By the China IPR SME Helpdesk
What is a trademark?
A trademark is a brand identity and is used to market a business’s product. Because time and money are invested into building its reputation, it would be very damaging to a business if someone began selling their own products or services using the company’s name. As a business’s reputation grows around the world, it is wise to consider a trademark’s meaning in each local market and in some cases create a local mark for different consumers. In China this is particularly important because not only the meaning, but also the sound, tone and even look of the Chinese characters you choose for your trademark can affect a brand’s reputation.
Trademarks in China
With a new Trademark Law set to come into force on May 1st, China appears keen to expand the scope of its protection and enforcement for this form of intellectual property. However, it should not be forgotten that China generally does not recognize unregistered trademarks and still operates a ‘first-to-file’ system – the rights to a trademark are awarded to the first party to apply for the mark, rather than the first to use it. Thus it is very important to register a trademark in China before entering into the market so as to diminish the risk of it being hijacked. It is equally important to register early, as this process can take up to 18 months and protection only applies once registration has been completed.
Chinese consumers and your trademark
Although you can keep your original trademark for many markets around the world, registering a Chinese equivalent of your trademark in China is essential in ensuring your brand name doesn’t get lost in translation. In China, even if your trademark is still used in Roman characters, it needs a Chinese equivalent in order for the local population, who often cannot read Roman characters, to be able to pronounce it in Chinese. If your brand does not have its own Chinese character name, it is very likely that one will be adopted by local consumers, and not necessarily with the right connotations or image that you would wish to convey. For example, Quaker Oatmeal and Ralph Lauren are two well-known brands that did not create a Chinese trademark when entering the Chinese market. Therefore, the general public created their own names for the two brands, based on their logos. Quaker Oatmeal gained the nickname ‘Lao Ren Pai’ (老人牌) which literally translates to ‘old man brand’; while Ralph Lauren discovered that their brand was known as ‘San Jiao Ma’ (三脚马) in China, which translates as ‘three legged horse’.
The Chinese language has unique characteristics, and therefore your Chinese equivalent trademark should be carefully developed with the help and guidance of trademark, marketing and PR experts, as well as native speakers and translators.
Three ways to choose your Chinese trademark name
1. Create a literal translation
A literal translation works when the trademark has a distinctive meaning. For example, Apple chose the brand name ‘Ping Guo’ (苹果), which is Chinese for ‘apple’. Similarly, Palmolive is known as ‘Zong Lan’ (棕榄), a combination of the exact translation of ‘palm’ and ‘olive’.
The disadvantage of this method is that the Chinese characters will sound different from your original trademark. This means that marketing time and money will need to be spent on building the association between your Roman character trademark and the Chinese character trademark.
2. Create a phonetic translation
A phonetic translation involves creating a Chinese character name that sounds like your trademark. Pinyin is the official Chinese phonetic alphabet that uses Roman characters, which can be used to create the transliteration. For example, ‘McDonald’s’ is known as ‘Mai Dang Lao’ (麦当劳), to local Chinese consumers. ‘Siemens’ goes by the name of ‘Xi Men Zi’ (西门子), ‘KFC’ is known as ‘Ken De Ji’ (肯德基) to locals, and ‘Audi’ is known as ‘Ao Di’ (奥迪).
This method is preferable when your trademark already has a reputation amongst Chinese speaking consumers. However, care must be taken when choosing a phonetic version of a foreign mark, because the Chinese characters may have an undesirable meaning in one or more of the six major Chinese dialects.
3. Combine a literal and phonetic translation
The best trademarks are those that sound the same and also make reference to a defining characteristic of your brand or have positive meaning in Chinese culture. For example, after considering hundreds of combinations of the four syllables that make up its name, Coca-Cola finally settled with ‘Ke Kou Ke Le’ (可口可乐), which means ‘taste and be happy’. The German brand ‘Fuchs’ which in German means ‘fox’ is translated into ‘Fu Si’ (福斯) which translates to ‘good luck and blessing’.
Take Away Message
Whatever approach you decide to take, make sure that your trademark has no negative meanings and that the trademark works well in all major Chinese dialects. Whilst the common language is Mandarin, there are a number of other important dialects including Shanghainese and Cantonese, as well as other Chinese dialects throughout mainland China and other parts of Asia.
One quarter of the world’s consumers is ethnic Chinese. Therefore you, as a trademark owner, should give your Chinese character trademarks thought in order to give your brand the right image in China and avoid costly mistakes from the start. Enlist the help of trademark attorneys, marketing managers, as well as local, native-Chinese staff, and most importantly of all – register early.
The China IPR SME Helpdesk is a European Commission funded project that provides free, practical, business advice relating to China IPR to European SMEs. To learn about any aspect of intellectual property rights in China, visit their online portal at www.china-iprhelpdesk.eu. For free expert advice on China IPR for your business, e-mail your questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org. You will receive a reply from one of the Helpdesk experts within seven working days. The China IPR SME Helpdesk is jointly implemented by DEVELOPMENT Solutions and the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China.