Look Before You Leap into China

Guest Blog

By Jeff Christensen, Business Development Director for EC Innovations

Let’s face it. China is one of the world’s most coveted markets, and rightly so. It’s home to 20% of the world’s population with 300 million upwardly mobile consumers. It has the largest number of internet and cell phone users and is the number one global market for cars, consumer goods, and soon, luxury goods. It also recently surpassed Japan as the world’s second largest economy.

It is therefore no surprise this burgeoning marketplace has quickly become a prime target of many global companies. 

Know Your Audience

But China’s size and buying power don’t necessarily guarantee success. Marketing efforts must inspire, entice, and speak to a potential Chinese buyer’s wants and needs. There is little point in promoting the features and benefits of a particular product, service or destination if they don’t address some type of necessity or desire. The question then becomes, “How does one effectively court this growing market?” 

Understanding the Chinese Language

A basic understanding of Chinese culture and language can be especially helpful in one’s marketing efforts. Ads must be culturally appropriate and engaging for discerning Chinese consumers to take note. Understanding behavioral and linguistic distinctions across cultures can mean the difference between success and failure.

The Chinese language is one of the oldest in existence. Several current Chinese characters can be traced as far back as the Shang Dynasty (roughly 1200-1050 BC). Unlike Western languages, Chinese characters do not constitute an alphabet of sorts. Rather, a character generally represents one syllable of spoken Chinese and may represent a single word or an entire thought. The strokes comprising each character often represent physical objects or abstract notions. 

Putonghua (or Mandarin) has been the national language of China since 1957, though more than 900 dialects are in use across the country. Despite the large number of dialects, the Chinese language has but two written forms—Simplified and Traditional. Both use a pictographic system that employs many thousands of characters, making Chinese remarkably difficult to learn. 

In an effort to increase literacy in the 1950s, the Chinese government "simplified" many of these characters, resulting in the Simplified Chinese character set used predominantly across mainland China. The government took things one step further in 1979 by adopting the pinyin system for spelling Chinese names and places in Roman letters. Invented by the Chinese, this system of Romanization is widely used across China on street and commercial signs as well as in elementary Chinese text books as an aid to learning Chinese characters. 

Branding in China

While conventional marketing wisdom says that global brand consistency is best, the Chinese language presents some very specific branding issues. Product and company names must be easy for Chinese consumers to remember and advertisements should focus on the cost-effectiveness or "good fortune" of the product rather than on the product itself. 

Coca-Cola is one example of branding best practices and highlights the importance of creating a suitable product name. Coca-Cola in Chinese is "Kekou-Kele", which not only sounds like the English but translates as "tasty and joyful," making the name easy to remember while retaining some degree of global continuity. 

An example of a not-so-good translation of a Western company's name is Google. While the Chinese translation it chose—"Gu Ge"—sounds similar to its English name, the meaning in Chinese is "Song of Millet" (head scratch). 

When it comes to company and product names, it is advisable to spend time getting this right. Your name is, after all, one of the first things potential customers will see and hear. And if your name can't be remembered, it is unlikely that people in China will buy. Here's another important tidbit: Before you adopt a Chinese name for your company or product, remember the name must be checked against China's official name registry and have a cultural review performed. 

Working alongside your Chinese affiliates, a trusted translation partner with marketing experience and local presence can help with both company and product name selections. It is essential that all translations are done professionally and that, whenever possible, product and company names use characters that not only represent the English word phonetically but also have a symbolic or auspicious meaning. 


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