Patagonian Toothfish or Chilean Sea Bass: Names Matter, Especially Internationally!

If a company’s brand doesn’t stand out in today’s oversaturated and hypercompetitive market, it’s like treading water, which means going nowhere. What’s worse is if the brand doesn’t tell a story that makes an emotional connection with consumers. In that case, the company is not just treading water, but truly dead in the water. This is the case for restaurants that serve a popular fish dish. Which one would you be more likely to order, the Patagonian Toothfish or Chilean Sea Bass, which are actually one and the same?

The fact is, branding starts with a name whether it’s a product, service, feature, or company name. First impressions do matter. This is even more critical in the international market place, where many customers use the product name as an important cue when making buying decisions. Since most successful products will eventually be sold globally, the best time to understand the potential risks of any given name is at the beginning of the process, and not after the product has launched.

The “Oops” Phenomenon

It is critical to understand how a product’s name is regarded internationally. Most companies do not have the luxury of the advertising budget and market power of Apple, where consumer opinion can be shifted toward the positive even if the name is awkward. Apple’s iPad name was originally lambasted by Twitter users, especially women, since it sounded like a feminine hygiene product. Then naming the iPhone’s personal assistant Siri (which sounds like “buttocks” in Japan), made the company look culturally ignorant and insensitive. Ironically, for Apple, this misstep may have provided some market traction, even if it was based on ridicule.

Other companies, however, whose corporate brands and products don’t have such a stellar worldwide reputation, have suffered with names that do not translate well in other languages and cultures. Creating a positive connection between a name, the product and the emotions of a consumer provides a distinct competitive advantage. In many cases, a global brand name analysis is a company’s best insurance policy or risk management strategy to ensure that a name works across borders. The cost of developing a name and all its supporting material is expensive. Imagine the prospect of wasting precious resources (financial, reputation, time and other) because no one checked to see if the product name works in other countries.

Linguistic Name Analysis

Linguistic name analysis differs from traditional market analysis by focusing on the initial reaction local consumers have to the name on a language-related level. It is vital to understand the word or phrase from different angles, how it will be perceived in the language and culture where it originated and the language or culture where it is intended to be used in the future (the company’s international target markets). This includes aspects such as:

  • Phonetics: How a word sounds, is pronounced and perceived in each culture and language. For example, the consonant “x” does not pose a problem for English speakers. It has no direct equivalent in Arabic, but can create a very offensive sound for Arabic speakers if pronounced the English way.
  • Morphology: The forms and formations of words in a given language and how they change if one word is used in different cultures or languages. For example, an English speaker would recognize that an “s” at the end of a word may indicate a plural. This is not necessarily the same in other languages.
  • Semantics: The actual meaning of a word and comparison of the originally intended meaning in the country where it originated versus the country/language community being targeted. It comes from the Greek semantikos, which means to show or give signs. For example, the English word “mist” means “manure” in German.
  • Pragmatics: The meaning of the word in a given physical, linguistic, cultural and social context which varies according to the culture or country where it is used. For example, the word “red” can have completely different meanings if the context is a “red light”, “seeing red”, or a “red rose”.
  • Cognitive Fluency: A person’s fluency with a word or phrase, the ease of pronunciation, the feeling of mental effort someone has to expend can affect perception, judgment, and decision-making.
  • Writing system: Not all languages use the Latin alphabet and a name may need to be transcribed into another language. This bears hidden dangers since the transcriber has to be extremely careful to choose a proper transcription that does not have another meaning in the target language. Many trademarked brand names tend to stay in English and in the English writing system. This policy is often for legal reasons since the trademark may be lost once the name is transcribed. It is still important to understand what a transcribed version of the word would look and sound like so it does not end up with an unwanted meaning.

These examples clearly illustrate how minor linguistic aspects of a word can have major repercussions when it comes to market acceptance. In addition to the often academic-sounding linguistic analysis, it is important for a brand manager or marketer to understand if a word means something else or is similar to another word in another language; if it is offensive in any way; if it even can be pronounced and remembered; and, if it’s overall “pragmatic” meaning is a good fit for what the company is trying to communicate.

Five Steps to Reduce Name-related Risks

Here, are five steps to reduce any potential risk from naming errors and increase the likelihood of using a name that will resonate with customers.

  1. Start early: Recognize the benefits and importance of understanding the name(s) the company is considering early in the process. A simple method of elimination can cut immense costs in brand name development.
  2. Choose proven, reliable, experienced linguists: Work with linguists who understand “where the company is coming from,” why a name was chosen and what the company is trying to communicate with the brand. It is important that purpose and context in which a name will be used is clear in order to analyze it properly.
  3. Ensure linguists are “fluent” native speakers: Analysts should reside in the target country or be involved in the language and culture of that area on a daily basis. Someone who has lived in another country for an extended period of time will be biased to the new country’s language and will no longer be sufficiently aware of his or her mother tongue to provide an unbiased analysis. Language is a living thing and changes over time.
  4. Work with a partner you can trust: Be careful not to disclose valuable product/brand development confidential data to just anybody found on the Internet. Take basic safe-guards by choosing a reputable firm and asking for non-disclosure agreements.
  5. One size does NOT fit all: There are different levels of analysis that are useful at different stages of the brand development process, including the basic method of elimination at the start of the selection process, in-depth analysis and in-country focus groups. A full-blown analysis on 50 potential brand names may be overkill if half of these could have been eliminated in a lower level linguistic check.

 

Avoid Costly Blunders

The marketing world is full of reported translation blunders. Some have become famous, such as the Chevy Nova in Mexico which means “no go” in Spanish; Gerber in France where “gerber” means to vomit in French; or, Trafficante Mineral Water, where ‘trafficante’ connotes a drug dealer in Italy. To avoid these embarrassing and costly gaffes, invest the time and money in uncovering the hidden meaning and potential cultural disconnects before it’s too late.

Photo credit: Genetics Exhibit, San Jose Tech by Thomas Hawk

  • Karin Bauchrowitz

    Excellent article and pointing out the costly errors that could be made and have been made like “Nothing sucks like the Electrolux!” if the companies who come up with these brand names do not take all the mentioned precautions.

  • Mike Tareto

    This reminds me of my freshman marketing class, when some students did a presentation on Jamba Juice. The company named it that because they thought Jamba meant “celebration” in Swahili. I am fluent in Swahili, being from Tanzania, East Africa. Jamba does not mean celebration. Jamba means fart. It’s Fart Juice.

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