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Do You Own the Chinese Version of Your Brand?


What possible problem could there be in translating your brand into Mandarin for the Chinese market? It should be easy enough to do and cost you very little.

Just ask New Balance Athletic Shoe, Inc. The company has traded in China since 2003, adopting the Mandarin brand 新百 (pronounced Xin Bai Lun).  An application to register this as a trade mark had been blocked by the prior registration of the Chinese characters (“bai lun” – a phonetic translation of “balance”) and 新百 (“Xin Bai Lun” – directly translated to mean “New Balance”) by a local Chinese businessman, Zhou Lelun. Assuming its size and international reputation would give it immunity, New Balance had decided to trade on regardless of non- registration of its Mandarin mark.

USD16M judgment

In 2015, Zhou Lelun successfully sued for infringement in the Guangzhou Intermediate Court, resulting in an USD16m judgment (reduced on appeal), and an order for New Balance to remove all references to its 新百mark from its goods, advertising etc.

Does this apply to smaller businesses?

But surely this type of thing only happens to big global companies? Would anyone in China really notice or care about what a small antipodean enterprise gets up to? Wrong again. Trade mark squatting and extortion of “go away” money from naive foreign traders of all shapes and sizes is a lucrative part of the Chinese economy. And if you are a well-known New Zealand or Australian company, the chances that a Mandarin version of your English language brand has already been registered in China are reasonably high. The more popular your products or services are in Chinese-speaking markets, the more likely this becomes.

How to create the right Mandarin brand

Well, if New Balance got it wrong, what chance have smaller businesses got? The secret is strategy, and the upside is that there are at least 6000 Chinese characters to choose from to create a brand. The sooner this issue is addressed the more options there will be. It’s never too late to develop a suitable unique Mandarin version of your brand and secure the Chinese identity you want for your business. Ideally this would be sound-alike, with appropriate local meaning and feel-good connotations.

Importance of registration

Achieving registration of the right Mandarin brand for your business may be a lot faster and easier than registration of the English language version (also likely to be under threat) , and will:

  • Allow you to control your business identity in Chinese –speaking markets
  • Mitigate against grey market sales under other Mandarin versions of your brand
  • Satisfy PRC Customs regulations for a Mandarin brand on your products
  • Meet online trading platform requirements (e.g. Tmall) for a PRC registered trade mark
  • Assist you generally in getting established in the Chinese market.

What about your English brand?

This doesn’t mean you need to abandon your English language brand for the Chinese-speaking markets. Your Mandarin brand can sit alongside it as per the below example of Johnson & Johnson’s Band-Aid brand packaging as used in mainland China.

So how do you go about achieving this? It sounds complicated!

It’s not as tricky as it sounds. The first step is to review your current situation and start to develop a plan.


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