The Chinese market is incredibly tempting for ambitious entrepreneurs and corporations. But not all of them are aware of the many risks associated with entering this $1.3 billion territory. This article gives you some advice on how to avoid the pitfalls and common fundamental branding mistakes so your name can be successful in China, too.

Did you know that Coca-Cola was first phonetically translated as "Keke Kenla", written with Chinese characters? Unfortunately, this translation to Chinese meant "to bite the wax tadpole." (Mooney, 2008). Coca-Cola undertook a research of 40,000 Chinese characters, which resulted in the renaming of the beverage to "K'o K'ou K'o Le", changing the meaning to "it tastes good and will make you happy."

Another interesting fact is that the Chinese name for BMW is pronounced "Baoma", meaning "treasure of a horse." The word “treasure” has a feminine connotation, which might be why BMW is the best-selling brand among Chinese women.

When creating names for the Chinese market, you can choose between several different approaches (Rune, 2013), which we will be discussing in detail below together with a few useful examples:

Phonetic translation - the name is converted to Chinese characters using a phonetic structure that sounds much like the original name. The meaning of the original name is not preserved. For example, Kraft is known as "Kǎfu", where "Kǎ" means “carte” and "Fu" means “husband”.

Semantic translation - the name does not have a similar sound base as the original title, but the meaning is similar or identical. This is the case with Apple, whose Chinese name is "Píngguǒ", surprisingly enough it means "apple”.

Combined approach – here the new name has not only a comprehensible meaning linking the brand with its origins, but it is phonetically related, too. For example, Lay's are known as Leshi, which translates as "happy event".

New name – this kind of name has no association whatsoever with the original name, either semantically or by sound.

TIP 1: If your brand is well-known, you can afford a phonetic translation

The original brand name and its phonetic translation into Chinese may work, but watch out for its final meaning.

A phonetic translation is used by most brands entering the Chinese market to achieve a similar sounding name in both the original language and Chinese. However, the name is not semantically identical and so harder to remember. There are many cases where a well-known company got burned when their phonetically translated name had a negative meaning.

Even big companies like Facebook are not immune. The Chinese translation of the word Facebook sounds similar to "fei si bu ke", which means "must die". There is no official translation for Facebook, but there is a customary abbreviation “FB” and, in Taiwanese Chinese, you can also find a literal translation "Lian Shu", which means "face" and "book".

Mercedez-Benz was first translated into Chinese as "Bensi". However, this name had to be quickly changed because in Chinese it means "hurry to die."


The automaker then had to rebrand and so they came up with a new name, "Ben Chi", with a more appropriate meaning of "violent speed" (Creating, 2014). They used a method we are going talk about later - the simultaneous adaptation of phonetics and name meaning.

Tip 2: If your marketing budget is big enough, use the semantic translation

Another way to customise a brand name for China is to translate it semantically. This is possible only with names containing words that can be found in the Chinese dictionary. Among the companies that operate in China with such translations are General Motors, General Electric, Palmolive and Microsoft. The names have the same meaning as in English, but the sound is completely different. It can be a challenge for global marketers because it requires a higher marketing budget because no link exists to already known brands.

TIP 3: The most successful names are the ones that relate to sound and are semantically intelligible

Simultaneously adapting semantic and audio content is the most difficult way to create equivalent names for the Chinese market. The companies that did this right include Starbucks, Coca-Cola or BMW.  Starbucks is called in China "Xing Ba Ke". The word "xing" means “star” and it is pronounced as "sseeng", while the syllables "ba ke" are pronounced as "buck". The Chinese version of Hewlett-Packard is called "Hui-Pu," and it means "happiness for all".

TIP 4: Enter the Chinese market with a completely new brand

The last approach to branding for the Chinese market is to create a completely new brand with no link to the meaning or sound of the original name. For example, Heineken is known in China as "Xi Li", which stands for "the power of happiness". The advantage of choosing this way is more efficient localisation, although the brand may lose, on the other hand, an existing standing that is associated with the concretely functioning global brand.

TIP 5: Be aware of the number importance and never put the number "4" into your name

The Chinese people place great emphasis on the symbolism of numbers and they are also very superstitious. It is generally recommended never to use numbers in names because it is not clear whether they should be written as a word or numerically. If you decide to use some numbers in your name or other communications, be sure to check their meaning (Symbolic, 2014):

  • The number 1 is unlucky because it represents solitude.
  • Conversely, the number 2 means harmony, a couple, repeating of pleasant things. It is not for nothing that they say in China "all good things come in pairs".
  • A very unfortunate number to choose is 4 because, when pronounced, it sounds like the word “death”. The Chinese try to avoid it, and you may have noticed that the fourth floor in hotels is usually marked 3A. Instead of homes numbered with a “4” in it (including “14”, “40-49”), a letter may be used or the number is simply skipped.
  • The number 5 means "no" so it has the power to make lucky numbers unlucky and vice versa. For example, the number 54 means "no death", so it is positive, although both numbers alone have negative meanings.
  • The number 6 symbolises things smoothly running. The more 6’s in something like a car registration number, the better off you are.
  • Eight is the most popular numeral. It means prosperity and wealth, so entrepreneurs love to put it in names, addresses and telephone numbers. It was for this reason that the Beijing summer Olympics Beijing opened on 8th August 2008 (8.8.2008) at 8:00 pm. The power of 8 was used by wine producer Chateau Lafite Rothschild to strengthen the brand’s position in the Chinese market. In 2008, Rothschild launched a red wine whose bottle was marked with the Chinese character for the number 8. This symbolism resulted in the wine became a popular gift among the Chinese.
  • The numbers eight and six are visually present on posters for Chinese Huawei’s latest Huawei P9 model.
  • Watch out the number 7. Although it is a magical fairy-tale figure in Western culture, in China it symbolises abandonment and anger.
  • Number 9 is associated mainly with long-lasting love. Weddings often take place on 9th September and bouquets have 99 roses.

When designing and choosing the most suitable name, also remember to consider the symbolism of other features such as colours, gestures, shapes etc.

TIP 6: Consider the differences between regions or cities

In terms of branding, China is an extremely complex and diverse area. It cannot be analysed as a whole; your approach should be individualised for different cities and regions with a separate culture, history and language. Specific cultures have very different needs and different insights can be relevant for them.

TIP 7: Never forget to check these 3 languages

In China, you can currently find nearly 300 living languages. When planning to enter the market, be sure to examine the meaning in the most represented language groups. The main language is traditional Chinese, called Hanyu, which is divided into several sub-groups of languages and dialects. The most used languages in China are first Mandarin Chinese, followed by Chinese Wu and Yue (See, 2015). These languages have many dialects that vary by the specific city and provenance.

Final BigName recommendation

In terms of naming, the best brands shown to work are those which have not only the proper phonetic form, but also do not underestimate the importance of a positive connotation. You can either come up with a phonetically original name or use a completely new brand localised for the Chinese market. Before launching your brand in China, let a naming agency check the cultural significance for at least the most representative language, Mandarin Chinese. This will avoid problems with an inappropriate name and you will not have to invest in rebranding later.


SYMBOLIC Meanings of Chinese Numbers In Attract China. November 19, 2014. Dostupné:

RUNEEL, Haike. What’s In A Name? 2013. Chinese Brand Names Of Multinationals. In Hutong School. May 7th, 2013. Dostupné:

CREATING the right name for your brand to prosper in China. 2014. In Etymax Blog. 16 May 2014. Dostupné:

BOTEBOL, Lucas. 2010. Lafite in China – The 8 Strategy. In Zhongguo Wine: China Wine Market. Nov 11, 2010. Dostupné:

MOONEY, Phil. 2008. Bite the Wax Tadpole? In Coca-Cola Journey.  Mar 6, 2008. Dostupné:

SEE The World’s Most Spoken Languages In One Eye-Opening Infographic. In The Mind Unleashed: Uncover your true potencial. Jun 29, 2015. Dostupné: