China Trademarks: Still Lost in Translation

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After 12 years of this, I still find it difficult to understand how the antiquated system of measuring progress on the IP front with meaningless statistics still exists. Consider the following article from today’s news which, although I’m sure was written with the best intentions, fails to tell us anything at all of significance:

Beijing has seen robust growth in trademark registrations in recent years, but there is still a long way to go for the city to own more globally recognized trademarks, authorities said on Monday.

You already lost me. Cities don’t own trademarks, individuals and businesses do. The number of marks held by residents in a particular city doesn’t mean all that much, does it? The author of the piece apparently thinks the answer to this question is self evident, for he/she fails to address the issue at all.

The city holds more than 250,000 trademarks and the number is rising every year, according to the Beijing Administration for Industry and Commerce (BAIC).

In Chaoyang district alone, from 2006 to 2009, trademark registrations grew by 24.7 percent each year.

So far, the district owns about 60,000 trademarks, of which business services, finance and modern service industries account for 36 percent, according to statistics released by BAIC’s Chaoyang branch at the Summit on Implementing Trademark Strategy and Promoting Brand Development that took place on Monday.

If you’re a foreigner who has visited Beijing before, most likely 90% of your time was spent in Chaoyang. Aside from your trips out to the Great Wall and the Summer Palace, Chaoyang is where you stayed. This is where the “downtown” is and where a whole lot of big firms reside.

Holding Chaoyang District up as a model is sort of like crowing about Manhattan’s GDP being so much bigger than that of Jersey City. Kind of obvious. And anyway, so what?

The increasing number of trademark registrations is in accordance with the growing awareness of trademark protection among enterprises.

Uh, you got any evidence to back that up? It’s probably accurate, but the rise in registrations has most likely gone up a lot faster than “awareness” of the importance of trademark protection. These two things do not necessarily move forward at the same speed.

The article also recounts the story of Quanjude and its foreign filing strategy. For some reason, this has become a popular tale in trademark circles here, but some of the details in this retelling are a bit strange:

Quanjude, a time-honored Beijing brand, was among the earliest of the city’s enterprises to implement a trademark strategy both at home and abroad, according to Jiang Junxian, chairman of the famous roast duck group.

The company invited a group of top English experts to discuss the translation of its brand name, in case it was difficult for non-Chinese to pronounce and remember.

“But they finally suggested, maybe just Peking Ducks, they had no better options,” Jiang said, when asked about the difficulties the company met promoting the brand in other countries.

Maybe Jiang’s memory isn’t what it used to be, or maybe this advice they received was really bad, but something is messed up here. I’ve worked with quite a few marketing folks over the years whose job it is to come up with new trademarks (or translations), and no one in their right mind would ever suggest “Peking Ducks” as a brand name. Preposterous on marketing grounds alone, not to mention the problems one would have obtaining trademark protection (I believe they would have run into a small problem trying to file a generic product name like that).

Notice, by the way, that these people are referred to as “top English experts” as opposed to professional marketing people or even “foreign experts.” To me, “English experts” suggests that they invited a few English teachers from the local language school, perhaps some French or Russian kid who was here teaching really bad English on the side while studying Chinese.

“Peking Ducks” — good grief.

The main point of the article? Despite the exciting statistical trends, Beijing does not have a sufficient number of famous brands.

This of course is a business problem, not a trademark problem. You cannot call your local trademark agency and pay them $50 to give you a famous mark. You have to earn that by selling a whole lot of products/services, by actually, you know, being famous.

One piece of advice: instead of poring over statistics and encouraging everyone to run out and file a trademark, perhaps the government should tell companies to hire competent marketing firms to come up with ideas a bit better than “Peking Ducks.”

One response on “China Trademarks: Still Lost in Translation

  1. Chris

    IP madness once again.

    Stan, you’ve hit the nail on the head once again. A pile of worthless trademarks isn’t a sign of anything other than a high level of activity in the trademark office (damned slow they are).

    You can get a great logo done by Taobao-based designers for RMB100 a pop. They are template based, standard, but ‘look and feel’ just as professional as anything done by the Fortune 500.

    Nonetheless, high levels of trademark awareness and registration does indicate that businesses are taking their brands seriously.

    You’ve got huge numbers of foreign businesses forced to file trademark registrations in China for overseas brands they don’t distribute here ‘just in case’. The tradmework squatters particularly active in China. My business has a dozen brand names (which we will never bring into China) occupied by squatters, who will extort cash should we ever try and do anything here with those brands. First to file sux and squatter companies should be shut down. Many overseas firms that OEM in China have been seriously extorted by trademark squatters.

    Registering trademarks just a basic due diligence activity.

    Building a business, markets and a brand the main game and a much tougher thing to do…