Brand Naming in China: Sociolinguistic Implications

Brand Naming in China: Sociolinguistic Implications

Li, Fengru

ABSTRACT: Abstract: Applying brand names to international markets remains a challenge to multinational corporations. Consumers’ sociolinguistic backgrounds shape their responses to brand names. This paper uses a sociolinguistic approach as a conceptual framework in understanding brand naming and translating in the Chinese market. The approach promotes that sociolinguistics a) recognizes linguistic competence, b) advances symbolic values imbedded in linguistic forms, and c) renders attached social valence to cultural scrutiny. Three brand-naming cases in China are presented for discussion, which may benefit multinational corporations on brand decisions involving Chinese consumers.

INTRODUCTION Reaching the Chinese market and the 1.3 billion Chinese consumers is no longer an adventurous dream for U.S. firms as it was two decades ago. China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001 will generate domestic and foreign economic consequences leading to China’s further integration into the global economy (Levine, 2001). Chinese businesses are increasing their position as equal players in the global economy by actively engaging in various forms of trade and investment. Naming brands and having brand names translated into culturally acceptable linguistic symbols becomes an ever-challenging business as culturally heterogeneous and linguistically diverse consumers drive the global marketplace. Take for example the introduction of the P&G brand name to the Chinese consumers, the initials P&G in the U.S. market stand for the name of the Procter and Gamble Company, founded by William Procter and James Gamble in Cincinnati in 1837. When entering China in the late 1980’s, “P&G” was not understood as the initials of Proctor and Gamble, but as “Bao-jie” in Chinese, which stands for “precious cleanness.” Not only the English pronunciation of “g” has no equivalent in the Chinese phonetic system, but also the sound “p” as in “P&G” can have a vulgar meaning in Chinese, the same as the expulsion of intestinal gas. Naming and translating a brand is more than assigning a symbol with pleasant sound, or giving the product a unique identity distinguishable from others. A brand name as a sociolinguistic symbol carries cultural meanings and sets boundaries on relationship building.

Multinational companies are cognizant of brand names being an integral part of marketing strategy (Li & Campbell, 1999; Campbell, 1999) critical in successfully distinguishing themselves from competitors in the eyes of consumers. Scant attention, however, has been given to questions such as “To what extent are global marketers motivated to integrate brand naming practice into the cultural fabric of consumers in countries other than their own?” and “What resources do consumers rely on to make sense of each other’s brand names which may sound foreign to their own sociolinguistic systems?”

Our general inquiry in this paper is to probe into the broader context of brand naming in global marketing, and the origin and the nature of social valence attached to linguistic forms, such as brand naming and translating. Our culture-specific interest is to understand the sociolinguistic resources that Chinese marketers and consumers rely on when constructing culturally relevant meanings of brand names.

The significance of using Chinaspecific cases is three-fold. First, from an international business perspective, the increasing size of the Chinese market and its growing prosperity make China an important market for Western products. Second, the Chinese language system exemplifies the sociolinguistic features typical of a high-context culture (Hofstede, 1980, 1997) where message construction and communication are predominately imbedded and driven by social relations. Third, the lessons learned from attempting to make brand names appropriate within the Chinese context could be used to develop suitable brand naming strategies for other Asian cultures that, in many ways, share the sociolinguistic systems to be discussed here.

We argue in this paper that rooted in its ideographical linguistic origin and its cultural tradition of attaching social valence to names in general, the Chinese practice of naming and translating brands in their domestic market has been a linguistic realization of the natives’ expectations and rules pertaining to proper social and cultural behaviors. To support this argument, we first attend to the problems raised in sociolinguistics discipline that is relevant to the inquiry of this paper – understanding the Chinese brand naming practice from the sociolinguistic perspective. We then present three Chinese cases on naming brands to support the relationship between brand names and proper social and cultural rules in naming. Later in the discussion, we try to locate the origins and the nature of social valence that Chinese consumers and marketers attach to brand naming practices in lieu of their sociolinguistic relevance. In conclusion, we offer insights to American and Chinese practitioners on sociolinguistic implications when designing and translating brand names.


Sociolinguistics is a broader placement of language use in contexts, focusing on the relationship between language use and society (Downes, 1998). In marketing, brand naming is by all means an application of language symbols that have been shaped by societal factors such as beliefs, values, constraints, and prescriptive rules. The term “sociolinguistics” has been problematic to researchers, both in its conceptualization and research scope, primarily because the discipline encompasses developments from fields such as linguistics, sociology, psychology and anthropology. In the absence of a comprehensive definition, we present below three perspectives of the sociolinguistics discipline that we gleaned through relevant literature. The perspectives will also be used as a conceptual guide in the remainder of our discussion.

Sociolinguistics Recognizes Linguistic Competence

A brand name, be it for a business or for a product, is a linguistic form. Traditional linguistics looks at one particular language and investigates the patterns in which sounds, phonemes, morphemes, words, phrases, and sentences combine to form meaningful utterances (Sneddon, 1996). Noam Chomsky (1957, 1965), professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 1955, has been an inspiration for sociolinguists because of his “revolution in syntax and ethno-scientific approaches to semantics” (Briggs, 1986: 113). Chomsky (1965) established the concept of “linguistic competence” which he defined as the ability to produce an infinite number of grammatical sentences from a finite set of syntactic rules.

The concept of “linguistic competence” has been broadly applied in brand naming particularly in the North American market and with heavy reliance on phonetic appeals. For instance, building on the principles of obstruents and sonorants, American brand designers find names such as “Chanel,” “Tide,” “Nike,” and “Coca Cola,” etc. to bear distinct features of sound appeal (Cohen, 1995) and, therefore, advocate such phonetic appeal as a universal feature of successful brand names.

Sociolinguistics, however, looks into a linguistic form beyond its syntax structure by inquiring into “the role of context in determining the meanings of signs” (Briggs, 1986: 113). Theoretical advances from treating linguistic symbols as static structure to context-dependent symbols have been attributed to many renowned social scientists. Among them are linguistic anthropologist Keith Basso (1979) who studied the linguistic play of cultural symbols by the Western Apaches in revealing the natives’ conceptions of who are the white men; Charles Briggs (1986) who conducted sociolinguistic appraisals on the “communicative blunders” inherited in traditional interviewing practices; Penelope Brown and Stephen C. Levinson (1987) who advanced the sociolinguistic construction of the universal phenomenon of politeness in cross-cultural settings; Clifford Geertz (1973) whose field research on interpretations of cultures has aspired a generation of social and anthropological linguists; and Dell Hymes (1971a, 197Ib) who pioneered the concept of “communicative competence” claims that the ability to communicate entails more than a knowledge of syntax and semantics alone. According to Keith Basso (1979), communicative competence is an individual’s knowledge and trained capability to engage in the “full range of communicative functions served by speech act” and “adequate ethnographic interpretation” of “speaking in all its forms.” There are many other sociolinguistic scholars whose studies, though influential, go beyond the scope of our inquiry.

Sociolinguistics Advances Symbolic Values Imbedded in Linguistic Forms

Linguistic forms are used to express symbolic values. The symbolic value is often determined by the symbol’s functional roles, as well as by the sociolinguistic resources that natives rely on as references. For example, the yellow arch of “M” in every McDonald’s restaurant is a brand name with different symbolic values to patrons of diverse societal backgrounds. For most Americans, it is an inexpensive fast food chain. Yet, in China, it is also a place of social status, a show of a patron’s socioeconomic affordability. Symbols are considered vehicles for cultural conceptions of social reality because symbols are “tangible formulations of notions, abstractions from experience fixed in perceptible forms, concrete embodiments of ideas, attitudes, judgments, longings, or beliefs” (Geertz 1973: 91).

Brand names as linguistic symbols bear certain culture-specific meanings and values. For instance, because native Chinese consumers prefer and expect visual images provoked by linguistic symbols, the American “Tide” brand was renamed with two Chinese characters in the Chinese market as “Tai-tzi,” standing for “washing off stains.” Likewise, the Mercedes Benz Corporation allowed the brand name “Mercedes Benz” to be translated into the two-word Chinese name “Ben Chi,” meaning “dashing speed” as that of a passing thunder. The Ford Mustang bears the two-word Chinese name as “Bao Ma,” meaning “treasure horse.”

A question one may raise is why cannot the globally established brand names such as Benz, or Nike, or Mustang stay in their original Latin characters? While we address the technicality of this issue in detail in the section on “Implications for American and Chinese Practitioners,” we should emphasize the extent to which Chinese consumers locate cultural meanings in names. While all brand names are linguistic symbols, the “dashing speed” of the “Ben Chi” Mercedes carries the Chinese natives’ conceptions of masculinity while the symbol “treasure horse” of the Mustang expresses femininity. It is, therefore, not surprising that the “dashing speed” of the Mercedes Benz has been the dominating brand for men of high socioeconomic status, and the “treasure horse” of the Mustang has been exclusive for women of wealth in Chinese market today.

One can only begin to imagine whether female Chinese would drive the Ford Mustang had its verbatim translation “wild horse” been used in brand translation. The Chinese linguistic symbol for “wild” has connotations of promiscuity and masculinity that no Chinese woman of class wishes to be associated with. Brand names, therefore, become conceptual vehicles for Chinese natives to interpret socially and culturally appropriate norms and behaviors and vice versa, the cultural norms and behaviors also become relevant in brand naming.

Sociolinguistics Renders Attached Social Valence to Cultural Scrutiny

The core social and linguistic problems confronting contemporary socio-linguists have been succinctly summarized by British socio-linguists Brown and Levinson (1987). They state:

“In the case of sociolinguistics, the theory argues for a shift in emphasis from the current preoccupation with speaker-identity, to a focus on dyadic patterns of verbal interaction as the expression of social relationships; and from emphasis on the usage of linguistic forms, to an emphasis on the relation between form and complex inference” (Brown and Levinson, 1987: 2).

The problems that Brown and Levinson have advanced help illustrate the core inquiry of this paper. On the one hand, we treat brand naming in marketing as a social interaction between marketers and consumers. As such, brand names should facilitate the desired relationships by consumers. On the other hand, we use the origin (i.e. the linguistic systems) and the nature of social valence (i.e. beliefs and values shared by natives) shared by Chinese marketers and consumers in brand names as a means to scrutinize the complex cultural inferences. To illustrate, let us use a trans-cultural event experienced by one of the authors. She brought with her from Beijing, China, 140 pounds of clothes and 12 pairs of dark-colored shoes to Missoula, Montana, in 1986. She wanted to be prepared for any material shortages and cow-pies in the streets of Montana cities because “Montana is a developing state” that “has more cows than people,” as described by a Montana professor who was teaching in Beijing, China, in 1985. In retrospect, the reason that the Chinese audience, the author included, failed to share the intended message of Montana being “the last paradise” was the deviated sociolinguistic backgrounds between the speaker and the listeners. To that particular Chinese audience, middle class city dwellers, Montana being a developing state with more cows than people provoked images of poor farmers and lean cows plowing the bare lands in the mountain terrains. The Chinese audience quickly situated the linguistic symbols of “developing state,” “mountains,” and “cows” in their own sociolinguistic backgrounds in order to make sense of the situation. The natives’ conception of “a developing state” was translated into the status of a developing country, and was reinforced by the cows outnumbering people. Furthermore, throughout Chinese contemporary and modern history, cows have been used as primary farming tools in rural areas. As a matter of fact, the author worked on the farmland like the great majority of Chinese farmers who could not afford to use cows for farming until the 1990’s when China’s economic reforms began coming to fruition. In the Chinese media and elementary school textbooks, words such as “developing countries,” “mountains,” and “cows” are frequently associated with lands primitive for local peasants to farm. Worst of all, public access to information about the United States was minimal even in the early 1980’s due to China’s politically controlled media.

We have in the above made less ambivalent the term “sociolinguistics” both in its nature and functions. We specified three perspectives afforded by the sociolinguistics approach in understanding the Chinese brand naming practice. We now turn to three cases we have assembled as illustrators of and supporting evidence to our argument presented in the introduction regarding the sociolinguistic resources used by Chinese consumers and marketers to construct culturally relevant meanings of brand names. The cases will direct our attention to the cultural origins and social resources that have helped shape the Chinese brand naming practices.


Two of the cases are from the period of China’s economic reform (1978 to present) and one from the pre-socialist era, or prior to 1949. They provide a context to facilitate the foregoing discussion on using the sociolinguistic approach to understanding brand naming behaviors. We developed the selected materials for presentation from original sources-such as Chinese local newspapers, investigative reports, periodicals, trade books, Chinese marketing textbooks, and trade journals, oral accounts passed on from prior generations, and interviews with local Chinese. We then synthesized, translated, and assembled the materials into cases.

Case 1: The “Hong Gao Liang” (Red Sorghum) Franchise

Starting in 1995, a fast-food chain, “Hong Gao Liang,” rapidly expanded in China, targeting the baby-boom generation that grew up in the ’50’s and ’60’s. “Hong gao liang” literally means “red sorghum,” an agricultural product that evokes the experiences of baby boomers who were sent en masse to the countryside in their teens and twenties as part of Mao Zedong’s re-education programs intended to make city dwellers and intellectuals learn from the peasant masses. People who spent much of their formative years exiled in agricultural pursuits have certain nostalgia for the rustic life and a patriotic pride in the idealism many felt in those years. That generation is now among the more affluent in China, and includes a high proportion of government managers and entrepreneurs.

“Hong Gao Liang” was also the name of an internationally acclaimed movie of the late 1980s. Produced by the Chinese director Zhang Yi Mao, it was one of the first Chinese-produced movies to garner wide praise outside China, a point of patriotic pride to Chinese long bombarded by Western mo vies. Thus, the name Hong Gao Liang evokes both sentimentality and patriotism for a large section of the Chinese population that represents a significant consumer market.

As reported in the Chinese newspaper “Marketing Daily” (October 13,1998), Hong Gao Liang restaurants serve largely traditional Chinese food such as noodles and steamed buns in a fast-food style, emphasizing simple, wholesome food combined with speed and convenience. Hong Gao Liang, by its own admission, “tailgates” McDonalds’ openings in China, erecting restaurants near those of the foreign “invader.” Hong Gao Liang offers a patriotic counterpoint to what is widely viewed in China as a form of economic imperialism-the proliferation of foreign franchises like McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Hong Gao Liang management points to China’s rich culinary culture and history in making the case for serving traditional cuisine and resisting the inroads of foreign fast food chains (Ye, 1998a).

Hong Gao Liang’s appeal, however, is very generation-specific. Generation Y (up through high-school age) does not identify with the sentiments of those who came of age in the Cultural Revolution that lasted from 1966 to 1978. These younger Chinese prefer the glitz of McDonald’s. Families on outings will often buy burgers for the youngsters at McDonalds and then carry the burgers and French fries across the street to Hong Gao Liang, where the parents will order and sit down to eat (Li, 1999). The generational appeal of the brand name “Red Sorghum,” so intimate to the Chinese baby boomers and so expressive of their patriotic pride, has met its limit with the Chinese youngsters who may watch as much Disney Channel as their counterparts across the Pacific Ocean.

Case 2: Jin San Van Ba Chu Lian, (Three Golden Essentials Baked Pig Face)

Beijing, the capital of China, is home to 55 McDonald’s restaurants and 30 Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets. However, a recent rising star in the firmament of Chinese fast food franchises has captured the imagination of the Chinese government-controlled media (Johnson, 1999). The business name, as well as its product name is “Jin San Yan Ba Chu Lian,” or in English, the “Three Golden Essentials Baked Pig Face.” The brand has been featured in more than 50 domestic newspapers and a half dozen television programs, all heralding “China’s first patented dish and a response to Western fast food chains in China.” The celebrated 60-year-old entrepreneur, Mr. Shen, sees himself as “the leader of a new movement in Chinese food: the march toward ubiquitous fast-food outlets that can compete with the world’s giants.” His fanfare product is trademarked with the logo of a smiling pig face.

Even in China’s domestic market, the product, baked pig head, had been disappearing since the late 1970s and early 1980s, when China’s economic reforms increased Chinese living standards. Baked pig’s head has been a traditional dish in northern China and, for formerly poor people, it has nostalgic appeal. One of the authors still has fond memories of the 1960’s and 70’s when her mother brought a raw pig head home on the 15th of every other month, her payday. That night, all the five siblings would crowd their small kitchen, watching their father spend an hour cleaning the pig head with a cleaver. Then they would be ordered to go to bed while the pig head was cooked on the coalburning stove for a few hours. It was usually the longest night the siblings had to endure before their bi-monthly treat of meat, all that the family could afford.

Baked pig head is no longer so affordable, costing about $12 U.S. a baked head, equivalent to 1 /7 of the monthly salary of a middle class public employee. The brand name, however, has attracted Chinese consumers of different generations. Some have readily re-identified themselves with this specific product, dormant for two decades. The brand of Jin San Yan Ba Chu Lian, baked pig face, has become so popular that 5,000 baked heads are consumed each month in just one restaurant and the owner, Mr. Shen, is ready for franchise.

Would the brand name, “Jin San Yan Ba Chu Lian,” or its English name “Three Golden Essentials Baked Pig Face,” translate its glamour across the cultural divide to America? Common sense and a basic understanding of the American culture would likely indicate that it would not. Using herbal ingredients to cut fat is not an American dietary practice, and Americans do not share the belief that one gets smarter by consuming animal heads, particularly their brains.

Case 3: Tianjin Gou Bu Li Bao Zi, (The Dog Ignores Steamed Buns)

In the City of Tianjin and surrounding areas, a popular brand of steamed dumplings is “Gou Bu Li,” or “Dog Ignores” According to local historians and oral accounts passed along, the brand name “Dog Ignores” originated from a boy’s nickname. Some four generations ago, members of the Chen family found an abandoned child in a garbage dump and adopted him. Alluding to his good fortune in not being eaten by dogs, they nicknamed him Gou Zi, or “Doggy.” The child grew up to become an accomplished self-taught chef whose steamed dumplings were unparalleled in the area, and were made from the best ingredients. His business prospered and soon he was kept busy bustling about his shop and entertaining important new clients. His old friends and original customers would have difficulty getting his attention and began to refer to him as “Doggy ignores [us].” His business eventually acquired that appellation and, still today, attracts long lines of dumpling aficionados in Tianjin. The recipe has been passed down through male descendants. An apprentice from outside the family struck out on his own and opened a competing business. Some consider the apprentice’s dumplings even tastier than Gou Bu Li’s, but they cannot use the Gou Bu Li name. Gou Bu Li branches were opened in New York, San Francisco, and Tokyo. That history is little known in these places, except among the Chinese emigres.


This paper suggests that the Chinese brand naming practice is a linguistic realization of the natives’ expectations and rules for proper social relations and behaviors; and that brand naming rules are shaped by the ideographical linguistic nature of the Chinese language and its tradition of attaching social valence to names. If the brand naming practice in each of the above cases is indeed the linguistic realization of the natives’ cultural expectations for appropriate naming rules, what sociolinguistic resources have they relied upon to determine what rules are valuable? These brand names have communicated efficiently with the social and linguistic accuracy required for the Chinese context but may not be reciprocated by those who do not share the same sociolinguistic background. We address in this section two key cultural resources that Chinese have relied upon to make brand names meaningful: (a) the ideographical nature of the Chinese language system and its influence on brand naming rules; and (b) the Chinese tradition of attaching value to personal names, which has been an integral part of their brand naming practices.

Ideography in the Chinese Language

An ideogram is a written symbol that represents an object directly rather than a particular word or speech sound. Ideograms not only form the basis of the Chinese language system but, also, play a vital role in choice of characters or words for names from the available 50,000 Chinese characters. For instance, almost all Chinese words or characters that are designated to describe attributes of animals share a common ideographic component. In recognizing the ideographic component denoting “animal” in Chinese characters, one can assume with confidence that the word refers to an animal name, some animal-related attributes, or products.

An ideogram has the capability of provoking vivid mental images of the objects represented by the linguistic symbol. For example, the single Chinese character implying meanings of “peacefulness, tranquility, or disaster free” is pronounced “Ann.” The character consists of two pictographic elements: a house roof and a woman. Thus the ideographical nature of the word “peacefulness” or “disaster free” carries the cultural meaning that a house with a woman is in peace. It is, therefore, not surprising that the Chinese character “Ann” has been a frequent choice for business and personal names in history.

Ideograms automatically group symbolic meanings of Chinese characters. They make it possible for Chinese-speakers to differentiate the status and degrees of significance inherent in Chinese characters. The Chinese equivalent of the brand name McDonald’s, “Mai-dang-lao,” fulfils the functions played by ideograms in incorporating characters associated with “wheat stalks” and “farming,” which stand for agricultural products.

The lexical volume of the Chinese language poses further challenges to non-native speakers. Spoken by one-fifth of the world population and read by Japanese, who borrowed the Chinese characters to form their own written language, Chinese has approximately 50,000 characters. An educated adult should master at least 3,000 characters, although about 7,000 are in general use. Each character is composed of strokes numbering from one to more than 10.

In addition, within each character there are more independent characters. For instance, the Chinese character for human face, Lian, has a total of 15 strokes, and eight independent characters, each with its own meaning. The eight independent characters that form the word for face include: a moon, a human, the numeral “one,” two mouths, and two persons. To complicate the challenge, each Chinese character not only has its own independent meaning but it transforms meanings when paired with other characters.

To summarize the role played on us by our linguistic origin, we borrow from anthropologist Marvin Harris (1989) because the brand names in these cases are illustrative of his statement:

[Human] linguistic competence makes it possible to formulate rules for appropriate behaviors or situations that are remote in space and time (Harris, 1989: 66).

Social Valence in Chinese Personal Names

While the ideographical nature of the Chinese language system has shaped certain appropriate rules for brand naming, the Chinese tradition attaches extraordinary significance to personal name choices. Looking into Chinese traditions in giving personal names augments cultural understanding of their brand-naming practices. Schmitt (1995) summarizes succinctly the following rationale or criteria for Chinese in choosing given names for their children:

* A name expresses the essence of a thing, be it a person, object, product, or a company.

* A name gives away the namegiver’s socioeconomic status and level of education.

* A name reveals the bearer’s appreciation for fine arts such as a work of calligraphy

* A name expresses the namegiver’s moral orientation.

* A name is the name-giver’s augury for the future of the child.

As an illustration, let us consider a woman’s two-character given name, “Feng-ru.” “Feng” represents a legendary bird, the phoenix. “Ru” means “similar.” The name was bestowed after an incident at the age of 15 days when she was dying of pneumonia. Her father, unable to afford a blood transfusion, offered his own blood. Her life was saved, hence “a phoenix rising from the ashes.” The name, however, has two of the frequently chosen Chinese characters for names, which conveys a sense of commonness. Commonness is often perceived by Chinese as implying a working class background for the name giver, as well as the absence of intellectual sophistication.

Social Valence Attached to Brand Names

These brand names also make the basic notion underlying sociolinguistics obvious in that language use symbolically represents fundamental dimensions of social behavior and human interaction (Wolfram, 2003). The foregoing descriptions of the ideograms comprising the Chinese language system and the tradition of finding cultural values in personal names applies to the cases discussed in this paper in several ways. First, the linguistic features shared among these brand names can be taken as cultural rules to follow. They are lengthy linguistic symbols (or brand names) and provide commonness in the meanings of the symbols (or brand names). Each name has five or six characters. The seem ingly lengthy names do, however, pass the four “easy” tests advocated by American brand designers (easy to say, easy to spell, easy to read, and easy to remember). Moreover, Chinese often use the first three characters anyway, omitting the rest for simplicity (Chan and Huang, 1997a). The influence is likely derived from the way Chinese personal names (predominately composed of three characters) are given.

Second, in brand naming, simplicity of Chinese characters is preferred. In the three cases, the choice of unpretentious and down-to-earth Chinese characters as brand names obviously takes advantage of the ideographic nature of the Chinese language system. They can be read and written even by Chinese first-graders.

Third, brand names that benefit from social and cultural resources invite intuitive support from the public. In the case of “the baked pig face,” the owner relied on the public faith in herbal diets. The 30 herbal ingredients used in Mr. Shen’s baked pig face appeal to this predilection. The intuition-driven way of thinking is typical of the Chinese, which may also have been influenced by its ideographic language system. Chinese are more dependent on knowledge from experience than on articulated commercials, as compared with Westerners. Strong sentiments about imposition by the West and an on-and-off lukewarm relationship with the U.S. have also contributed to the favorable images presented by brands of “Red Sorghum” and “Three Golden Essentials Baked Pig Face.” Both names have successfully appealed to the moral orientation of the general public and particularly Chinese baby boomers. The names are linguistic expressions and realization of the name-givers’ moral beliefs that China can say “No” to foreign influence domination. Chinese brand naming practices support what Martin Harris once observed in anthropology: “It is impossible to celebrate one [linguistic competence] without celebrating the other [culture]” (1989: 66).

Implications for American and Chinese Practitioners

The sociolinguistic relevance in brand naming has been the analytical focus of this paper. Specifically, we examined why cultural choices of brand names are shaped by sociolinguistic backgrounds of the people. Likewise, brand names can also be the consequences of the existing and changing sociolinguistic resources available. In the case of the “Dog Ignores” brand, when the adopted orphan, Mr. Doggy, made a fortune on his steamed dumplings in the 1800’s, he could hardly have expected New Yorkers to accept his “Dog Ignores” legacy. Brand naming is imbedded in the sociolinguistic backgrounds of the consumers.

Three implications can be drawn from our discussion. First, the Chinese market poses challenges to brand names, particularly brands from the North American and West European markets that rely on phonetic appeals. It is quite an ethnocentric claim by Theodore Levitt (1983) that the products and methods of the industrialized world play a single tune for the entire world, and that the global corporation can sell the same things the same way everywhere. This view discounts the role played by the sociolinguistic backgrounds of the consumers, as discussed in this paper. American brand names are conceived within the 26-letter Latin system, which enables English-speaking consumers to make sense of the names built on the principles of obstruents and sonorants. Brand names such as “Tide,” “Nike,” and “Coca Cola” bear distinct features of sound appeal. To many American practitioners, a good brand name can be judged from its sound, which differentiates consonants as “obstruents” (e.g., the pronunciation of a name such as ‘taketa’) and “sonorant” (e.g., a name such as ‘naluma’). Cohen (1995) argues, “Obstruents are perceived as harder and more masculine, sonorants as softer and more feminine.” According to Cohen, this finding is also supported by laboratory studies directed by Will Leben, a linguistic professor from Stanford University, for the Lexicon Naming Inc. Parsimony in spelling and simplicity in pronunciation also contribute to sound appeals.

While the ideographic nature of the Chinese linguistic system should be considered in naming and translating of brands, as discussed in this paper, we also recognize the potential loss of the nuances and meanings intended by the original Latin characters. Some legitimate concerns from foreign marketers include: (a) the changed meanings in translation may greatly affect the position of the brand in consumer’s mind, and (b) the original image of the brand may be distorted in the translation.

We offer two reasons for our position that brand names in Latin system be translated into ideographic Chinese characters to be fully accepted by Chinese consumers. First, sense-making is retrospective from experience. In the history of the Chinese linguistic system, its ideograms are interdependent with the cultural and social valence that the natives share. The experience of incorporating Latin words in print as a means of media publicity is a novel practice in China, happening only in the past few years. We have come across in the Chinese newspapers and trade journals inserted English words such as, “townhouse,” “shopping mall,” “cool,” “party,” “e-mail,” etc. (The intention and impact of this trend is beyond the scope of this paper). However, if a foreign brand wants to reach extensively to the Chinese consumers, the translated brand name is recommended.

The second reason is of practicality. If the foreign marketer insists on using its Latin term to preserve its brand image, the Chinese local distributors will “invent” terms at their own discretion, such as the uncontrolled Chinese translations of the Coke brand described ahead. When brand name translations are done according to individual understanding, the marketing results could be detrimental. In the case of the Chinese-language consumers, translating brands according to the ideogram which carries cultural meanings to them is indeed an added value to brand equity.

It is not our intention to disregard features of the Latin system in brand naming. The Chinese linguistic system does acknowledge the beauty of sound appeals inherent in its obstruents and sonorants as in the Latin. Its language structure, however, is incapable of accommodating them in certain situations. For example, because Chinese consumers expect visual images provoked by the names, the American “Tide” brand was made into two characters, pronounced as “Tai-tzi,” which stands for “washing off stains.” In other cases, there are no equivalent phonetic sounds in the Chinese linguistic system and, therefore, no matching characters. The “ke” portion in the pronunciation of “Nike” has no equivalent pronunciation in Chinese. The “Nike” name in the Chinese market is pronounced “Ni-Kerr.” The character for “ni” stands for durability and the “Kerr” is more for linguistic appeal than for a literal translation.

The second implication we suggest is, due to different origins of the linguistic systems, simple phonetic transliteration of brand names can fail with consumers whose sociolinguistic background is ideographically oriented and vice versa. For example, the Coca Cola Company, upon first entering Chinese-speaking markets such as Hong Kong and Shanghai in the 1940’s, suffered for allowing its name to be translated phonetically instead of ideographically. The chosen four-character Chinese name, “kekoukela,” meant to emulate the original English sound of Coca Cola, but literally translated as “pleasant to mouth and wax” using the ideographic resources in the Chinese language. Coca Cola entered China again three decades later in 1979 with a revised and unified name which appealed more to the ideographic sense than to the original English sound, “kekoukele,” literally, “Can-Be-Tasty-Can-Be-Happy.” Wayne Galloway, Pepsi’s president, was so taken with the conveyed ideographic sense of “refreshment” for the Pepsi brand that he made a sales pitch by admitting openly to the Chinese that his company was selling refreshment, a concept that struck many Chinese as rather frivolous (Stross, 1990).

The third implication we conclude is, in the global market, the Chinese over-reliance on their ideographic language or phonetic translation of its ideography in brand naming has handicapped its performance. While the ideographic nature of the “kekoukele” (Coca Cola in Chinese) brand name makes more sense to Chinese consumers, a leading Chinese soft drink company named “Jianlibao” has failed to convey the appeal of its ideographic brand name to the American consumers despite its extraordinary success at home and in Southeast Asia. The brand name is pronounced as “Jian-lee-baw” in Chinese, which is a combination of three Chinese characters: “Jian” standing for health and vigor, “Ii” for power and strength, and “bao” indicating “precious treasure.” These three Chinese characters provoke very favorable images among those with a Chinese linguistic background. In the U.S. market, however, the company employed the phonetic pinyin (or the Latin) system by using “Jianlibao” on the bottle label. The brand was marketed in the U.S. in 1998 during a sport sponsorship, which sold only 200,000 cases despite the brand’s success in more than 20 other countries (Saywell, 1999). A brand popular at in it’s home country and throughout Asia had the door slammed in its face in English-speaking America.

Although some practitioners attributed the poor showing to the low budget for advertising, we question the verbatim application of the Chinese brand name to the U.S. market whose linguistic system is different from the Chinese ideographic linguistic origin. The “Jianlibao” marketers could have done one of the following to turn the linguistically non-appealing brand name into an acceptable brand. They could have used JLB, the initial letters from the three Chinese characters of the brand, to follow the phonetic-appeal orientation in the Latin-System oriented markets, including the U.S. market. They also could have played on the selective knowledge that many Americans have about the Chinese language. For instance, the Chinese character for “Chi” is a recognized symbol for energy flow (which happens to coincide with what “Jianlibao” wishes to convey) among westerners. It is often used on body tattoos to indicate “Energy” by Americans. It also appears on health drinks and similar products at organic and health food stores in the United States. Sense-making in brand names does not locate in linguistic symbols, but in the available sociolinguistic resources that consumers can grasp.


The impact of the Chinese sociolinguistic background on brand naming and brand name translating behaviors, as compared to its American counterpart, is important in two respects. First, unlike most American consumers who favor the sound appeal of brand names, most Chinese rely on ideographic features to make sense of brand names. In New York, however, the Chinese oral history about the boy named “Dog Ignores” has been lost to Chinese-Americans and is unknown to other Americans. With the loss of the social context of the name, so is lost the visual appeal and imagery in the ideography of the Chinese language.

Second, unlike most Americans who attach, at best, limited social valence to personal names, most Chinese still rely on the cultural traditions inherited in personal names to make sense of brand names. In some instances, Chinese consumers may still favor names, brand or personal, that can (1) express socioeconomic status; (2) provoke memorable visual and mental images; (3) appeal to the audience’s sophistication and sentiment; and (4) indicate moral or value orientations. The foregoing Chinese cases illustrate these expectations.

Some challenges are obvious when using the sociolinguistic approach as a framework to study brand-naming behaviors. The most serious challenge is the scope of inquiry required by a sociolinguistic approach. An ideal full-scale investigation should include elements identified by sociolinguists such as Briggs (1986), Downes (1998), Hymes (1971a, 197Ib), Sneddon (1996) and Wolfram (2003), suggesting that a sociolinguistic inquiry, when extended to culture-specific social environments, should take into account the social variations such as one’s socioeconomic background, linguistic competence or the ability to choose an appropriate form of expression, communication circumstances, the intended effect, the semantics of language or the cultural meanings of linguistic symbols, and the mutual intelligibility of the message. Another challenge is the demand of the researcher’s bi-cultural and bi-lingual competence so that his or her cultural interpretations and the accuracy of the interpretations or translations can be justified.

This study does not attempt to propose or test a general hypothesis, but to explore the sociolinguistic implications of naming and translating brands across different cultural settings, particularly Western brands translated into Chinese. In selecting brand names for international markets, the appeal is determined by the consumer’s sociolinguistic background. One must be leery of assuming that what flies well in Peoria will also fly in Phnom Penh.


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Fengru Li, University of Montana

Nader H. Shooshtari, University of Montana

Dr. Fengru Li is an Assistant Professor of Management in the Department of Management and Marketing at the University of Montana. Her previous corporate career in international marketing influences her current research on Sino-U.S. business negotiations and communication competency. Email: Web Page:

Dr. Nader H. Shooshtari is a Professor of Marketing and International Business, and Chair of the Department of Management and Marketing at the University of Montana. His research interests include marketing channels and entry strategies of small and medium enterprises in international business. Email: nader.shooshtari@business. Web Page:

The authors sincerely appreciate the journal’s anonymous reviewers whose comments, questions, and suggestions have greatly improved our manuscript.

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