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China Advisory: Avoiding the Wax Tadpole – Effective Chinese Language Trademark Strategy

November 19, 2008

Douglas "Doug" D. Salyers

Michael "Mike" D. Hobbs Jr.

One of the most well-known Chinese language trademarks is the Chinese language trademark for Coca-Cola: 可口可乐 (pronounced “Ke Kou Ke Le”). This mark has been in use in the Chinese speaking world for around 90 years (it was first registered in Hong Kong, for example, in 1939). The mark was developed by Coca-Cola in the 1920s when Coca-Cola first entered the Chinese market. 可口可乐 is an excellent trademark that meets all the requirements for effective Chinese language branding – it is a transliteration that sounds very similar to Coca-Cola, and it also has a very good meaning that conveys the branding image of Coca-Cola.

Yet, when Coca-Cola first entered the Chinese market, it had to act quickly to deal with a serious potential branding problem. It found that certain shopkeepers had already developed their own Chinese language trademark for Coca-Cola, based solely on a phonetic transliteration of Coca-Cola. Whilst this trademark sounded like the English language mark, its meaning was nonsensical. The literal translation of this mark was either “bite the wax tadpole” or “female horse fastened with wax”. Certainly eye-catching, but not appropriate to the sophisticated branding image of Coca-Cola.

Coca-Cola was able to act quickly and develop what has become one of the most successful Chinese language marks. The mark looks good visually, sounds very similar to Coca-Cola, and conveys a very positive meaning – literally “to permit the mouth to be able to rejoice” – consistent with the branding image of Coca-Cola.

Trademark owners entering the Chinese speaking market would do well to heed the Coca-Cola example today. It is crucial that trademark owners have their Chinese language trademark strategy in place before they enter the Chinese market. If they don’t, brand owners run the very real risk of the market, or other traders, choosing their Chinese language trademark for them.

The best Chinese language trademarks sound similar to the original foreign language mark, look good visually and, crucially, convey a good meaning, preferably a meaning that relates directly to the branding image of the trademark in question. Choosing a mark that sounds close to the original mark, but conveys a negative or nonsensical meaning, runs the risk of causing serious damage to brand image.

Finally, once the mark has been chosen, trademark owners should act quickly to file applications for the mark, in respect of all relevant classes of goods and services, in all jurisdictions in which they do business which have a sizeable Chinese speaking community. Increasingly, this means not just filing in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau and various South East Asian countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia, but also in Western countries with large and growing Chinese language communities.

Troutman Sanders has considerable expertise assisting clients in devising and implementing effective Chinese language branding strategies. If you require any further information relating to Chinese language trademarks, please do not hesitate to contact us.
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