Connect with me on ‘Leading Elite’: Behind the Chinese names of Western brands

If you are in China, you may start your day with Baking Lang and then drive Treasure Horse to work. At night, you catch up with your professional circle on Leading Elite and perhaps read a few pages of Comic Power before you go to bed.

Those phrases don’t make sense in English, but they are literal translations of Chinese brand names for belVita, BMW, LinkedIn and Marvel, respectively. When international companies are heading over to China, they need to have a localized name that may sound silly in English but flows off the Chinese tongue.

Obviously, there’s a language barrier. Many Chinese consumers don’t know how to pronounce the English alphabet, let alone words like LinkedIn or belVita. Even if they can, they may not understand the contextual sense of the brand name. So international companies need a loose translation that is both pronounceable and captures their brand value and personality.

Shanghai-based brand consultancy Labbrand has worked with LinkedIn, Marvel, belVita and Nestlé Ice Cream to create their Chinese names. Thanks to the growing demand from international brands, naming now represents more than 50 percent of the agency’s revenues, according to Denise Sabet, managing director for Labbrand’s New York office.

“You touch people the most when you speak their language and trigger their emotion. A Chinese name is a good way to do that,” said Sabet. “If consumers end up giving you a name, you may run the risk of having a name with a bad connotation. Or if it’s a good name, you may not be able to own it legally.”

Western brands’ Chinese names are a close phonetic match, but they’re so much more, too. For instance, belVita is called “Bei Lang” in Chinese. “Bei” means baking and “Lang” is widely used to describe sunny mornings, clear skies and bubbly personality, so the combination is aligned with the brand’s goal of leading a bright and beautiful life.

While Marvel adopted the Chinese name “Man Wei.” “Man” means comics in Chinese and “Wei” represents strength, alluding to the power of the Marvel Super Heroes. LinkedIn, on the other hand, is called “Ling Ying.” The first character means leading the way, while the second character means elite. Both words reflect Chinese young professionals’ desire to become the leader in their career, according to Sabet.

Those names were created by a team of eight naming consultants at Labbrand. They usually start the naming process by industry research and then write a creative brief for clients. Based on clients’ requirements, they put different attributes — like “luxury,” “feminine” and “dynamic” — into the agency’s proprietary naming software to get a few suggested Chinese characters that represent those attributes.

“Of course, the process doesn’t stop here. You need people with linguistic background to identify those characters and give them a good meaning that resonates with both the brand and the consumer,” Sabet explained.

The Labbrand naming consultants can usually come up with 300 to 500 names when they run the software, but a mere 5-10 percent of them are feasible when those candidates are screened in the trademark database. Legal check aside, the team will also run a linguistic check in different Chinese dialects to make sure that there is no negative connotation. And then they will test markets through surveys and focus groups with six to eight people in each group. Those tests can be phonetic-driven, meaning-driven or both, said Sabet.

Of course, Labbrand is not the only brand consultancy that has a big naming business. Agencies Landor and Siegel+Gale also have a big naming division, for example. And sometimes it’s another way around: Chinese brands often need an English name when they are expanding into the U.S.

When Chinese companies are localizing their names here, they are facing two challenges: the pronouncing issue and the perception issue, according to Eric Lin, executive director for Siegel+Gale.

“Many of them like Taobao already had Western names before they had a global presence, but those names may not have actual meaning in English,” said Lin. “And some companies, especially in technology, want a name that sounds less Chinese because Chinese companies are often perceived as copycats. I think WeChat is a good example. The name is country-agnostic, neutral and easy to pronounce.”

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