Brand recognition and the Chinese market

A story that has been making the rounds on the internet for years has it that Coca-Cola’s first attempt at a Chinese transliteration of its brand name actually translated as “bite the wax tadpole.” That story isn’t quite true, but the real story illustrates the difficulties of rendering a trade name in Chinese. . .as well as the danger of not controlling the transliteration process.

According to that debunker of internet myths,, while there was a problem with transliterating Coke’s name, it wasn’t Coca-Cola itself that was directly responsible. When Coke entered the Chinese market back in 1928, the company had not yet settled on an official transliteration. Individual Chinese merchants simply started transliterating it themselves. And, yes, the names those merchants came up did include the famous tadpole line, as well as other humorous versions such as “female horse flattened with wax.”

The reason this could happen is that, unlike most alphabets, the Chinese alphabet is made up of characters that have individual meanings as well as sounds. To complicate things further, Chinese is pronounced differently in different parts of the country. The same series of English sounds may easily be rendered in Chinese in different ways depending upon the person doing the transliteration.

Coca-Cola, at least, had its recognizable packaging. For other businesses, transliteration differences could cause a much bigger problem. And not just for businesses. Vanderbilt University, which has been trying to actively recruit students from China, Singapore and Taiwan, found that people in China were transliterating the school’s name in various ways and didn’t always even realize that they were referring to the same institution. (The word Vanderbilt posed a special problem, since Chinese doesn’t even have characters for the sounds “v” and “lt.”)

Vanderbilt’s Chinese name, Fandebao, academic center of virtue

Like the Coca-Cola Company, Vanderbilt found it worth its while to spend the time and effort needed to select an official transliteration. Vanderbilt’s official Chinese name, Fandebao (pronounced FAN-de-bau), literally means “the academic center of virtue.” Coca-Cola’s official transliteration—Ke Kou Ke Le—suggests something delicious and pleasing. Both of these examples of transliterated names manage to approximate the English sound, while also carrying a positive message that relates to the organization’s business—important virtues for a brand name.

If you’re looking to do business in China, don’t confront the language issue head on and don’t let your brand get lost in transliteration.

You can find other examples of transliteration of company names on the Good Characters, Inc. blog.

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