1997, 2001a), high-toned syllables have a high pitch and, thus, are more sonorous and are also easy to pronounce. Chinese speakers seem to have a strong preference for names that can be pronounced sonorously; sonority can result in a pleasing feature in pronunciation and this may enhance the memory and help generate favorable brand perception (Chan and Huang 2001a, 2001b; see also Wú et al. 2010).

From the semantic point of view, Chinese brand names usually have a positive connotation, but may have a neutral connotation too, especially in some categories of products (e.g., matches and spirits; see Chan and Huang 1997, Chan and Huang 2001a). In this respect, it is important to take into account the cultural background and the importance given to symbolic implications of good wishes and fortune (Chan 1990, Schmitt and Pan 1997). In brand names, words from the following semantic areas are often found (see Ang 1997, Lǚ 2005, Chan et al. 2009):

Table 3. Common semantic areas in brand naming
Semantic area Examples Brand name examples
good luck, fortune ‘lucky’, 福 ‘fortune’, 和 ‘harmony’, 富 ‘rich’, 運 yùn ‘luck/fate’ 富紳 Fù shēn rich gentleman’ (men’s clothing)

鴻大運 Hóng-dà-yùn ‘great-big-fortune’ (cigarettes)

nature (power and strength), traditionally auspicious animals and plants lóng ‘dragon’, 馬 ‘horse’, 鳳 fèng ‘phoenix’, 燕 yàn ‘swan’, 松 sōng ‘pine’, 山 shān ‘mountain’, 蘭 lán ‘orchid’ 鳳凰 Fènghuáng ‘phoenix’ (bycicles)

松鷹 Sōngyīng ‘pine-owl’ (wollen sweaters)

錦龍 Jǐn lóng ‘brocade-dragon’ (electrical machinery)

 

favorable and lucky numbers shuāng ‘two/pair’, 三 sān ‘three’, 五 ‘five’, 六 liù ‘six’, 七 qī ‘seven’, 八 ‘eight’, 九 jiǔ ‘nine’, 百 bǎi ‘one hundred’, 萬 wàn ‘ten thousand’ 金六福 Jīn-liù-fú ‘gold-six-fortune’ (spirits)

三禾 Sān hé ‘three-grain’ (bakery products)

 

positive colors hóng ‘red’ (happiness), 金 jīn ‘golden’ (richness and power), 青 qīng ‘green’ (youth and freshness), 藍 lán ‘blue’ (peacefulness), 白 bái ‘white’ (purity and elegance) 白貓 Bái māo ‘white-cat’ (detergent)

紅梅 Hóngméi ‘red-plum’ (TV)

 

 

beauty and intimacy (wishful, elegant and appealing) měi ‘beautiful’, 愛 ài ‘love’, 絲 ‘silk’, 雅 ‘elegance’ 真愛 Zhēn’ài ‘true-love’ (woolen blanket)

佳美 Jiā-měi ‘good/beautiful-beautiful’ (ceramics)

Moreover, brand names often contain elements that describe the characteristics and qualities of the products: bicycle brand names, for instance, often make use of words related to strength and speed, and brands of beverage products often contain words related to water and/or coldness (see ex.1) (Chan and Huang 1997; 2001b; Huang and Chan 1997).

2. Translation of Foreign Brand Names

According to Li and Shooshtari (2003), a brand name is a sociolinguistic symbol, which carries cultural meanings; for this reason, it is very important to take into account cultural and linguistic differences in order to obtain an effective Chinese translation of a brand name. In the Chinese market, standardized brand names are generally not accepted, due to the significant differences between Chinese and Western languages and scripts and to cultural factors; thus, Western companies make great efforts to adapt their brand to the Chinese market.

Different strategies are used to translate a foreign brand name into Chinese (see Zhang and Schmitt 2001, Wāng and Zhāng 2005, Arcodia and Piccinini 2006). One of these strategies is phonological adaptation (see Alon et al. 2009):

2. Sony: Suǒní 索尼 ‘rope-nun’
Ferré: Fèiléi 沸雷 ‘boil-thunder’
Pierre Cardin: Pí’ěr Kǎdān 皮爾·卡丹  ‘skin-you card-red’
Motorola: Mótuōluólā 摩托羅拉  ‘rub-entrust-net-pull’

The examples in (3) apparently make use of characters without relevant meaning. In applying this strategy, syllables have to be carefully chosen in order to avoid associations with homophones with a negative or irreverent meaning (see Francis et al. 2002; Chan and Huang 1997). In some cases, the phonological adaptation of the foreign brand name can be combined with a word indicating the category of the product, creating a hybrid form, e.g., BarbieBābǐ wáwa 芭比娃娃 ‘banana-compare doll’.

A more effective strategy than phonological adaptation without relevant meaning is the phonological adaptation of the foreign name (either the whole name or part of it) combined with a favorable meaning, which can also suggests a characteristic, quality or function of the product (see Wāng and Zhāng 2005; Arcodia and Piccinini 2006; Alon et al. 2009).

4. Coca Cola: Kěkǒu kělè 可口可樂 ‘tasty-amusing’
Barilla: Bǎi wèi lái 百味來 ‘one-hundred-flavour-come’
Vileda: Wēilìdá 微力達 ‘minute/profound-power-arrive’
Maybelline: Měi bǎo lián 美寶蓮 ‘beautiful-precious-lotus’

The importance of choosing proper syllables/characters, able to attract Chinese customers (which is crucial for the creation of Chinese brand names too; see above), is well exemplified by the history of the translation of the brand name Coca Cola, which was first introduced to China as Kěkǒu kělà 可口可蠟, trying to reproduce the phonological form of the original name. However, this name suggested something like ‘pleasant to mouth and wax ( 蠟)’, as a consequence of which it could not be accepted in the Chinese market and had to be changed (see Li and Shooshtari 2003, Alon et al. 2009).

Sometimes phonological adaptation takes into account only some of the syllables composing the foreign name, as e.g., Logitech, Luójì 罗技 ‘net-skill’. For the brand name BMW, only the first two letters of the German initialism (‘Bayrische Motoren Werke’) have been taken into account, creating Bǎomǎ 寶馬 ‘treasure-horse’, which suggests that the characteristics of the car are like those of a precious horse (Lǚ 2005).

Another strategy is word-for-word translation:

5. Pioneer: Xiānfēng 先锋 ‘pioneer’
Red Bull: Hóngniú 紅牛 ‘red-bull’
Microsoft: Wéiruǎn 微軟 ‘micro-soft’
General Motors: Tōngyòng qìchē 通用汽車 ‘general motor’

In some cases, the translation presents some differences with the original name. For example, Mr. Muscle is rendered in Chinese as Wēiměng xiānshēng 威猛先生 ‘brave mister’. In the Chinese version of the brand name, ‘muscle’ is replaced by a word more appealing for the Chinese public (see Li and Shooshtari 2003), i.e., wēiměng ‘brave’; moreover, the word xiānshēng ‘mister’ follows wēiměng ‘brave’, since, differently from English, in Chinese any title like ‘mister’ follows the proper name (Arcodia and Piccinini 2006).

This strategy is avoided when the translation would contain a non-positive image in the Chinese culture. A good example is a Cantonese leather goods brand, for which the English name Fortune Duck was chosen. The English name was not translated into Chinese as Xìngyùn yā 幸運鴨 ‘fortune duck’, since a duck is considered as a negative symbol, alluding to a man who lives off a woman (Zhāo 2007). Therefore, the name Kē-chūn-dé 科春得 ‘discipline-spring-reach’ was chosen, probably because these characters are pronounced in Cantonese as fo1-ceon1-dak1, thus being a phonological adaptation of the original word.

Another strategy to translate foreign brand names is the creation of an original name (see Wāng and Zhāng 2005; Arcodia and Piccinini 2006), which describes the function or some of the characteristics/qualities/benefits of the product, or, in any case, which contains characters with a positive connotation:

6. Bref: Miào lì 妙力 ‘wonderful-power’ (household products)
Rejoice: Piāo róu 飄柔 ‘float-soft’ (shampoo)
Ariel: Bì làng 碧浪 ‘green.jade-wave’ (laundry detergents)
Energizer: Jìn liàng 勁量 ‘strength-quantity/capacity’ (batteries)

Original names are generally created following the same principles used in the creation of Chinese brand names, with a preference for disyllabic names with positive and suggestive connotations.

In some cases, the originally created brand contains an indication of the phonological form of part of the source word, as in Athlon (microprocessors) → Sù lóng 速龍 ‘speed-dragon’, where the first character highlights one of the qualities of the product, while the second syllable/character is a phonological adaptation of the last part of the original name and, at the same time, bears a positive connotation (see table 3). In the case of Kit Kat (chocolate), Qíqiǎo 奇巧 ‘intriguing/ingenious/exquisite’, an existing term, has been chosen; this is a strategy adopted also in the creation of Chinese brand names (see above). The name Qíqiǎo not only can convey positive suggestions, but also preserves the alliteration of the initials of the two syllables that form the original name. Moreover, note that qiǎo 巧 is the first syllable of the word qiǎokèlì 巧克力 ‘chocolate’.

Sometimes different strategies are combined; for example, the brand The North Face has been rendered as Lèsīfēisī 樂斯菲斯, where lèsī  ‘happy-this/thus’ is an ad hoc creation, while fēisī is a phonological adaptation of face (see Arcodia and Piccinini 2006), something like ‘happy face’, where the repetition of 斯 also creates a rhyme. Starbucks has been rendered as Xīngbākè 星巴克, where xīng ‘star’ translates the first part of the name, while bākè is the phonological adaptation of the remaining part, bucks. Another example is Oil of Ulan (Ulay/Olay/Olaz), which has been translated as Yùlányóu 玉蘭油. The first two syllables of the name, yùlán ‘magnolia’, are a phonological adaptation of Ulan (name of the brand in Australia) and, at the same time, represent a very positive meaning: magnolia is both a very popular flower in China and a symbol of nobility and elegance (Lǚ 2005); the last part of the name, yóu, is the translation of oil.

In China, given the great linguistic and cultural differences between different regions, adapting a brand name is a highly difficult task and sometimes it is hard to create a “universal” Chinese brand name (see Li and Shooshtari 2003, Alon et al. 2009). For example, when the brand Johnson & Johnson entered the Hong Kong market, it was rendered as Zhuāngsheng 莊生 ‘an official or lord during feudal times’. This association with upper-class membership was seen as inappropriate in the PRC, thus the name was later changed into Qiáng-shēng 强生 ‘strong-give.birth/life’ (see Schmitt and Pan 1994). This name combines morphemes with a positive meaning, which also recall the sound of the original word (see Lǚ 2005, Gāo and Lǐ 2006). In Táiwān yet another name was chosen, i.e., Jiāo-shēng 嬌生 ‘delicate/lovely-give.birth/life’. This could reflect a difference in parents’ expectations towards children: parents in PRC hope to have a strong child, not a charming and gentle child (Fàn 2005); moreover, note that jiāo has also the meaning of ‘arrogant, spoiled’ (Fàn 2005). Sometimes the differences in brand names among different regions are due to phonological factors, since characters are pronounced differently in different Chinese dialects; thus, companies must find names that sound pleasant and are easy to pronounce in all major language markets, also avoiding syllables which can recall homonyms with negative meanings (see Alon et al. 2009). For example, the phonological adaptation of Lamborghini used in the PRC is Lán-bó-jī-ní 蘭博基尼 ‘orchid-abundant-foundation-nun’, while in Hong Kong it is lín-bǎo-jiān-ní ‘forest-treasure-solid-nun’ 林寶堅尼, which in Cantonese is lam4-bou2-gin1-nei4, resembling more the original name than lánbójīní, which in Cantonese is laan4-bok3-gei1-nei4. In Táiwān Lán-bǎo-jiān-ní 藍寶堅尼 ‘blue-treasure-solid-nun’ is used (cf. Taiwanese Southern Mǐn 閩南話 lâm-pó-kian-nî). Some other examples of different translations of foreign names in PRC, Táiwān and Hong Kong are given in table 4

Table 4. Comparison between PRC, Hong Kong and Táiwān translations of foreign brand names
Brand name PRC Hong Kong Táiwān
Benz 奔馳 Bēnchí

‘run quickly’

平治 Píngzhì

(Cant. peng4ci4)

‘put in order’

賓士 Bīnshì

‘guests’

Voltaren 扶他林 Fú-tā-lín

‘support-him-forest’

服他靈 Fú-tā-líng

(Cant. fuk6-taa1-leng4)

‘take (medicine)-he-spirit’

服他寧 Fú-tā-níng

‘take (medicine)-he-peaceful’

Fiat 菲亞特 Fēi-yà-tè

‘fragrant-Asia-special’

快意 Kuài-yì

(Cant. faai3-ji3)

‘fast-Italy’

飛雅特 Fēi-yǎ-tè

‘fly-elegant-special’

Heineken 喜力 Xǐ-lì

‘happy-power’

喜力 Xǐ-lì

(Cant. hei2lik6)

‘happy-power’

海尼根 Hǎi-ní-gēn

‘sea-nun-root’

Lux 力士 Lìshì

‘strong man’

力士 Lìshì

(Cant. lik6-si6)

‘strong man’

麗仕 Lì-shì

‘beautiful-officer’

Duracell 金霸王 Jīn bàwáng

‘golden overlord’

金霸王 Jīn bàwáng

(Cant. gam1-baa3wong4)

‘golden-overlord’

金頂 Jīn dǐng

‘golden top’

Maybelline 美寶蓮 Měi bǎo lián

‘beautiful treasure lotus’

美寶蓮 Měi bǎo lián

(Cant. mei5-bou2-lin4)

‘beautiful treasure lotus’

媚比琳 Mèi bǐ lín

‘enchant compare beautiful.jade’

 

View the original article in Brill’s online Enclyclopedia of Chinese Language and Linguistics here.

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