Western Brands in China – How Do They Translate?

Project Pengyou summer intern, So-Hyeong Lee describes how Western brands can be translated very differently in Chinese.

brand name featured

You’re in China, feeling thirsty and you want a latte from Starbucks. Well, if you ask the average Chinese person on the street where ‘Starbucks’ is, it is very likely that they will not understand you. Rather, you have to pronounce it differently: Xīngbākè.

Foreign brand names can sound very different in Chinese, due to the properties of the language. Unlike English, Chinese does not combine letters to make words. Rather, Chinese characters usually have meanings individually. In other words, you cannot just translate a name by following the sound, because both sound and meaning are included in a single character. This often makes it tricky for foreign companies who want their brand to be recognizable in China.

Yet, however difficult it is to come up with a Chinese brand name that succeeds in both sound and meaning, it’s worth the risk; a poorly chosen Chinese name can ruin the company’s sale performance. In fact, because many Chinese characters have the same sound, puns can be very important in the culture. For instance, the number 8 has been considered lucky for a long time in China because the pronunciation ‘Ba’ sounds similar to ‘Fa’, which means wealth.

Here’s a few different types of foreign brand adaptations you might see while in China:


New Name (No Adaptation) 


No adaptation is when a company decides to create a new name in Chinese, without following either the sound or meaning of its original brand name. In this method, companies usually seek a way to choose Chinese characters with a meaning that has a good connection to what the company does. The disadvantage of this method is that the Chinese market may not think of the brand in connection to its original name, or even consider the brand a Chinese company. Here’s a few examples:

1.Tripadvisor (猫途鹰 Māotóuyīng)



When Tripadvisor was making their brand name, they chose not to keep their original name. Instead, they used their owl logo as inspiration for their Chinese brand name. The word for ‘owl’ in Chinese is 猫头鹰 (Māotóuyīng). Tripadvisor changed the middle character 头(tóu) to 途(tú). Although the new name does not translate into ‘trip advisor’, 途 means way, road or route, which gives a feeling of what the company does: help people with their travel.


2. Marriott Hotel (万豪 Wànháo)



Marriott hotel decided their Chinese name would be totally different from the sound Marriott, to万豪 (Wànháo). 万 means ten thousand or a lot, while 豪 means luxury or wealth. Therefore, the new name gives a good sense of high quality luxuriousness to the Chinese customers.


Sound Adaptation


Sound adaptation is to follow the sound of the original brand name. This method is helpful for foreign companies that are already well-known to the Chinese market, as keeping the sound helps people recognize the brand easily. Do these names sound familiar?

1. Oreo (奥利奥 Ào lì ào)



Everyone’s favorite chocolate cookie Oreo followed its sound for its Chinese name. 奥利奥 is pronounced Ào lì ào, and the characters by themselves do not have a meaning.

2. Gucci (古琦 Gǔqí)


The prestigious luxury brand, Gucci decided to use 古琦 (Gǔqí), by following the exact sound of its original. Since Gucci is the last name of the brand’s founder Guccino Gucci, there is no significance in translating. Yet, Gucci attempted to add a meaning to its Chinese name as well. 古 means ancient while 琦 means fine jade or valuable stone, so a direct translation would mean ‘ancient valuable jade’. Even though the name does not give a direct knowledge of what the company does, it adds the sentiment of prestige and value.


Meaning Adaptation


This method translates the exact meaning of the brand name, but has the limitation of the brand name sounding totally different in Chinese being totally different from the original name.

1. Apple (苹果 píng gǔo)


Apple, a growing company in China as well as the rest of the world, decided to use 苹果, which means apple in Chinese.


2. Burger King 汉堡王 (Hànbǎowáng)

Burger King has also decided to choose meaning over the sound. 汉堡王 is pronounced Hànbǎowáng, which sounds nothing like Burger King. However, 汉堡 means hamburger, and 王 means king, so the meaning itself is directly saved in the new Chinese name.


Dual Adaptation


Usually considered as the most successful way of translating a brand name, this method keeps both the sound and the meaning of the original brand. This is often a hard one to do because the company has to find Chinese characters that sound similar to the original name, yet also have a similar meaning to what the company does specifically.

1. Coca-Cola (可口可乐 kě kǒu kě lè)



The translation of Coca-Cola into Chinese has a special background story in their brand naming. Before the company decided to translate the name, some local retailers had already translated Coca-Cola just by using similar-sounding Chinese characters. But the name they gave Coca-Cola actually meant something like ‘bite the wax tadpole.’ So when the company decided to officially make a brand name for China, they chose 可口可乐, which means “you can drink and be happy”. It was amazing to find words that sound similar to Coca-Cola, and also has meanings that correspond with what the company has to offer.

2. Mercedes Benz (奔驰 (Bēnchí)


Benz is another great example of how significant it is to have a well-translated brand name. When Benz first entered the Chinese market, it did not have the brand name in Chinese. It was therefore called 笨死 (bèn sǐ) among Chinese,  which sounds similar to Benz. But this has the meaning of 笨 stupid, foolish and 死 death. Benz later officially choose their name as  奔驰, which also sounds similar (Bēnchí), but means running quickly.

Sources: Different types of brand-namingMarriott, Gucci, Coca-ColaBenz

Image sources: Brand name (featured image), TripAdvisor,  Marriott, Gucci,  Apple, Burger KingCoca-ColaBenz,