Thinking of moving your business to China? A word to the wise: hire a skilled translator! As a recent article in the New York Times points out, translating a business name into Chinese requires
much more than Google Translate; you also need a deep understanding of the nuances of Chinese culture to avoid utterly humiliating yourself.
As the Times explains:
“More than many nations, China is a place where names are imbued with deep significance…Given that China’s market for consumer goods is growing by better than 13 percent annually — and luxury-goods sales by 25 percent — an off-key name could have serious financial consequences.”
Sometimes, it’s enough to use Chinese characters to indicate how your brand name should be pronounced. However, you have to be careful to avoid unintended double meanings. For example, the word “Bing” in Mandarin has a few possible meanings, including disease, defect and virus. A direct phonetic translation could easily leave a Chinese consumer afraid that the search engine would crash his computer. Microsoft went with “Bi ying” instead, which sounds similar but means “responds without fail.”
For many brands, the most effective strategy is to choose a brand name that has positive connotations for Chinese consumers. If the name turns out to be phonetically close to the original English, so much the better. Here are some examples:
Nike- “Nai ke,” enduring and persevering.
Reebok- “Rui bu,” quick steps.
Colgate- “Gao lu jie,” revealing superior cleanliness.
Citibank- “Hua qi yinhang,” star-spangled banner bank.
Lay’s- “ Le shi,” happy things.
In this 2002 study, companies that chose a Chinese name with a positive meaning were found to be associated with better performance, in the form of increased brand loyalty and commitment. Companies that used a neutral phonetic translation were seen as demonstrating a “passive attitude toward consumers, making it difficult for Chinese consumers to understand the brand’s meaning, and demonstrating indifference toward the target market’s perceptions.”