International marketers have a love-hate relationship with the China market. On the one hand, China has become the largest market for almost every category and is still outgrowing many large mature markets. At the same time, it is a complex place where well-known Western brands such as Best Buy and Wal-Mart have floundered.
Yet, the Chinese market with 1.3 billion people, whose first language is not English or an Anglicised form, gives foreign companies an opportunity to redefine their brand for the Chinese consumer or reposition it. Creating an appropriate Chinese brand name then becomes strategic.
The automotive industry is a classic case study.
Volkswagen benefited as the first foreign automaker to enter the China market, and went on to establish Audi as the dominant premium brand for government officials and business executives in the ‘90s and early 2000s.
From a branding perspective, Volkswagen took a traditional approach to its Chinese brand name where its literal German meaning (“People’s Automobile”) was directly translated to 大众 (Da Zhong), meaning “the masses”. There is no congruity in how it sounds originally and in Chinese.
Audi, Volkswagen’s premium brand, took the other approach of translating its name by sound and became 奥迪 (Ao Di), which has no substantive meaning save for sounding like its original name — 奥 (Ao) meaning “difficult to understand”; while 迪 (Di) means “enlightened, guide”. Interestingly, cosmetics brand Dior reversed the characters for its Chinese name — 迪奥 (Di Ao).
As the first mover, Volkswagen and Audi had an early advantage, and their Chinese brand naming was less critical in their success. (So how did the Chinese names of Volkswagen and Audi help establish the car brands in the China market?)
The competitive landscape heated up in the early 2000s with the joint-venture production of BMW and Mercedes in China. These new premium entrants took the opportunity to redefine names that connected to their German origin and yet are aspirational to the rising number of senior executives and successful entrepreneurs who were overtaking the number of Chinese government officials outfitted with Audi, the standard official car.
Bayerische Motoren Werke could, like its forerunner Volkswagen, take the approach of translating its company name literally. However, we can expect more sophistication from a company that has simplified its pedigree and fame into three iconic letters, BMW, for the world market. It could have insisted that its brand is famous and simple enough without further translation (the approach adopted by SAP and IBM).
However, BMW chose the path of “transcendence” in picking a name that deviated from the meaning as well as sound. That bold decision sets a strong China marketing foundation with a superior Chinese name that planted a vivid image in consumers’ mind of a pedigree thoroughbred steed. Its Chinese name is 宝马 (Bao Ma) which means “treasured horse” or “precious ride”. The name says it all — BMW is the new premium automotive brand that is superior to Audi, the incumbent standard of premium vehicle in China.
Mercedes-Benz entered a year after. Despite its longer history in Taiwan/Hong Kong and its success with local language names (宾士 and 平治 respectively), to Mercedes’ credit, it did not adopt what was in existence but took the opportunity to define a name appropriate for the China market. It chose 奔驰 (Ben Chi, meaning “fast and famous”) as its Chinese name. 奔驰 translates well phonetically while establishing a set of positive meanings as the latest luxury brand in China.
It is a name that highlights values relevant to the product category (“fast”) and resonates with the rapid growth in China. The rising class of business leaders was embracing speed, moving forward and sparing no effort in the pursuit of success. Additionally, Mercedes (奔驰)subtly connected at a deeper subconscious level with a word that is tied to a well-known Chinese proverb 驰名天下 or 驰名当世 (meaning “world famous”).
In contrast, there are auto brands that did not take the opportunity to redefine themselves when they entered China. Most Japanese automobiles stuck to their origin that leaned on maintaining consistency with their original Japanese company names. For example, Nissan (日产) and Honda (本田) stayed with the similar Japanese characters of the original company name but with pronunciation in Mandarin.
Some brands took the traditional translation by sound. Ford chose 福特 (Fu Te), meaning “special prosperity”, partly because it is constrained by an established translation for the name Ford (eg President Ford). While the Chinese meaning is favourable, it is already “pre-owned” as a common American surname and not something unique to cars.
While General Motors had its name literally translated (通用汽车, meaning “a car for general use”), it took the homonym approach in translating Chevrolet (雪弗莱 “Xue Fu Lai”), Buick (别克 “Bie Ke”) and Cadillac (凯迪拉克 “Kai Di La Ke”), most of which lack a deeper meaning and a secondary set of associations for the Chinese consumers.
Besides trademark due diligence, translating a Western brand for the Chinese market requires an understanding of the consumers. The above examples emphasise that a new brand entering China needs to get it right from the get-go. While design, performance and specifications are critical to a car’s success, having a winning Chinese name — relevant, distinctive and favourable — allows a brand to go on to own an important position in consumers’ minds.
After all, nobody wants to go down the disastrous route of choosing a name that sounds similar to a phrase with poor meaning. Peugeot fared badly in part because its name 标致 (Biao Zhi) sounds similar to 婊子 (Biao Zi) which means “bitch” or “whore”.