Three ways not to become a ‘three-legged horse’. Think about your brand name in China

We could also have titled this post ‘Three ways to stop your product being ‘old man brand’. Think about your trade mark in China’. These names, ‘Lao Ren Pai’ (老人牌) meaning ‘Old Man Brand’ and ‘San Jiao Ma’ (三脚马), meaning ‘Three-Legged Horse’ are the names Chinese consumers adopted for Quaker Oatmeal and Ralph Lauren respectively. It would be a fairly radical change in marketing tack if these were the connotations that each of these companies were going for… So why did it happen?

While they both registered their trade marks in China, neither registered a Chinese equivalent. Much of the local population in the Chinese domestic market are unable to read Roman characters and so if there is no Chinese equivalent of your name, the consumers will adopt one for you; one that may not necessarily capture the image you have taken time and resources to instill elsewhere! There are three methods you can consider for translating your trade mark into Chinese:

  1.  Create a literal translation

A literal translation works when the trade mark has a distinctive meaning.  For example, Apple chose the brand name ‘Ping Guo’ (苹果), which is Chinese for ‘apple’. Similarly, Palmolive is known as ‘Zong Lan’ (棕榄), a combination of the exact translation of ‘palm’ and ‘olive’.

The disadvantage of this method is that the Chinese characters will sound different from your original trade mark. This means that marketing time and money will need to be spent on building the association between your Roman character trade mark and the Chinese character trade mark.

  2.  Create a phonetic translation

A phonetic translation involves creating a Chinese character name that sounds like your trade mark.  Pinyin is the official Chinese phonetic alphabet that uses Roman characters, which can be used to create the transliteration. For example, ‘McDonald’s’ is known as ‘Mai Dang Lao’ (麦当劳), to local Chinese consumers. ‘Siemens’ goes by the name of ‘Xi Men Zi’ (西门子), ‘KFC’ is known as ‘Ken De Ji’ (肯德鸡) to locals, and ‘Audi’ is known as ‘Ao Di’ (奥迪).

This method is preferable when your trade mark already has a reputation amongst Chinese speaking consumers.  However, care must be taken when choosing a phonetic version of a foreign mark, because the Chinese characters may have an undesirable meaning in one or more of the six major Chinese dialects.

  3.  Combine a literal and phonetic translation

The best trade marks are those that sound the same and also make reference to a defining characteristic of your brand or have positive meaning in Chinese culture. For example, after considering hundreds of combinations of the four syllables that make up its name, Coca-Cola finally settled with ‘Ke Kou Ke Le’ (可口可乐), which means ‘taste and be happy’. The German brand ‘Fuchs’ which in German means ‘fox’ is translated into ‘Fu Si’ (福斯) which translates to ‘good luck and blessing’.


Overall, consider that one quarter of the world’s consumers are ethnic Chinese. Therefore you, as a trade mark owner, should give your Chinese character trade marks thought in order to give your brand the right image in China and avoid costly mistakes from the start.  Enlist the help of trade mark attorneys, marketing managers, as well as local, native-Chinese staff, and most importantly of all – register both your original and Chinese the equivalent early!

Have you come across any good (or bad!) translated trade marks?

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