In 2014 the launch of LinkedIn in China made headlines. In a very congested social media space, LinkedIn needed a great brand name to underline its professional image, leadership aspirations and make waves.
In Chinese thinking, names take much more importance than in the West, and can make or break a brand. The levels of nuance are very subtle; superstition and luck play a part too. Chinese is a mono-syllabic language with each syllable corresponding to many different characters, tones and combinations; homophones and synonyms abound; varying pronunciations and regional influences play a part too, for example Peugeot (biaozhi)标致 in another accent sounds like prostitute (biaozi婊子).
So when developing a name, especially for a foreign brand, the expertise required is significant – one has to consider all the permutations: idioms, dialects and regional variances, implications, availability, historical references, and more …
We think LinkedIn did well back in 2014, coming up with Ling Ying (领英) or ‘Lead/ing Elite/s’. Another more obscure meaning that was uncovered is ‘ghost of a dead child’ – however on balance, it was decided that the meaning ‘leading elites’ outweighed any negatives in the context it will be used.
So, Chinese brand names are imbued with deep significance and picking a name that resonates is serious business. The marketplace is littered with failures:
Microsoft’s Bing is a goodie – ‘bing’ is in fact a Chinese word (病) that can mean ‘illness’ or ‘virus’ in Chinese – not so good in the internet space; so they changed to ‘bi ying’(必应)) responds to every request; read some less good outcomes in Chinese brand name translations.
Lexus and Land Cruiser are interesting examples of names working well in the market with meaningful translations and still the case in Hong Kong and Taiwan, but in China brand managers decided to change their names to try and match popular perceptions about foreign brands. Lexus formerly was 凌志 (lingzhi) – ambitions, soaring determination; and it became the new 凌志凌志 (leikesasi) which is based on the pronunciation. Land Cruiser was 陆地巡洋舰 (ludi xunyangjian) – and means a cruising ship on land! It became 兰德酷路泽 (lande kuluze) which, again, is a sound-based creation. By contrast, and a really good one, we reckon: Land Rover: 路虎 luhu (road tiger).
Having a good Chinese name doesn’t mean your brand or product is going to make it in China – there is obviously a lot more to building your popularity and reputation in this very sophisticated market, however a poor or embarrassing name is a sure-fire way to fail.