International Business: Some brand names don't translate well

Published: Friday, Nov. 5 2010 7:00 a.m. MDT

Many global companies, like Coca-Cola, Nike, Google, Intel and Microsoft, choose to use the same brand name in multiple countries.

This is not possible for every brand, but it can often be an advantage. Think of the degree to which a single brand name simplifies marketing and increases return on advertising investment. By comparison, how much more would one of these companies need to spend to achieve the same results with a different localized brand name in every market?

Proctor and Gamble likely understood the benefits of a single global brand nearly 70 years ago when it considered launching a new soap named "Dreck" in the United States. According to the book New Products Management by Charles Crawford, shortly before the company introduced the soap to U.S. consumers, it discovered "Dreck" sounded like German and Yiddish words for dirt, garbage, body waste and a four-letter expletive that can not be published here. Fortunately, because Proctor and Gamble did its homework, it had time to change the detergent name to "Dreft" and has since sold it successfully in the U.S. and many other countries.

Some products may never have the chance to go completely global because companies have already been branded with names that have embarrassing meanings abroad. For example, an Iranian company named Paxan Corp. currently produces a line of soaps and detergents under the name "Barf." This word has a positive and clean meaning of "snow" in Iran, but what English speaker would ever choose to use a cleaning product with this brand? Likewise, if the Japanese sports drink "Pocari Sweat" were exported to the United States, how many English speakers would choose to drink "Sweat"?

In Japan, automakers have marketed the Nissan Moco and the Mazda Laputa. Unfortunately, these product brand names would never export well to Spanish-speaking countries where "moco" means booger and "laputa" sounds like a slang word for prostitute.

Similarly, in the 1950s and 1960s, there was a Swedish car magazine named "Fart." The name makes sense when you know that "fart" is a Swedish word meaning "speed." Though the title caused no fuss in the magazine's home country, there was considerable embarrassment when magazine staff traveled to international races and events.

The best decisions about brand names are informed decisions. Companies can collect all the information needed to choose the best global brand names by surveying linguists and country-specific brand checkers in various potential markets.

In sharp contrast with the brands named above, Kodak exemplifies the benefits of linguistic research in brand name development. According to the book Blunders in International Business by David A. Ricks, a team chose the name Kodak after it determined that the word had no negative meanings or connotations in the countries targeted. In fact, the name had no meaning at all, but it was easy to pronounce in every country tested.

Quite possibly, the Paxan Corp. may have done research and known that the name "Barf" would not export to some countries but may have chosen to keep the name anyway because local opportunity for the "Barf" brand outweighed other market possibilities. However, with complete information in front of them, other companies might see the value in choosing a more globally neutral name much like Proctor and Gamble did with "Dreft."

Whatever a company decides, making such decisions with complete information is certainly preferred over making such decisions with eyes shut and increasing the likelihood of branding the next international blunder.

Why limit a brand's international potential? Think big! Companies should be prepared for international success by thinking globally from the start!

Adam Wooten is director of translation services at Lingotek. He also teaches a course on translation technology at BYU. E-mail: awooten@lingotek.com . Follow him on Twitter at AdamWooten..

Get The Deseret News Everywhere

Subscribe

Mobile

RSS