“Mama, I’d like some Happy Kids Grow Taller and Taller.”
That’s a literal translation of a conversation that could happen within a Chinese family. Happy Kids Grow Taller and Taller is a roundabout explanation of the Chinese name for a Spanish brand of chocolate powder.
高樂高 (pronounced gao le gao) is the product’s Chinese name. The first and last characters, 高, mean tall. The second character 樂 means happy. The word for happy sounds like a particle that denotes the passage of time, and thus, the phrase sounds like, “happy kids grow taller and taller.” And gao le gao sounds very similar to the original product name, ColaCao.
Choosing an appealing name is an essential part of launching an imported product into the Chinese market. The Chinese language is complicated, and this creates both opportunities and risks for foreign brands. “Picking brand names in China is a business in itself,” wrote Michael Wines in an amusing New York Times article:
BEIJING — After a hard day’s labor, your average upscale Beijinger likes nothing more than to shuck his dress shoes for a pair of Enduring and Persevering, rev up his Precious Horse and head to the pub for a tall, frosty glass of Happiness Power.
Or, if he’s a teetotaler, a bottle of Tasty Fun.
To Westerners, that’s Nike, BMW, Heineken and Coca-Cola, respectively. And those who wish to snicker should feel free: the companies behind these names are laughing too — all the way to the bank.
More than many nations, China is a place where names are imbued with deep significance. Western companies looking to bring their products to China face a dilemma not unlike that of Chinese parents naming a baby boy: little Gang (“strong”) may be regarded quite differently than little Yun (“cloud”). Given that China’s market for consumer goods is growing by better than 13 percent annually — and luxury goods sales by 25 percent — an off-key name could have serious financial consequences.
The full article is packed with amusing examples and definitely worth reading (PDF attached.)
At the beginning of the localization process, marketers must decide: “Do you want to translate your name, or come up with a Chinese brand?” Monica Lee, the managing director of Beijing consultancy Brand Union told The New York Times. “If you go for phonetic sounds, everyone knows where you are from — you’re immediately identified as a foreign brand.”
The majority of Chilean wine brands use the phonetic approach.
A quick search for 智利 (Chile) on Chinese wine retailer Wine333.com brought me to Monarca Cabernet Sauvignon.
The brandname Monarca is translated phonetically to蒙娜卡, and pronounced meng na ka. The first character is part of Mongolia, the second is common in girls’ names and the third means card, but a Chinese person wouldn’t think of those meanings, since these characters are often used to represent foreign words. The name meng na ka simply sounds foreign.
But this phonetic approach can also backfire.
Sun Zhiyong, a patent attorney in Beijing who has studied both English and Spanish, explained to me in an email message:
I also found a brand name 阿道夫·多明格斯 “Adolfo Dominguez”, which may be a very bad name. For some Chinese, “阿道夫” Adolfo can remind them of Adolf Hitler.
Does that association fit these stylish outfits? I think not.
In search of a Spanish-language brandname whose Chinese translation contributed to the appeal of the brand, I returned to Wine333.com and searched again.
Arboleda caught my eye.
Instead of a phonetic translation like A bo le da, this wine carried a more poetic name: Jewel Wood Manor. This incorporates the literal meaning of the Spanish word Arboleda (park full of trees) while communicating the treasured status of this wine, which retails for about $45 USD in China. Enthusiastic about my find, I shared it with Sun Zhiyong. His response?
By the way, Arboleda “珍木庄园” may not be a good name. The meaning of 珍 [zhēn] = Tesoro, joya, valioso is correct. However, for many Chinese, “珍” sounds (and “is”) more or less like an old-fashioned woman name, for example, a name for a grandma.
Since imported wine is relatively new to China, and most popular among younger professionals, naming it after grandma might not contribute to its popularity.
Urban Chinese are familiar with the cosmopolitan flair of Spanish language and culture, especially due to the Spanish Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai EXPO, Spain’s win in the 2010 World Cup, the prevalence of stores like Zara and Mango, and the influx of tapas bars in Beijing and Shanghai.
Spain’s pavilion at the Shanghai EXPO featured a massive animatronic baby named Miguelín, whose movements captured the attention of the mostly-Chinese crowd. Visitors also saw a flamenco dancer and scenes from a soccer match, and had the opportunity to buy Mango t-shirts and Spanish olives.
Despite this cultural identification, Chinese professionals are much more likely to speak English than Spanish. Words containing characters like ñ could be challenging for a Chinese consumer to pronounce.
Thus, the ideal Chinese translation of a Spanish-language brand should successfully combines Spanish flair, English pronunciation, and Chinese values. Which brand rises to this challenge?
Roca is a brand of high-end bathroom fixtures. Its Chinese name 乐家 (pronounced le jia) echoes the two-syllable rhythm of Roca, while emphasizing the broader benefits of using these products. Its literal translation? Happy family.
Special thanks to Sun Zhiyong, Shepherd Laughlin, and Tania Geller for their help with this article.