How to Brand your products for the Huge China Market and Reduce Your Risk

Many Australian businesses are doing very well selling to Chinese  (locally and in China). Australian products remain popular despite the political troubles and bans on some lines.

A good illustration of this is China’s Singles Day (an annual online shopping extravaganza) which has just concluded for 2021 and a record AUD$189.2 billion (RMB 889.4 billion) was sold online.  Australia has done pretty well too, with some best-selling brands in beauty, health and baby nutrition products. Each year a new record is set; each year squatters and counterfeiters are waiting to pounce on unsuspecting brands which are not protected.

These days we are forewarned and should know better. Penfolds found out the hard way when someone else registered the famous “bēn fù 奔富 (racing to wealth)” brand in around 2011. Luckily they have deep pockets and a long term view – ten years would see many businesses fail or give up. Penfolds was lucky to eventually be able to take back ownership of their celebrated brand in the China market. It was a fight over their Chinese brand name.

You may not be a Penfolds or L’Oreal, but your products (or services) have the potential to appeal to Chinese buyers and be on the Singles Day hit list next year.  What are some important considerations to enter the China market?

Chinese branding

The first important thing to consider even before you think about exporting or e-commerce is language.  Our alphabet is far removed from Chinese where thousands of characters combine to give meaning. To succeed in China you have to communicate in Chinese – so does your brand. Your English brand name will already be trademarked, but that won’t work in China – buyers will not remember or recognise it. China’s law will not be able to protect you either.  So the first step is to secure a Chinese brand name and get it registered in China. Your insurance policy.

It is not expensive and local trademark lawyers will be able to help. Australia’s government agency IP Australia says “Protecting your IP should be a top consideration when entering any foreign market including China”.

Chinese brand bungles

We’ve heard of exporters seeing factories in China knocking off their product as a sign of success (i.e. worth copying). But when it comes to enforcement to enable Chinese law to intervene, brands need a Chinese trademark. If you rely on a foreign registered trademark, you have no protection in China and the counterfeiters win.

If fact Penfolds is a good example here.  Penfolds originally found its way into China in around 1995 and, unknown to its Australian owners, a Chinese character brand name was created and registered which had a positive meaning – “racing to wealth” (奔富). The brand became iconic and prestigious and when Penfolds tried to use it later, learnt that they did not own the brand. The story has a happy (but probably expensive) ending, and is a cautionary tale for anyone embarking into the Chinese market (domestically or in China). 

Like the Penfolds example, sometimes the Chinese market comes up with its own name for a product – like a nickname (for example, Facebook in China is also known as Fei Si Bu Ke非死不可 – ‘someone must die’). Likewise the product owner has no control over this name, and does not own it. It may be good and represent the brand and its values well, or it might be plain embarrassing.  All of this can be averted by having the Chinese brand name you want already on the packaging and marketing materials and protecting it with a trademark in China.

How to translate a Chinese brand name

A Chinese branding agency can be consulted to help. Branding is both 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!)

Language and cultural differences can be turned into strengths in a translated brand name that stimulates interest and produces a good image for the product.  At the same time it is important to avoid characters or associations that are negative. Considerations that Chin Communications makes include whether to aim for an authentic, Chinese-sounding name; whether to stand out as a foreign brand; to adapt a similar sounding name (homophone); or choose something meaningful. The choice comes down to a number of factors including the English name, the current state of the Chinese market, the type of product, amongst other considerations.

For example:

Ikea, has a great name –  Yí​jiā 宜家, which sounds similar to the original brand name and its meaning in Chinese is “suitable for home”.

A couple of duds:

Search engine Bing found it difficult to crack the Chinese market. Bing sounds similar to the Chinese word for ‘illness’ 病 (bìng). Although it later created an official Chinese name 必应 (bì yìng), which means ‘very certain to respond’, the association of its original brand name with illness was hard to forget.

Best Buy, 百思买(bǎisīmǎi) In Chinese this means ‘Think 100 times before you buy’ , was not the best name for a retail store! After being in China for over 5 years, the company closed.

Chinese domains and social media

It is a natural extension to a Chinese brand to make sure you secure domains and social media channels to the Chinese market as well. Both of these are essential to drive brand awareness and interest.

The most important top level domain names in China are .cn and .中国 (.china).

You can check Chinese domain name availability and find accredited registrars for domain name registration through the China Internet Network Information Centre (CNNIC) at http://cnnic.com.cn/index.htm.

How your Chinese branding agency can help

Chin Communications helps many clients secure Chinese brand names every year. As the market grows, it is getting harder to nail a good name. Creativity and market testing are important tools in our kit.  If you’d like to find out more, please feel free to reach out to our Chinese specialist: info@chincommunications.com.au

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.