"How is it possible that you don't even know your own hotel's name?"

As part of the Hotelintel.co research for our 'Marketing To China' series, we examined thousands of comments left by Chinese guests who on several of the main online booking and review sites used in China. The hotels that we looked at covered properties from all over the world. One recurring problem that Chinese travelers spoke of was that 'The hotel staff didn't even know the name of their own hotel' - or something along similar lines. In some instances, when staff were asked whether or not this was the 'X' hotel? - Hotel staff shook their heads and sent them away to another hotel despite the fact that the guests were indeed at the correct hotel.

Take a look at the following 6 hotel brand-names:
1 Marriott
2 Hyatt
3 Accor
4 Intercontinental
5 Rosewood
6 Holiday Inn

Now see if you can match them with their equivalent names in Mandarin Chinese from the list below - which I have listed in no specific order:

  • Jiàrì
  • Guīlì
  • Yǎgāo
  • Wànháo
  • Kǎiyuè
  • Zhōujì

Now imagine that you're the staff at the Intercontinental Hotel and a guest just pulled up in a taxi and asked pointing at the hotel if this was the 'Wànháo hotel?' - Would you know which hotel they meant?

Chinese Names for International Brands Revealed

Here is the list of hotel brands again with their corresponding Chinese translations:

English Mandarin Romanisation (Pinyin) Chinese Character
Marriott Wànháo 万豪
Hyatt Kǎiyuè 凯悦
Accor Yǎgāo 雅高
Intercontintental Zhōujì 洲际
Rosewood Guīlì 瑰丽
Holiday Inn Jiàrì 假日

The strange looking Romanized script that you see used here is called 'Hanyu Pinyin (汉语拼音)', and is the standard way of representing Mandarin Chinese in Roman letters in China that has been used since the 1950's. Looks can be deceptive too - although these letters may look like familiar shapes, the sounds that they represent can often be very different from the sounds that say a native English speaker might anticipate that they represent. It is a system that must be learnt, but once you have done it, it's possible to represent every sound in Standard Chinese very precisely. On top of that, Chinese is a tonal language, which means that depending on the intonation / inflection given to a given syllable, the meaning will change. The squiggly lines written above each syllable correspond to that syllable's tones. In Mandarin, there are 5 tones.

Why are the Names in Chinese so Different?

Depending on where a particular brand first appeared in the Sinosphere, whether it was in Hong Kong, or on the Mainland or elsewhere, the names may vary greatly. In Hong Kong, Cantonese is the main language and as brands have entered into the Chinese market through Hong Kong, people crafting the Chinese version of the brand name would look for something that possibly sounded similar in Cantonese, to the foreign name.

An example of this might be KFC. When KFC entered into Hong Kong, it was still 'Kentucky Fried Chicken', so the word 'Kentucky' was rendered into Cantonese sounds as 'hang dak gei' - 肯德基. Because the same characters are generally used for Cantonese and Mandarin, the Mandarin renderings for these same characters is Kěn dé jī. You can see that the sound of 'Kentucky' is slowly morphing into something that sounds quite different.

Meanings are important. You can't just grab any syllable that sounds like the syllable you're looking for and clip them together to sound like something that resembles your brand name. The Chinese for 'Coca-Cola' is a brilliant example where syllables have been found to sound similar to the name in English '可口可乐 - Kěkǒu kělè', but the meaning also has a very clever relation to what the brand actually is. A rough translation might be 'Easy to the mouth, bringing happiness'. An ingenious invention that has now become part of modern language and culture in China.

Meanings are so important in fact, that they actually take precedence over finding sounds that sound similar to the brand names' original sounds in their original language. While in many languages, new words that are brought into the language like 'computer', 'telephone' or 'software' may just use those words in a local accent and they can be perfectly understood, there is a policy in China of ensuring that Chinese versions of new words are created based on Chinese meanings. The word for 'computer' in Chinese is 'Electric Brain - 电脑Diànnǎo', 'telephone' is 'Electric speech - 电话 Diànhuà', and 'software' is 'Soft-item - Ruǎnjiàn'. The Chinese words generally don't sound anything like the word in English.

This applies to brand names too. The general rule is that a set of words will be chosen with a good sounding, auspicious meaning. If it is possible to find something that both sounds like the original name and also has an auspicious and appropriate meaning, then great - that would be used, but if the similar sounding syllables cannot be found, meaning takes precedence.

What do these Brand Names Actually Mean?

Here are the brand names that I mentioned above with explanations:

English Mandarin Romanisation (Pinyin) Chinese Character Explanation
Marriott Wànháo 万豪 Literally ten thousand heroic and grand, this most likely originally entered through Cantonese which would have been pronounced 'Maan Ho' - the 'm' more suiting the 'M' in Marriott.
Hyatt Kǎiyuè 凯悦 Literally 'triumphant happiness', most likely entered because of the Cantonese pronunciation - 'hoi jyut sounding more like 'Hyatt'
Accor Yǎgāo 雅高 Literally 'lofty elegance', in Cantonese this is pronounced ' a gou, sounding much more like 'Accor'.
Intercontintental Zhōujì 洲际 Literally 'travelling on Continents', this is an example where the sound doesn't resemble the name at all, and rather the meaning of 'intercontinental travel' has been rendered in a way that sounds catchy to the native Chinese ear.
Rosewood Guīlì 瑰丽 Literally 'Rose Beauty', this again does not sound anything like the English word 'Rosewood', rather takes the concept of 'Rose' and finds something that sounds as elegant to the Chinese ear. Directly translating 'wood' wouldn't sound natural in Chinese, so an alternative was found.
Holiday Inn Jiàrì 假日 Literally 'Holiday', this uses the direct translation approach, using a word that doesn't sound like the brand name in English.

Notice that in general, these brand names are two syllables and to the Chinese ear are very catchy. When you are looking to enter the Chinese market, crafting your brand name in Chinese to be something that has both an auspicious meaning, as well as that can flow of the Chinese tongue is essential. It is a very specific and sought after skill set to be able to do this.

At the same time, if you are dealing with Chinese guests, it's important that at the very minimum, you know what your hotel's name is in Chinese. Not only is it polite to show that you have taken the time to learn something to specifically help these guests, it could actually be essential if you are to provide the service that is required as many of these guests may have no idea of what the actual name in English sounds.

If you enjoyed this, let us know in the comments section - and we hope that we will see you and your team at one of our China Marketing Master-classes in the region soon.