By Dr. Kevin Lin, KL Communications

Resonance by relevance

The key to communication with Chinese customers is RESONANCE — striking a chord with them at the emotional level. It’s such commonsense that it’s often overlooked.

Too many brand owners assume that their brand name and communication materials will work in the same way in China as everywhere else. Too many UK companies provide corporate or product brochures in English, believing all decision formers/makers in a Chinese organization are as fluent in English as the few they have met. Too many UK presentations, although done through an interpreter, show all slides in English. If you’ve ever sat through a presentation with slides you have no interest in, you’ll know how your Chinese customers feel having to stare at slides they make little or no sense of.

China is a challenge we’ve not really faced before. Neither trading with the US nor joining the EU for example has affected our brand names. This time, the game is different. Language has never been as critical an issue to commercial success as it is with China.

The language challenge

English competency among educated Chinese is a myth. Chinese prefer to read Chinese. They respond to a Chinese name faster and remember that name more easily than an English name even if they speak some English.

Many brand owners fail to realise that international brands in English or a European language are sold in China in two languages if they don’t have a Chinese version for their name. Despite what the head office believes, their local staff and Chinese customers connect with the brand in Chinese.

Many brand owners fail to realise that, if they don’t have a Chinese version of their brand name, their international brands in English or a European language will be sold in China in two languages — China will invent a Chinese name of its own choosing. Despite what the European head office believes, their local staff and Chinese customers connect with the brand in Chinese.

Here are two pieces of evidence. In the photo taken of a Tissot shop in Beijing, the smaller white sign on the bottom right says "Tissot Service Centre” in Chinese (see picture 1). The second photo was taken at Beijing Airport (see picture 2). In this example, every brand has been translated into Chinese to help catch the eye of passing Chinese customers.

If you ever get a chance to listen to one Chinese telling another on the phone the email or website address of a brand in English, you’ll realise just how easily you can bury resonance by forcing your customers to struggle painfully in a foreign language.

40% of global sales of Louis Vuitton and MontBlanc come from China. That wouldn’t have been possible if their Chinese customers couldn’t read or write their names in Chinese. The printed media in China routinely translate all English brand names into Chinese. If you don't have an official version, they'll give you one. BP has been given two — “碧劈” and “英国石油” meaning British Petroleum.

A well thought out name in Chinese can enhance your branding in China. Coca Cola is a perfect example. Its name in Chinese sounds like ‘Coca Cola’, says it’s a joyful product for consumption and looks highly reminiscent of the Coca Cola logo. You don't need to know Chinese to know what logo it is.

If your Chinese customers have difficulty recognising or remembering your brand name, there won't be any resonance, will there?

How to do it?

Now that we understand the need, the next challenge is to find a solution. If your name is a meaningful phrase, you can have it translated into Chinese. British Airways, the Design Council or Jaguar are such examples.

But if your brand is the name of a person such as Barclays or a non-sensical phrase such as Vodafone, you need to recreate it in Chinese as it won't be translatable. Most brand names are of this second category.

The most common way of recreating your name in Chinese is transliteration. It means choosing Chinese characters with similar pronunciation as the sounds of an English name to represent each syllable. Vodafone for example requires three characters each representing ‘vo’, ‘da’ and ‘fone’ (沃达丰).

But the written form of Chinese is not an alphabet. You can’t spell it. There is nothing intrinsic about Vodafone in any of the three characters used.

As many Chinese characters share a similar pronunciation, there is a question of which one to use. As the basic unit of meaning in Chinese is a two character phrase, there is ample room for creativity in choosing the right combination of characters.

Coca Cola has set the benchmark - the Chinese version of a brand must sound and look similar to the brand in English and convey the brand message.

The communication challenge

The challenge is to apply the principles we already know in the China context. For example, we know communication must be relevant to the customers.

Too many companies simply have their materials translated into Chinese. They don't realise that translators deliver no more than what’s in your source material. If your copy has not been written for China, it’s unlikely to contain specific relevance to Chinese customers. They do have a very different perception.

If you say 'we’re keen to develop international business’, you probably mean to include China. But to people in China, 'international' means countries except China.

We tend to think of our business by industry sectors. In China, they see us by nationality. We're British, pitched against an American, German, French, Japanese or Korean company. We need to be relevant to them. “A supplier to the London Olympics” is more meaningful to Chinese than “a leading company in our sector”. "Based in Shakespeare country” resonates better with them than “located in Stratford-upon-Avon”. There is a great deal we can leverage from our heritage and what we're famous for as a nation.


Start building your expertise. China may mean many decades of thriving business. It’s worth investing time and resources into equipping your business with the expertise needed to maximize the benefit.

Consider branding in Chinese. Whether your brand works better in Chinese or in English needs to be an informed decision, not one based on assumptions or misconceptions.

Make your communication relevant. Relevance creates resonance.

“The wind is howling, the horses are roaring, the Yellow River is pounding”. A local German choir won a standing ovation from their Chinese guests including several ministers after singing a song of Chinese heroes at an event in Hamburg last year. Such a level of resonance is unseen in the UK. Germany beats us in exports to China. We can’t put it all down to their industry fit with China being better than ours.

About The Author

KL Communications was founded in 2000 by Dr. Kevin Lin, who had previously worked at the BBC World Service producing TV and radio broadcast materials in Chinese for China. He is the Lead Interpreter (Chinese) of the Foreign Office, and has now interpreted for four British Prime Ministers (he interpreted for David Cameron last month) and two Presidents and Premiers of the People's Republic of China.