How Would Your Trade Mark Sound in Chinese?

Authors: Erikas Saukalas, METIDA partner, attorney-at-law, Head of the International Relations Division, court mediator; Kęstutis Brūzga, METIDA consultant

coca-colaProbably it is unquestionable that one of the things that must be done when entering into a new market is registration or other protection of the trade mark. China which is so attractive due to its business opportunities is not an exception. But is registration of the trade mark as we usually see it, i.e. in Latin letters, by Western companies sufficient in this country?

China is a unique country in cultural terms which has its own tonal language where the same sound has different meanings if pronounced with a different tone. Often a person from the West finds it challenging to repeat them; thus, it is not surprising that the Chinese people also find it difficult to remember and use Western words even if such words are trade marks which are well-known throughout the world.

If a company does not provide the Chinese version of the trade mark, people call the offered goods or services as they create by themselves. This is what happened to the oat flake producer Quaker which is called as “old man brand” or 老人牌 due to the elderly man depicted in the logo. Quaker is unlikely satisfied with the raised associations; however, sometimes one should think about registration of “unofficial” names created by people so that the competitors could not take advantage of them.

Thus, one argument for the Chinese version of the trade mark is clear, i.e. a shorter and quicker way to reach consumers offering them the version of the name which is linguistically closer to them. Nevertheless, legal aspects are not less important. In China, not the rights of the first-to-use, but the rights of the first-to-file are protected.

The experience of foreign companies has shown that a failure to register a trade mark in Chinese may be particularly expensive for business. For example, in 2015 the manufacturer of sports footwear New Balance paid more than EUR 14 million to the Chinese businessman who first filed an application for the Chinese version 新百伦.

The sooner the Chinese version of the trade mark is registered the better. The more especially as often earlier registration of the Chinese equivalent of the trade mark is not an accidental coincidence that may be easily resolved with the other party, but a malevolent attempt to benefit from compensations or licence fee for the use of the mark which has already been registered.

There are several ways of introducing the Chinese version of the business name or trade mark to the market.

If the name has a clear meaning, the name could be literally translated. For example, in China Apple is known as 苹果 which also means “apple”, Blackberry is called 黑莓, i.e. “blackberry”. Literal translations apply not only to the names in English: Samsung in Korean means “three stars” and in China this mark is known as 三星 which has the same meaning.

Another way is translation of the name as it sounds. There are numerous examples: Audi is 奥迪 (pronunciation: “ao di”), Gucci is 古奇 (pronunciation: “gu qi”), Motorola is摩托罗拉 (pronunciation: “mo tuo luo la”).

The third option is a combination of the first two versions, i.e. choosing of characters which sound similarly to the original name and have certain notional links, but are not literally translated. One of the most successful trade marks developed using this method is Coca-Cola translated as 可口可乐 (pronounced “ke kou ke le”) which consists of the characters meaning “delicious” and “joyful”. A similar path was chosen by the shopping centre “Carrefour” which decided that its name in Chinese should consist of the words “home”, “joyful” and “happiness” the sound of which, taken together, is not too distant from the original name, i.e.家乐福 (pronunciation “jia le fu”).

The example of the search engine Bing falls within less successful attempts to adapt a trade mark: in the Mandarin Chinese language it is called 必应 (pronunciation: “bi ying”) which sounds similarly as the word “sick”.

As for adaptation of the Lithuanian names to the Chinese market, in this country the Professional Law Partnership METIDA Law Firm Zaboliene and Partners is known as美谛达. The translation is based on the sound and is pronounced “mei di da”.

Choosing of the most suitable characters for the name is a creative challenge because the expression must be easy to remember, sound nice and raise pleasant associations to the consumers. This assignment should be entrusted to a person who not only knows the Chinese language, but also has knowledge of cultural aspects and peculiarities of the market. Thorough development of a trade mark requires taking dialect differences into account so that the expression would not raise negative associations in any region.

It is worth registering not only the version of the trade mark in Chinese characters, but also the transcription in Latin letters; for example, Disney written in characters is 迪士尼and pronunciation sounds “di shi ni”. You may file applications for several versions of the trade mark if registration of some version would not be possible.

Thus, development of the Chinese equivalent of the trade mark which would be fully attractive is not a simple, easy and quick task; nevertheless, it is an excellent investment in the process of conquering the Chinese market.



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