The Poetic Dimension of Chinese Brand Names

Posted on April 6

A great brand name is one of the most important assets of a company1. It conveys the brand identity, it tells people what the company does and why it does it better than others, and it gives space for creative design and communication developments.

Indeed, a great brand name tells a story about your business, a story that transforms your brand into a broader idea: the business, the product, the service, but first and foremost, the promise you make to your customers. One phrase – preferably no longer than 4 syllables or 4 characters – that can tug the heartstrings of your audience.

Creating a brand name that wields this much meaning is quite a challenge.
But such a challenge becomes even greater when it comes to the Chinese market!

The nature of the Chinese language makes the art of naming brands and products even more complicated: characters have “multilayered” connotations and the slightest change in pronunciation can greatly alter the meaning of a word.

Such a multilayered nature gives space to countless creative routes (and constraints). In fact, multiple-meaning words can be used in brand naming to break the normal codes of expression and better convey brand values.

This code breaking quality can be used for simple wordplay – i.e. 51job.com where 5 pronounced as [w?] sounds as [w?] “I”, and [y?o] as [yào] “want” – but also to create names integrating a poetic dimension, as words having multiple connotations can be used to deviate from the normal means of expression and create an emotional gap between what is said and what is actually perceived by consumers. Such a gap can have a stronger capacity to transform the brand into an idea, an emotion, an abstract image and thus strongly engage potential brand loyalists.

We call these brand names “poetic” for their capacity to evoke an emotional response in consumers through the creative use of meaning, sound, context, images, or rhythmic language choices.

Chinese brand names that draw from this poetic-like dimension can be classified in three main categories:

1. Brand names integrating a poetic dimension by sourcing directly from China’s literal history tradition
2. Brand names creating emotional touch points with consumers by twisting the meaning of characters to express the brand message
3. Brand names sourcing from the brand attributes to communicate on the brand identity in a non-conventional way.

1. Brand names sourcing directly from China’s literal history tradition

In this category, Revlon provides a good example. Revlon’s Chinese brand name is [lù huá nóng] that literally means “glimmering with the bright spring dew”. However [lù huá nóng] is also a verse of one of Li Bai’s poems: Qing Ping Ci 2.

Li Bai, who lived during the Tang Dinasty (701-762 AD), is regarded as one of the greatest poets in China’s literary history. His words have been looked upon by generations of Chinese scholars and have often been indicated as the exemplification of the best poetic practices.

Qing Ping Ci is an ode to the beauty of women. The verses that the famous poet coined back then have become over the centuries canonical expressions to refer to female beauty. Therefore, the allusion to the poem combined with the image of bright spring dew glimmering in the sunlight creates a powerful brand name that makes Revlon’s abstract meaning reach such a legendary beauty.

Also, the pronunciation of  [lù huá nóng] is quite close to the English pronunciation of “Revlon”. The name is short and easy to pronounce, and has a round sound that is very well suited to represent the famous cosmetic brand across the country.

2. Twisted poetic brand names

When OLAY tapped into the Chinese market in 19893 it adopted the Chinese brand name of [yùlán yóu].

OLAY’s brand promise is to give women the skin care products, tools and advice to help them love their skin.

Then how does the poetic dimension of [yùlán yóu] help OLAY connect with Chinese women?

[yù] is the character for jade. In China, it has traditionally been used to describe women’s natural beauty. [lán] for orchid, represents the chasteness of a girl. These two Chinese characters have been used countless times in China’s literature history to compliment or to refer to beautiful women.

Besides, just like Revlon, [yùlán yóu] recalls OLAY’s original name in terms of pronunciation. It has a beautiful sound and multilayered meaning – a cream to make your skin soft (like an orchid) and smooth (like the jade) – but also a promise of unchanging beauty. Both represent and promote the brand promise among Chinese consumers and have helped raise the brand awareness domestically.

[h?g?n dás?] – Häagen Dazs Chinese name – is clearly a phonetic transliteration of the original brand name. Still, this brand name also integrates a strong “poetic” twist that evokes the feeling of enjoyment and pleasure, both key to the brand message.

Literally the combination of the 4 characters means nothing.[h?] expresses happiness, surprise, amazement or joy; [g?n] translates to root, origin, source, cause;[dá] translates as reach, arrive; and [ s?] is tear, divide.

But on a deeper level, the combination of characters evocates the feeling of joy and cheerfulness and the idea that Häagen Dazs is the source of every joyful moment. Hence the emotional connection: when eating Häagen Dazs people will be happy ever after.

Meanwhile, the characters lead also to the brand design development:

3. Non-conventional poetic brand names

Apple in Chinese, follows the same lines of the original brand name: an apple – something that has really nothing to do with PCs – to convey the creativity and uniqueness of a brand that has matched design, technology and originality in one branded concept.

’xu? bì’ – Sprite in China – (snow green/jade) also belongs to this category. The Chinese brand name does not communicate the product category of the brand, nor does it directly convey any of the functional attributes of the sparkling drink. Still the name stands for snow, white, crystal transparent on the one hand and for green, jade, clear blue, on the other hand, which evokes the idea of freshness, nature, and transform the brand in an abstract idea: pure as jade, cool and refreshing as snow. Indeed, sales skyrocketed in China after Sprite adopted this brand name.

So what makes for a great brand name and when are poetic names the best choice?

Naturally many factors are to be taken into account.

The industry, first of all, plays a relevant role here. Some industries, pharmaceutical for instance, might prefer descriptive names as these are best suited to convey product attributes and brand reliability.

Secondly, the brand identity, values and tone all need to be taken into account to determine the sort of name that could be best suited to represent a brand in China. Look at Baidu and Google. Whereas both brands operate in the same industry, Baidu’s poetic name has been a great mean to convey the brand identity while creating an emotional bond with netizens4. Google’s name [“GuGe”], instead, has been unwelcome by Chinese consumers as its poetic, traditional feeling does not exemplify Google’s creative, young, innovative brand identity and character5.

Surely, the brand target market also plays an important role here. What tugs your consumer heartstring? What do they look for when they prefer a certain brand over another? A poetic name is definitely a good choice when it helps introduce a company to its customers, to characterize it with the public at large and to differentiate its offerings from the competition’s.

This being said, the most important advantage of poetic brand names is to create an emotional touch point with customers. Whenever a poetic dimension can provide your brand name with a set of associations and images that meet your customer needs and desire, poetic naming can be a good choice as it promotes your image and gives your brand a unique allure and differential factor.

1. 2004, Aaker David A. “Brand Portfolio Strategy: Creating Relevance, Differentiation, Energy, Leverage, and Clarity” Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group

2. The full poem follows:
In English: “Her robe is a cloud, her face a flower/ Her balcony, glimmering with the bright spring dew/ Is either the tip of earth’s Jade Mountain/ Or a moon- edged roof of paradise.”

3. http://i.mop.com/jcxian23/blog/2006/10/15/2412995.html

4. Baidu’s name originates from a Song dynasty poem which is more than 900 years old. The poem compares the search for a retreating beauty amid chaotic glamour with the search for one’s dream while confronted by life’s many obstacles. “Hundreds and thousands of times, for her I searched in chaos, suddenly, I turned by chance, to where the lights were waning, and there she stood.”

5. 2006, May, “Are you listening Google?” Labbrand http://labbrand.com/english/view_news.php?id=185-Are-you-listening-Google-

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