SHANGHAI, China — It’s not easy getting a brand’s Chinese name right. Airbnb learned that the hard way, when the home-sharing service announced it would go by the name “Aibiying” (爱彼迎) in China. The Chinese name translates as “welcome each other with love,” an attempt to convey Airbnb’s mission and philosophy of bringing together people from all around the world. But many Chinese consumers think it sounds awkward, and that it isn’t easily understood.
“It’s important for [foreign] brands to have a proper [Chinese] name, as that’s how they make their first impression on consumers. Chinese people have traditionally placed a great emphasis on names, as they believe a good name can lead to good fortunes,” says Yiling Pan, luxury business and fashion reporter at Jing Daily.
But given the complexity and uniqueness of the Chinese language, and that the name has to be legally available as a trademark, this is no easy feat. “It’s often the case that when [foreign] brands find a good Chinese name, they realise that it has already been taken by domestic Chinese groups or individuals,” says Zara Hoffman, associate publisher at Jing Daily.
Many Chinese consumers casually and comfortably use the original brand names for fashion and luxury brands. But there are also a great number of Chinese consumers who don’t speak foreign languages well enough to pronounce a foreign brand name in its original form.
Typically, there are four ways foreign brand names get interpreted. The most common is transliteration, especially beauty and jewellery brands. For example, the four characters of Estée Lauder’s Chinese name “Yashilandai”(雅诗兰黛) mean elegance, poetry, orchid and cosmetics. Another way is through literal translation. Swiss watch brand IWC’s Chinese brand name “Wanguobiao” (万国表) literally means “watch of ten thousand countries”. Sometimes, a more liberal translation is used in pharmaceutical and technology brands. Canon’s Chinese name “Jianeng” (佳能) both resembles its English pronunciation and represents the brand’s good quality (佳) and functionality (能).
The last way, which is also the most challenging and difficult, combines two or three methods at the same time. “Aimashi” (爱马仕), sounds similar to Hermès and it means equestrian enthusiast. Vetements presented its Chinese name as “Weitemeng”(维特萌), meaning “unique, special and cute” which has been very well received as a more contemporary interpretation.
However, sometimes Western brands inadvertently choose Chinese names that have a negative connotation, something that could have an adverse impact on their businesses.
Pan cites the example of Bottega Veneta, which changed its official Chinese name in 2013 to “Baodiejia” (葆蝶家) because its initial translation “Baotijia” (宝缇嘉) was already registered in the mainland. The new name immediately prompted public backlash for having a negative connotation that could mean “a steep drop in price.” Experts said it did not match the Italian brand’s high-end image. As a result, Bottega Veneta stopped using the Chinese name on its official Chinese website and its social media channels like WeChat and Weibo.
Some luxury brands have refrained from rebranding their names in China entirely, out of a desire to present a unified brand image. Other global companies with short names, such as Gap, expect Chinese consumers to learn their Western names. Simultaneously, as more Chinese brands go global, they are also thinking about names that work internationally. Mobile social app Weixin rebranded itself as WeChat in 2012, for example.
“For fashion brands, they have to really understand who their target audience is when naming their brands. That said, the role of Chinese millennials [is also important]. As a unique demographic shaping the country’s fashion industry, brands cannot afford to ignore their linguistic habits, preferences and interests if they hope to do business with them,” says Pan.