International Business: Global expansion can force odd changes in brand name pronunciation

Published: Friday, Jan. 13 2012 7:00 a.m. MST

"Hyundai of Korea entered the U.S. auto market in 1986 only to find its marketing efforts stymied because of confusion surrounding the correct pronunciation of the company’s name,” writes Michael White in “A Short Course in International Marketing Blunders.” “Many people confused the name with 'Honda,' one of Hyundai’s biggest Japanese competitors. The Koreans tried mightily to get Americans to use the Korean Pronunciation (‘High-Yoon-Day’). But failing, they finally ‘bent with the wind’ in a promotional campaign that encouraged customers to say ‘Hun-Day as in Sun-Day.’”

After a good fight, Hyundai learned the sometimes annoying truth that correct pronunciation is often determined democratically. In fact, there are many times in daily life where fighting for original, “correct” pronunciation is futile and adapting our pronunciation to the will of the majority may be best.

While living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I learned no one knew what city I was referring to when I pronounced Vallejo — a name of Spanish origin — as one would in Spanish, with a softer, shorter “v” and a “y” sound for the double “l.” Anyone asking directions to this Northern California city would need to use a very gringo-American pronunciation of “Vallejo,” with harder “v” and an “l” sound because many locales are oblivious to the “correct” pronunciation.

Nevada’s state name originated from the Spanish word meaning “snow-covered;” however, when former president George W. Bush or Sen. Joe Lieberman pronounce it as one would in Spanish, the public generally assume the speakers are foolish and incorrect. Similarly, many friends of mine with Spanish or Chinese last names have reluctantly adopted the American pronunciation of their surname. As some of them say, “When in Rome…

In the world of business, the Chinese makers of Maxipuke playing cards would have a difficult time convincing people in the United States to pronounce the moniker “maxi-pu-ke,” as intended. Ideally, every brand name would be engineered from the start as something easy to pronounce in every international market, but the impracticality of doing so, like Kodak did, stymies fledgling brands.

Sometimes brand pronunciation problems occur not because people cannot pronounce a word, but because, after hearing the pronunciation, customers cannot spell it. One associate of mine recently told me the catchy name of his new company. However, when I looked at his business card, I saw the company had removed all vowels from the word in an attempt to be unique, consequently making the spelling rather unintuitive for both native and non-native English speakers.

“Does anyone have trouble finding you online?” I asked my associate. “Based on the pronunciation, I would probably mistype your company name in Google and not see your website in the results.”

Sure enough, phonetic spelling or spelling with vowels does not bring up the company website in search results. Worse yet, because vowels are excluded from the name, a search for the correctly spelled company name is “corrected” by Google, initially providing search engine users with completely unrelated results.

Hopefully, fantastic marketing will make my associate’s business a household name in many countries, partially thanks to its uniqueness. Then my initial reservations will be proven completely irrelevant and, of course, the company website will appear in Google searches for all words merely resembling the brand name. Perhaps the peculiar name will even be used as a distinguishing asset, like Price Pfister, “the pfabulous pfaucet with the pfunny name.”

Some brand names could actually benefit from popular mispronunciation. When people first view the word “PPPhone,” the name of a VOIP softphone application, I have heard attempted pronunciations like “Fuh-fuh-phone” or “pah-pah-phone.” None of these pronunciations are great, but all of them are arguably preferable to the “correct” pronunciation of “pee pee phone.”

Other companies have also adapted to accommodate popular pronunciation or to circumvent pronunciation problems as Hyundai did.

“Wrigley, for example, merely altered the spelling of its “Spearmint” chewing gum to “Speermint” to aid in the German pronunciation of the flavor,” said David A. Ricks in his book "Blunders in International Business." “'Maxwell House' proved slightly more difficult. The name was changed to ‘Maxwell Kaffee’ in Germany, ‘Legal’ in France and ‘Monky’ in Spain.”

Is having a difficult-to-pronounce product name always bad? No. The Association for Psychological Science notes that people often associate such names with increased risk. So, although pharmaceutical sales may perform better when drug names are easy to pronounce, other products such as fashions and expensive alcoholic beverages may appeal more to their target audiences when they suggest something edgier.

In general, if companies really want to insist they are “right” about pronunciation and all their customers are wrong, these companies run the risk of being a little lonely. When it comes to pronunciation, sometimes it is better to be “wrong” and have many customers than it is to be “right” and have none.

Adam Wooten is director of translation services at Lingotek. He also teaches a course on translation technology at Brigham Young University. Email: awooten@lingotek.com. Follow him on Twitter at AdamWooten.

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