Trademark is a valuable part of a business. A trademark is a brand name used to identify the company’s goodwill that is associated with goods or services. Most businesses know to register a trademark when they are doing business overseas, but only a few businesses pay attention to how their trademarks are translated and perceived. When done correctly, translated trademarks add value to a business’s foreign operations; when done incorrectly, translated trademarks can kill a business’s competitive edge. When you are dealing with the Chinese language, particular care must be taken to ensure your business does not lose the thin profit margin to the infamous “lost in translation.”

Take Best Buy, for example. The translated brand name of Best Buy in China is “Baisimai,” (pronounced “bai-si-mai”), which literally means “to buy after thinking a hundred times.” Now put yourself in the shoes of a customer and ponder that for a minute. . .

There is another good tale of trademark crossing the cultural divide. One of China’s more common street-food you will find is a steamed bun, “baozi,” with various meats and vegetables stuffed inside. It is sort of the Chinese version of the hotdog, only round and steamed; easy to carry and tasty. There is a meat-in-a-bun store famous to the Chinese named “Goubuli’s” (pronounced in Chinese as “go-boo-li”), literally translated to “a dog won’t even go near it.” There are a host of tales as to the origin of this iconic brand. I cannot remember exactly how it was explained to me when I was young, but my father claims this story line:

About a hundred years ago, there was a stubborn and unfriendly guy named Gao Guiyou. He was a very good cook and became famous for making delicious and unique steamed stuffed buns. He opened a small snack house to sell his steamed stuffed buns, but because he was so unfriendly even dogs wouldn’t go near him to steal his delicious meat-stuffed-steamed-buns. His customers affectionately called him “Goubuli”—one whom a dog won’t even go near.

To get around his unfriendly nature and the customer interaction necessary to sell his buns, Goubuli would put out baskets of chopsticks and bowls on the tables at the front of the shop while he cooked in the back. When a customer came into the shop, they would put money in the basket, pick up the chopsticks, and give a bowl to Goubuli. Goubuli would then put steamed stuffed buns in the bowl and put them out without ever having to speak to his customers. Because his buns were so delicious, it became a local favorite in Tianjin (a city not far east of Beijing). Over the years, his bun-shop became a franchise well known in China.

After China joined the WTO, Goubuli’s franchise set up shop in California to sell the famous buns. Translating his trademark was a challenge: how do you take such an interesting story with an ironic but iconic brand and turn it into something American? The creative geniuses who worked on this problem came up with something much better than the Best Buy team. They named Goubuli’s bun shop “Go Believe.”

Problem solved.

The Chinese Trademark Law provides that a foreign business may register trademarks and service marks in China. The registrant enjoys exclusive right to use the trademark and has the right to transfer the trademark by assignment, licensing, succession, or merger. The agency responsible for registering and enforcing trademarks is the Trademark Office, which is under the control of State Administration for Industry and Commerce (“SAIC”). The trademark application must be filed in Chinese. Supporting documents in a foreign language are required to have a Chinese translation attached. The date of file that determines priority is the date of registration; it is determined by the date on which the Trademark Office received the application.

Aside from the legal considerations in registering your trademark, your business may want to consult someone who is intimately familiar with both the Chinese language and culture. You will want to avoid the Best Buy-type pitfalls, and having someone creative and knowledgeable on your side may just make you believe your operation will succeed.