What’s Your Brand Transliteration Strategy?
Eric Watson's avatarBy: Eric Watson
September 20, 2016

What’s Your Brand Transliteration Strategy?

For companies expanding into global markets, an important question awaits. What’s more important: brand clarity, or brand consistency?


As your company expands into new online markets, it must engage international consumers in their languages of choice. It’s been long known that translating a business’ primary-market website (often serving English-speaking customers) into global languages is a “must have” to succeed in these new markets.

But in some cases, more than a site’s online content must be localized for overseas markets. Depending on which markets a company has targeted, its very brand name may need to undergo a transformation to resonate among global consumers.

This is best known as brand transliteration, and it is often required when a Western company expands into a market where the dominant written language is not based on the Latin alphabet. Such markets include China, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and others.

For brands, transliteration provides a unique opportunity to provide clarity to the purpose or essence of their products. This is particularly useful when engaging new consumers who’ve never heard of the brand. However, this transliteration necessarily sacrifices consistency, since the brand’s name may have different literal meanings in different markets.

This topic is especially important for marketing leaders to consider, as they plan for online expansion.

What is Brand Transliteration?

Translation, as we all know, is the conversion of written or spoken content from one language to another. However, transliteration is the conversion of written content from one script to another—from Latin letters in English to Chinese hànzì characters, for instance. Companies usually aspire to capture a phonetic similarity to their brand names in their transliterated brand names, too.

Such creative complexity makes brand transliteration an art form of sorts. The best examples do more than present a phonetically-similar name for locals to read and speak. Great transliteration considers…

  • The individual written characters used in the transliterated name
  • And the meanings or qualities they evoke when presented alongside other characters

…and combines them into a locally-resonant, evocative concept.

For instance, “French retailer Carrefour uses 家乐福 (jiālèfú) as its brand name in the Chinese market,” writes Labbrand, a China-originated global brand consultancy. “This name means ‘home/family-happy-fortunate.’ The three character combination not only sounds like its French name, but also conveys the desired qualities of a supermarket providing products that enrich family life. Similarly, for German auto firm BMW, the transliteration 宝马 (bǎomǎ), meaning ‘treasure horse,’ correctly infers the luxury and reliability of its cars.”

The Challenges of Brand Transliteration

Companies have long known that translation can be tricky. But transliteration is often trickier. Here’s one reason why, as provided by Fade Wang, a Foreign Language faculty member at China’s Huaiyin Institute of Technology:

“In traditional Chinese culture, ‘蝠’ and ‘福’ are a pair of homophones,” he wrote in 2012, “so ‘蝙蝠’ [a bat] is considered as a symbol of good luck, and some (Chinese) products would use ‘蝙蝠’ as their brand name. Yet in the Western culture, a bat is thought to be a kind of crazy and blind bloodsucker, having nothing to do with luck.”

To effectively transliterate brand names for the international marketplace, Wang says, companies should be fluent in the cultural differences between countries.

A McDonald’s sign in MianYang, China
A McDonald’s sign in MianYang, China

In some markets, transliteration isn’t just good business—it’s the law. In China, for instance, a brand’s transliterated Chinese name must appear on important company documentation and signage. “These conversions into Chinese are submitted as part of trademark and brand name applications,” wrote a legal expert in 2011, “and will then appear as your brand for the China market.”

Similar policies exist in many of the Gulf States (where they must be transliterated into Arabic), and Eastern markets.

Companies should be thoughtful about how they approach this critical decision. Transliteration will undoubtedly create a significant impact on business in local markets.

But it won’t just help define how local consumers perceive your brand. It’ll impact your regional SEO, too.

Brand Transliteration Starter Tips

As with other elements of global expansion, research provides critical insights into how global consumers perceive and talk about your brand. Find this data, and those online conversations. They’ll provide revelations in not only how your brand is positively viewed in these global markets, but how it can improve, too.

We recommend visiting regionally-popular search engines—such as Yandex for Russia, Baidu for China and Naver for South Korea—and searching for your brand as a local consumer would. Make sure to visit forums and blogs where your brand is being discussed.

Explore these sites and others to see how local resellers are marketing your brand. Take notes. Are consumers already transliterating your brand name into the local language? (This happens more often than you might think!) Is it still written in the Latin alphabet? If both are being used, at what ratio is the split?

These indicators are extremely valuable when localizing your site for a new market. Your team can analyze this information and come to a decision on how your brand name should be rendered on the translated website, and in local marketing materials.

Transliteration often results in a brand becoming more relatable to a local audience. However, the decision has significant implications for local website traffic. If consumers are transliterating your brand’s name, using this transliteration in an in-language, in-market, pay-per-click campaign can boost inbound traffic. Further, leveraging this transliteration on your localized website can positively impact your brand’s ranking in local search engines, and increase organic traffic.

This improved ranking in local search results has another upside: It helps position your brand in markets where counterfeit products might be more commonplace. For instance, outranking Chinese counterfeiters that are riding your brand-name’s coattails combats their unscrupulous activity, and presents local shoppers with the best possible products—yours.

Getting Guidance on Transliteration

If your company has little or no experience in brand transliteration, don’t worry: MotionPoint can help. We regularly assist brands in understanding the unique nuances of international markets through cultural fluency, linguistic fluency, and consumer data aggregated from our management of over 1,000 translated websites in over 40 markets.

We can advise your company on brand transliteration, and how to best leverage transliterated branding online. For instance: Most markets won’t require your company’s name to feature transliterated branding, mostly because they have Latin-based alphabets. MotionPoint can elegantly use its localization technologies to always present your transliterated brand name in the appropriate markets, and offer it untouched in other markets.

Here’s another way MotionPoint can smartly leverage its technologies: We can easily present your company’s original brand name on localized websites, but include its transliterated version in the site’s meta description. This “under the hood” content appears in search results. This approach ensures organic traffic, regardless of how consumers search for your brand online.

Indeed, for countries in which consumers search for English brand names and their transliterated versions in equal measure—such as South Korea or Russia—this solution can be particularly advantageous.

It’s An Important Decision

While it’s a relatively small part of a larger international expansion plan, the decision to transliterate your brand name (or leave it consistent across all media and markets) is an important one. As your company moves forward with its online global growth, make sure to engage a globalization solutions company like MotionPoint to help evaluate your brand’s options.

Does your company need help making informed decisions on its international marketing strategy? Contact us for industry-leading insights on translation and localization, and how to succeed in global markets.


Eric Watson

Global Online Strategist

Eric Watson holds a Master's Degree in Finance from Yonsei University (Seoul, South Korea). Prior to joining MotionPoint, he worked throughout Asia as a consultant. He completed his bachelor’s degree with honors at Arizona State University in 2010 with a degree in Political Science. His non-marketing related research interests include the development of new manufacturing technologies, and the new national policies necessary to encourage their efficient and egalitarian adoption. He covers these topics on his website, The Policy Wire.


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