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We are often asked about linguistic screening of new product or company name by a Chinese speaker, and we always recommend Chinese phonosemantic naming instead. To screen the English name, you have to assume the reader or speaker will have some familiarity with the English language, as the different script may render the name entirely meaningless to a Chinese speaker. The various tones in the Chinese language and the speaker’s proficiency with English pronunciation can result in multiple ways to pronounce the English name, which may carry hundreds of connotations.

Definitions in Chinese phonosemantic namingNo matter what kind of name, our approach is always exploring both transliteration and Chinese phonosemantic naming, especially if the name has an apparent meaning. The goal is to have a Chinese name that resembles the sound of the English name and yet has great meanings with the combination of characters. There can be hundreds to thousands of ways an English name can be transliterated in Chinese because there are many homophones in Chinese. We also explore sounds that are not the closest resemblance. Sometimes the best, most ideal name in terms of its meanings is not the closest sounding but may come from the secondary sound resembled name. So, the process is the phonosemantic one although transliteration may come out to be the best name. Learn more about this process and see examples here.

Chinese phonosemantic naming for younger Chinese nationals

Studies show that younger, more educated and more cosmopolitan Chinese consumers tend to favor phonosemantic brand translations, which integrate both sound and meaning into a product’s name. Describing a study he co-authored with Chi-yue Chiu (Chinese University of Hong Kong), Jessie Jia Hao (Guang Dong University of Foreign Studies), and Hean Tat Keh (Monash University), Carlos J. Torelli, a professor of business administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says that “we found that the foreign name connects them with that aspect of cosmopolitanism that they valued, but the Chinese understanding of the brand also connects with their Chinese identity, which is also important to them.” It also signals that the company is being sensitive to their language.

purina showing chinese phonosemantic namingRegarding Trademarked Names – a U.S. Trademark does not protect you in China. The U.S. Commercial Service and Dept of Commerce advise that if you are seeking to distribute a product in China, it is essential to register appropriate Chinese language versions of your trademarks well in advance. China has a first-to-file system that requires no evidence of prior use or ownership, leaving registration of popular foreign marks open to third parties.

Each name has to be filed separately under each trademark class. So, one name under 4 classes must do 3 filings. They must file both the alphabet (English) name and the character (Chinese) name. So that would be 2x the amount.

Foreign companies should register appropriate Internet domain names and Chinese language versions of their trademarks. Develop and register a Chinese language version and do so throughout the other jurisdictions of Greater China, including Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macao and Singapore.

If you do not create a Chinese mark, the market will do so, creating a Chinese “nickname” for your product. Your company may not like the image this mark projects, or someone else in China may like it so much they register it in their own name, forcing you to buy it back.

A good Chinese name is the best insurance for long-term success in the Chinese market.

Chinese characters in Chinese phonosemantic namingOur recommended process for Chinese phonosemantic naming

Objectives

  • Develop Chinese brand name candidates.
  • Evaluate and present the strengths and weaknesses of the name candidates.
  • Accomplish the above in the most time efficient manner possible.

Measures of success

  • Creation of top 10 Chinese name candidates that possess/convey good meanings.
  • Creation of top 10 Chinese name candidates that have no negative associations, either in their meanings or their sounds.
  • Creation of top 10 Chinese name candidates that are easy to remember.

Value

  • Create a strong, positive, and long-lasting impression in the minds of Chinese target audience without the risk and cost of embarrassment that accompanies Chinese brand naming mistakes.
  • It shows that the company cares about and is committed to the Chinese market.
  • It increases awareness of the brand.
  • Ongoing return on the investment: a one-time project investment that continues to yield returns for years to come.
  • A good Chinese name is the best insurance for long-term success in the Chinese market.
  • Obtain and review input regarding what your Chinese name should and should not communicate to the target audience.
  • Review your naming/branding brief and objectives for additional input.
  • Research and generate suggestions for brand names that meet your overall objectives and criteria.
  • Deliver a list of top 10 Chinese name candidates that are trademark prescreened for China along with a broader list of names that are not prescreened.
  • Evaluate and report on general acceptability, existing meanings, positive and negative connotations, readability, and rationale for each suggested name.
  • Deliverables: 2 reports
    • 1. A full naming report
      • Takes you through the entire process, including our methods, in step-by-step transparency and lists all characters and names considered.
    • 2. An executive summary slide deck
      • Presents the top 10 names (trademark prescreened for China) with detailed explanations of meanings and rationale for choosing the names. We not only provide the 10 we think are the best but also the exhaustive list of names (all possible combinations) that the client’s Chinese team can review. The number of names can be hundreds but much more often thousands+.

Case Studies for your consideration

  • Positive: Coca Cola

https://www.businessinsider.com/picking-brand-names-china-2011-11

  • Negative: AirBnB

https://qz.com/939253/chinas-consumers-hate-airbnbs-new-chinese-name-so-much-that-they-are-brainstorming-a-new-one/#:~:text=On%20Wednesday%20(March%2022)%20the,company%20explains%20in%20a%20statement.

  • Trademark protection: In ‘n’ Out Burger

https://www.startupgrind.com/blog/how-in-n-out-protects-its-brand-globally-and-why-you-should-follow-its-example/#:~:text=Although%20the%20company%20does%20not,Philippines%2C%20Korea%2C%20and%20China.

https://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2023/07/07/food/in-n-out-burger-trademark-japan/

Are you considering linguistic screening or product name evaluation for your client or your company?  What questions do you have? Contact us to learn more about the Chinese market.