Global Branding: 5 Best and Worst Chinese Adaptations

Mathilde Veyrat

Just as hiring an interpreter can ensure that your message will be transferred to your business partners in an eloquent and professional way, adapting your corporate communication is essential to conveying your brand values, positioning and identity to local customers. This may seem simple. But with brands making or breaking their reputations in new markets based on how well they can connect with local consumer, this process is much more complex than meets the eye, and begins with a Chinese name.

Developing an effective Chinese brand name involves rounds of creative brainstorming, proprietary software, and cultural expertise. Vladimir Djurovic, CEO of Labbrand, states, “A name is a brand identity vehicle that needs to be legally available for use (the trademark aspect), suitable for different languages as the brand expands (the linguistic aspect), and designed to create a bond with consumers (the rational, emotional, and subconscious response aspect).” Successfully forming this bond with local consumers is possibly the most elusive factor.

“The Chinese consumer, perhaps even more so than their Western counterpart, lives in a world of information overload. Investing in a good brand name is therefore essential in a world where first impressions and snap judgments are common” said Matt Conger, co-founder and CEO of SeekPanda, a tech startup that uses machine learning to matchmake businesses to interpreters. He described his own efforts to brand his startup as challenging but an essential step in telling its story to the world.

While some companies successfully achieved brand localization by adopting memorable Chinese names or slogans, others have gotten lost in translation. 

Worst Adaptations

Best Buy / 百思买 [bǎi sī mǎi]

American electronics group Best Buy closed all of its nine Chinese stores after 5 challenging years of operation. While several reasons certainly added to the firm’s failure in China, one of the most visible lies in a bad name choice. Best Buy opted for a dual phonetic and semantic transcription but did not do their cultural research – the characters 百思 [bǎi sī] were meant to reproduce the sound of the word “Best” and were combined with the direct translation of the word “Buy” 买 [mǎi] in Chinese. The combination of the three can be translated as “Think a hundred times before you buy”.

Coca-Cola / (formerly known as 蝌蚪啃蜡) [kē dǒu kěn là]

Coca-Cola is considered by many as one of the best examples of local brand adaptation, as its current four character name can be translated as “Let your mouth rejoice”, a relevant and memorable beverage name.  But before it adopted an official Chinese brand name this was not the case. When Coca-Cola first penetrated the Chinese market 90 years ago, local shopkeepers tried to find phonetic equivalents for the American brand and came up with strange results – including the phonetic moniker that translated to “bite the wax tadpole.”

Galeries Lafayette / 老佛爷百货 [lǎo fó yé bǎi huò]

Galeries Lafayette is a must-stop spot for any fashion enthusiast visiting Paris. Home to some of the world’s most famous designer brands and luxury labels, the department store offers a customer experience “à la française” that Chinese shoppers rave about. However, Galeries Lafayette’s Chinese name doesn’t quite reflect its European origins: 老佛爷 [lǎo fó yé] is indeed a phonetic adaptation that could be literally translated as “Old Buddha Father”, and was also a term used to refer to the Emperor’s parents under the Qing dynasty – a moniker that is perhaps no fit for a brand centered on Parisian fashion.

Mr. Muscle / (formerly known as 肌肉先生) [jī ròu xiān sheng]

It is fair to say that since its creation in 1986, Mr. Muscle has become a household staple in Western countries. But when the brand first entered the Chinese market, initial reaction of local consumers was to translate the name semantically. The word for “muscle” in Chinese is 肌肉 [jīròu] which happens to be an exact homophone of the word for “chicken” 鸡肉 [jīròu]. The brand moved quickly, though, “Mr. Chicken” not turn into a household name. Their true brand name 威猛先生 [wēi měng xiān sheng] translates to Mr. Powerful, which keeps the structure of the original name while conveying the product’s core attributes.

Quaker / (formerly known as老人牌) [lǎo rén pái]

Fancy some “Old Man” oats for breakfast? Probably not. As surprising as it may sound, Quaker Oatmeal was known as 老人牌 [lǎo rén pái] (literally “Old Man Brand”) for years by Chinese consumers, in reference to its iconic logo. It’s current official name 桂格 [guì gé] simply means "cinnamon squares" and allows for a phonetic similarity to its Western counterpart, a much better adaptation.

Best Adaptations

Carrefour / 家乐福 [jiā lè fú] “Happy and prosperous home”

French retail giant Carrefour was the first foreign supermarket chain to enter China in 1995 and drove their positioning as the go-to convenience shopping destination for Chinese households. Their Chinese name is not only phonetically similar to the original French name, it is also imbued with a positive meaning promising consumers a happy and prosperous life.

Burger King’s Have it Your Way” / 我选我味 [wǒ xuǎn wǒ wèi]

Burger King’s slogan “我选我味” is a perfect example of how to adapt your global tagline to the Chinese market. First, the Chinese version is composed of four characters, which is a common pattern for proverbs and matches the original tagline. Literally translated, the Chinese tagline means “I choose my taste”: the brand skillfully played with the phonetic similarity between 味 (wèi) and the English “way” and the repetition of “我” (wǒ) or “I” highlights the idea that customers have the freedom to choose whatever they like in Burger King’s restaurants, a message that particularly resonates with the brand’s core target audience.

Marvel / 漫威 [màn wēi] “Powerful cartoon”

Few global brands generate the emotional connection that both kids and adults feel for their favorite Marvel superheroes. Marvel is now widely associated with the ideas of fantasy, adventure and bravery and cultivates a unique link with fans through its legendary superheroes. Its Chinese name 漫威 is composed of 漫 [màn], the character used in the word for cartoon in Chinese 漫画 [màn huà] and 威 [wēi] which symbolizes strength and power. Overall, it matches all the criteria of a successful Chinese brand name: semantic, phonetic, and a match with the brand essence.

L'Oreal / 欧莱雅 [ōu lái yǎ] “European elegance”

You probably have some “European elegance” shampoos or makeup at home, as one of the largest cosmetics brands in the world. The name not only sounds very similar to its French equivalent but also evokes a sense of refinement and beauty with the final character 雅 [yǎ] while emphasizing its foreignness with the character 欧 [ōu] present in the word for Europe 欧洲 [ōuzhōu].

Pampers / 帮宝适 [bāng bǎo shì] “Makes Baby Comfortable”

Leading diaper brand Pampers opted for a dual adaptation to create its Chinese name: the tree characters 帮宝适 create a phonetic link with the original name and manage to convey the brand’s key attributes. Respectively meaning help-baby-comfortable, it is easy to understand why Pampers diapers have become a top-selling product in their category.


As competition is getting fiercer than ever on the Chinese market, finding a name that is attractive to Chinese ears is the first step towards establishing brand awareness and achieving differentiation. Creating a tagline for the market is equally important to maintain the brand’s image locally and avoid any cultural blunders. At the end of day, if you fail to adapt your communication locally, consumers will make their own translation – not necessarily a flattering one. So what are you waiting for?

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