HongFangLaw ~ Law Updates ~ n’ 79
11 March 2019

How to name and register foreign brands in China

In essence, names are just codes for reference, but naming in our cultures matters a lot. In China, there is a long history of people studying how to make it right from meaning, sounds, readability etc.

There are mainly four ways of naming when looking at how foreign brands settled on their Chinese names as they entered the market.

The most common approach is transliteration, like “谷歌” (“GU GE”) for Google and “亚马逊” (“YA MA XUN”) for Amazon. It is not only almost universally applicable but also more connected to the names in the source languages.

The literal translation comes next. Great examples are “微软” (“WEI RUAN”, “WEI” for micro, “RUAN”for software) from Microsoft, “苹果”(“PING GUO”, equivalent) from Apple, and “脸书” (“LIAN SHU”, “LIAN” for face, “SHU” for book) fromFacebook. As catchy as the foregoing names are, the method has its limits because not every brand is blessed with the same luck

Some may combine the best of both worlds, as in the case of Starbuck (“星巴克” [XING BA KE]) and Unilever (“联合利华” [LIAN HE LI HUA]). Their Chinese equivalences both feature literal translation of the former half and transliteration of the latter half. It requires both the adaptabilities of the brand and the creativity of namers.

Yet some brand owners prefer a path less traveled for seemingly disconnected names. Oracle adopted “甲骨文” (“JIA GU WEN”) which means an ancient Chinese script which was written on bones for fortune-telling. The correspondence may not be as easily taken but reflects a considerable sense of creativity.

For importing brands, a good Chinese name may not translate directly into handsome returns, but a bad one or a wrong one may cause a lot of trouble. The following example throws light on how much is at stake when launching a Chinese name for foreign brands.

New Balance, a globally renowned sportswear brand, settled on only one of its literal translation in Chinese (“XIN PING HENG”) when they tapped into the market. As for other equivalents that may be coined via transliteration or other strategies discussed above, the brand was not prepared and did not file for any trademark registration in relation.

By putting all the eggs into one basket, New Balance was not able to pave enough of a path for its long-term development or defend itself from potential infringement. Around 2015, the company was sued for using the name “XIN BAILUN” (literal translation, plus transliteration) and was served with whopping monetary damage that came near RMB 100 million (approx. US$15 million) for the infringement in first instance proceedings.

Therefore, a half-baked or missing altogether, naming strategy risks not only losing the chance of landing on a good name but also daunting economic costs as in the New Balance case. Worse still, a company’s goodwill and brand development could also be in danger.

It may be natural for corporations of a certain scale to obtain defensive trademarks for brand protection when they tap into the Chinese market. It helps to pre-empt damages to a brand’s good standing by copycats, and lay foundations for possible expansion going forward.

But small and micro companies that are built on a single product or do not actually operate in China for now and/or in the near future may question the necessity of defensive registrations across the board. They may also be concerned about the potential costs.

With cost-efficiency in mind, registration of associated trademarks is recommended as a middle way. When selecting marks to be filed, a holistic view of the foreign brand is required, covering as many the above-mentioned approaches as possible. The Chinese names conjured up via transliteration, literal translation etc. may all be filed on each core class.

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