Brand Naming in China: Sociolinguistic Implications

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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. …