佳可宝1 – three Chinese characters to represent a well-known Australian brand appeared on the product beverage label destined for China. During our back-translation process, we pointed this out to the client who had no idea.
It happens all the time, I told her, Chinese distributors do the labelling and the exporter and brand owner has no idea. Is it a good name? What does it mean? Who owns the name? These are all critical questions. What if your brand became popular in China – that would be brilliant, wouldn’t it. Isn’t that what we are all striving for! Penfolds found out the hard way when an enterprising Chinese person registered the now ubiquitous “bēn fù 奔富” or “racing to wealth”. The brand was adopted by the public and became famous; Penfolds had to get it back in a legal wrangle we assume at significant cost.
We’ve worked with other clients who have faced the same problem and it can cost millions to buy your own brand; others we know went out of business.
So, getting back to my client: I explained what the characters meant (佳：Excellent；可: Can; 宝: Treasure – combined: an excellent choice that you can treasure). As to who owns them or whether this is another costly problem, we will have to wait and see. The client made the best call: put the English brand name back on and we’ll go through a proper branding process so that we have control and own the name.
IP Australia has been doing a road show recently and their website has plenty of information about “Protecting your IP in China”. China is no longer the culprit it used to be, in fact it is higher on the list for enforcement than Australia. “Protecting your IP should be a top consideration when entering any foreign market including China”, say the IP experts.
It is getting harder to secure a good brand name though. Chin handles many cases every year and there are a finite number of good Chinese characters to choose that haven’t already been snapped up. We are getting more creative and looking to more obscure characters and approaches.
Some celebrated cases often quoted (good and bad) illustrate the challenge:
LinkedIn – 领英 lǐng yīng, meaning leading and elite
Airbnb -爱彼迎 Ài bǐ yíng, means to “welcome each other with love”; “sounded like a company selling sex toys”, “low standard name”; “lust” etc are comments awash in social media.
Viagra – Pfizer lost the right to use “wěigē 伟哥” or “big brother” which it was widely known as
And the list goes on…
Considerations like whether to go for an authentic Chinese-sounding name; whether to stand out as a foreign brand; use a similar sounding name (homophone); or choose something deep and meaningful – these are all issues we need to research; our choice will depend on the English name, the current state of the Chinese market in that sector and classes sought, amongst others. It is a science and an art form and should not be left to the ‘Accounts Clerk’ who happens to be the only Chinese speaker in your organisation (another true story!).
McDonalds has been known since entering China as 麦当劳màidāngláo . Although this name was meaningless (wheat as labour), everyone knew it; the new 金拱门 (jīngǒngmén) refers to its familiar corporate symbol. Jingongmen, translates as “Golden Arches.” and is more like a nickname. It has been ridiculed by Chinese consumers.
Why do I need a Chinese name?
As with the examples above, Chinese consumers will coin their own name for western products – names that are easy to remember and pronounce. To avoid this or to prevent someone from registering a brand they forsee becoming popular, you need to act first.
We advise clients to go through a proper process to devise a number of options for a Chinese brand name and to keep it close. Then use a trademark attorney to secure it. Consider all relevant classes, including defensive ones (eg a wine brand might consider registering in other beverage classes). This all takes time and may involve opposition from other trademark owners in China. It is important to act quickly when you are thinking about the China market, not after you’ve started operations there, or have distributors on the patch. When your drink labels are printed is definitely too late.
Some references to help:
- Not the real name of the brand.
- Chinese characters are Romanised using the Hanyu Pinyin system; tones appear on top of each character/syllable to reflect the inflection or tone for pronunciation.