The genius and stupidity of corporate America are on display when companies rebrand for new countries

A Coke by any other name…
A Coke by any other name…
Image: AP Photo/Peter Morgan
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When Coca-Cola was first sold in China, some called it “bite the wax tadpole.” To others, it was “female horse fastened with wax,” or “wax-flattened mare.” These inscrutable names were the unfortunate result of shopkeepers’ makeshift translations—they used any set of Chinese characters that sounded vaguely like “Coca-Cola.”

Coca-Cola quickly regained control over their brand and publicized a new, official translation: Kĕ kŏu kĕ lè in Pinyin, the official Romanization system for Standard Chinese (可口可乐 in Chinese simplified characters). The name is often heralded as the perfect brand translation: the sounds recapitulate the English name, and the meaning—roughly, “tasty fun”—reflects positively on the brand. In linguistics, this translation is called a phono-semantic match: it preserves both the phonetics (sound) and semantics (meaning) associated with a brand. With increasing globalization, phono-semantic matching can be an indispensable tool for introducing foreign concepts to other languages.

Phono-semantic matches can occur in any language, but it’s rare in English. Among the few examples is chaise-lounge, a phono-semantic match for the French chaise-longue (long sofa), or the phrase “What gives,” thought to be a phono-semantic match for German “Was gibt’s” (what’s happening”). There are so few examples because in English, clusters of sounds don’t have inherent meaning, so it’s hard to borrow words from other languages that preserve sound and meaning. As a result, English mostly borrows words wholesale from other languages, like fjord, or champagne.

But some languages, like Chinese, lend themselves to phono-semantic matches. In Chinese, each individual syllable, like the “ke,” “kou,” and “la” sounds used in the makeshift Coca-Cola translations, has multiple meanings. This is because Chinese is a tonal language; the Mandarin dialect, for instance, has four tones, while Cantonese has six. A single sound like “la” can be pronounced with these different tones, each of which represents a different word, or sometimes even multiple words. While “la” means nothing in English on its own, it can mean lots of different things in Chinese, depending on its tone: to pull; to slash; scabies; spicy; bald; and, as seen in the strange Coca-Cola translations, wax.

This presents many opportunities for Chinese to create translated brand names that mimic the sounds of other languages while also preserving the original meaning. “Phono-semantic matching by commercial brand names is like singing,” says Ghi’lad Zuckermann, the professor of linguistics at the University of Adelaide who coined the phrase. “You’re looking for sounds that are beautiful, harmonious, attractive, romantic—but you don’t care about the [Mandarin] tones.”

As more Western businesses expand into China in hopes of attracting the country’s growing middle class, they’re embracing Chinese phono-semantic translations. Some, like Coca-Cola, have switched their brand names to be phono-semantic matches. For instance, Polaroid switched their name from a phonetic translation—Băo lì lái (宝丽来), characters that mean “precious,” “beautiful,” and “to come”—to a phono-semantic match—Pāi lì de (拍立得), meaning ‘“to instantly take,” like the picture itself. One survey of 100 foreign companies in China found that phono-semantic matching is the most popular method of translating brand names—about half of businesses used the method.

Others matched the phonetics of the English brand name—for example, McDonald’s is Mài dàng láo (麦当劳) in China, which translates to the gibberish phrase “wheat be labor,” and Pizza Hut is Bì shèng kè (必胜客), which translates to “must win customers,” making the brand sound desperate or even vaguely threatening. A third method companies use is to translate the semantics of the brand. This can result in similarly out of touch or confusing results, like Microsoft, which went with Wēi ruǎn (微软), or literally “tiny, soft.”

Phono-semantic matches offer benefits that matching just phonetics or semantics doesn’t. For one, consumers may be more likely to remember brands with phono-semantic matches, since the names also represent specific concepts. Phono-semantic matches are also an opportunity for companies to connect with consumers’ local cultural values. Some brands use phono-semantic matches that evoke qualities attributed to powerful animals in Chinese lore: BMW goes by Bǎo mǎ (宝马) or “treasure horse,” Citroen calls itself Xuě tiě lóng (雪铁龙), or “snow iron dragon,” and Yahoo! is Yǎ hǔ (雅虎), or “elegant tiger.”

Others companies use phono-semantic matches that evoke positive concepts like luck, happiness, or prosperity, or attributes of the product itself. One particularly clever example is Lègāo (乐 高), the Chinese phono-semantic match for Lego, which translates to “happy and tall.” With this simple, short name, Lego evokes positive feelings and imagery of the tall towers children will build with the product.

But relying on generically positive words can also result in unoriginal brand names. For instance, Měi lè (美乐), or Miller Beer, which means “beautiful, happy,” and Dá měi lè (达美乐), or Domino’s Pizza, meaning “distinguished, beautiful, happy” evoke an overlapping set of positive ideas. But their nearly identical sounding names may confuse consumers, and dilute the name recognition of both brands.

There are also some characters “used so much in brand or product names that they’re almost understood to be associated with just brand names,” says Tait Lawton, who co-founded the Nanjing Marketing Group, which consults with companies to help branding efforts in China. “Some characters are used so often to represent sounds, that they are simply understood to be sounds.” For instance, sī (斯) is used in brand names like Tesla (Tè sī lā 特斯拉), Adidas (Ā dí dá sī 阿迪达斯), Levi’s (Li wéi sī 李维斯), and Mercedes-Benz (Méi sài dé sī bēn chí 梅赛德斯奔驰). Because of its frequent use in foreign brand name translations, names with that character are typically perceived as foreign.

When a company is unsure of what cultural values sounds or words hold, or how best to represent the brand’s values in a foreign language, consultants like Nanjing Marketing Group can help. For each client, Lawton and his team generates around 40 potential names, then whittles down their list to four or five top contenders, which they field test with native speakers through surveys or focus groups. And because Chinese has many dialects, some of which are mutually unintelligible, they also test for how those names translate in roughly 40 dialects.

Designing for a specific audience is a critical aspect of creating a phono-semantic match. China is a big country; different regions have different cultural values or political backgrounds for companies to consider. UK soap brand Lux’s efforts to expand into China in the 1980s serves as a cautionary tale: Lux’s Western logo always displayed a beautiful young woman, and the company attempted to use two different phono-semantic matches to project this image, both pronounced lì shí: in mainland China, it went by力士, or “strong man,” but in Taiwan, it was 丽士, or “beauty.” Marketing scholar Ying Fan unspools why that was such a marketing disaster in a 2002 paper:

“An explanation can be found in the ideological differences existing in the two parts of China. While ‘beauty’ would be an acceptable name in the PRC [mainland China] today, it was certainly a problem back in the 1980s. Under the orthodox communist doctrine, ‘beauty’ was related to decadent bourgeois aesthetics.”

Alienism can be an asset in some cases—upscale brands like Apple and Hermès remain untranslated to retain an air of exclusivity—but most companies want to blend into a country’s cultural fabric, and good phono-semantic matches are an effective tool to do so.

Phono-semantic matches go beyond global marketing; they can also appear in languages’ everyday words especially in countries grappling with political or economic change. Consider Iceland, where the government mandates that children must have Icelandic names, and founded the Icelandic Language Institute as a way of preserving its home language. Chief among their concerns is preventing foreign loanwords from “polluting” traditional Icelandic; with English becoming the lingua franca on other continents, many countries fear that their home languages will become perverted by the encroachment of English words.

Yet, phono-semantic matching has allowed foreign influence to sneak in without being noticed. The word for AIDS in Icelandic is eyðni, pronounced “aid-ni,” from the root eyða, meaning “to destroy,” and the English word yuppie has been incorporated into the language as uppi, from the root upp, meaning “up,” a nod to yuppies’ upward mobility. Similarly, Arabic has created phono-semantic matches for modern concepts like technology and mitochondria by mimicking the sounds of those English words, but using Arabic roots that relate conceptually. For example, mitochondria is mutaqaddirah, from a root that means “power”—an allusion to the role of mitochondria as the “powerhouse” of cells.

Zuckermann calls phono-semantic matching “a mechanism of cultural interaction”—they allow languages to coin words for new international concepts like yuppies and AIDS while masking foreign influence. There’s linguistic evidence that this phenomenon has been a key part of cultural exchange long before the present day. The Turkish okul (school) was a phono-semantic match created from the French école. Over the centuries, the word artichoke has been passed between Romance languages like Spanish and Italian to English and then to Arabic as a phono-semantic match أرضي شوكي (pronounced “ardy-shuky”), a merging of roots أرضي (“ardy”), meaning “earthly, terrestrial, of ground” and  شوكي (“shuky”), meaning “thorny, prickly.” Phono-semantic matches were also common in Japan at the end of the 19th century, as the country was accelerating industrialization and increasing contact with Western countries: the Japanese word for business suit, Sabiro (背広), is named for the posh Savile Row district of London.

As globalization speeds cultural exchange, we can expect to see more linguistic sharing—and, most likely, more phono-semantic matches. Zuckermann says that in China, at least, there has been an uptick in phono-semantic matches as the country has “opened to America” since its Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ‘70s. “[Phono-semantic matches] are a beautiful way of flirting with the West without losing your own roots,” says Zuckermann. And as English words spread through international business, research collaborations, and travel, phono-semantic matching gives languages a way of introducing new concepts in the best kind of cultural exchange: melding new ideas through finding common ground.