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June 13, 2007

Your Brand Name is Chinese to Me

Chinese Coke BillboardWhen Greek people don't understand something, they say "It's Chinese to me," and they have a point. English and Greek are at least related; Chinese is completely different.

If you're thinking of expanding your business into China, you may well need to come up with a completely new brand name. A name that works well in English-speaking countries may be incomprehensible, unpronounceable, or even rude in Chinese. To paraphrase the Clicks2Customers blog, Chinese who work for foreign companies complain that their employers have names that their parents can't pronounce.

That works both ways, of course: Americans rarely pronounce Chinese words and names correctly, in part because most of us have so much trouble even hearing the difference in tones, never mind duplicating them.

Whichever direction you're crossing the Pacific in, however, you want a brand name which both sounds good and has an appropriate meaning.

As for why it should be harder to create such a name for the Chinese market than, say, the Spanish-speaking market — or even the Greek-speaking market — the answer lies in the alphabet.

Chinese characters are not an alphabet the way the Roman, Greek, Cyrillic, Hebrew, Arabic, and even ancient Egyptian alphabets are.

According to Wikipedia, about 4% of Chinese characters are actual pictograms. Most of the rest are combinations of pictograms with phonetic indicators.

And now for the really bad news: you need to know 3,000 of these characters for basic literacy. The potential for "misspelling" your new brand name by choosing characters whose meaning undermines the sense of the spoken word is enormous.

No wonder translating a brand name to or from Chinese is more difficult than just creating a new name for your new market.

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Posted by Diane Prange at June 13, 2007 8:32 AM
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1 Comment

Very interesting, but as a native Greek speaker who has even lived in China, I've never heard "enai ollo kenasiko ya eme" -- roughly "it's all Chinese to me" in Greek

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