International Business: Brand acronyms, initials lost in translation

Published: Friday, Aug. 17 2012 10:20 a.m. MDT

Some companies might think brand names made up of initials actually reduce risk of linguistic blunders in another language.

Associated Press

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When Utah-based PowerQuest expanded into France, the now-defunct technology company was forced to redo its logo. As product marketer Laura Shafer explained earlier this year at a breakfast meeting for the World Trade Association of Utah, the initials PQ were removed because in France PQ means toilet paper.

Some companies might think brand names made up of initials actually reduce risk of linguistic blunders in another language, but various examples prove this perception is far from true.

PowerQuest is not the only company to encounter intercultural linguistic problems with its acronym or initials. This column previously mentioned the Japanese PPPhone (pronounced “pee pee phone”), which had a perfectly valid meaning behind the two extra letters, but the pronunciation caused some snickers in the United States.

“In 1988, the General Electric Company and Plessey combined to create a new telecommunications giant,” wrote Tex Texin and Jem Shaw on a popular internationalization website. “A brand name was desired that evoked technology and innovation. The winning proposal was GPT for GEC-Plessey Telecommunications, (although it was) not very innovative … not suggestive of technology, and a total disaster for European branding. GPT is pronounced in French as ‘J’ai pété’ or ‘I've farted.’

Government organizations, notorious for excessive acronym use, must also use caution. “When the Conservative government renamed the Royal Canadian Air Force to great fanfare (last year), it forgot to designate a French acronym to go alongside the English RCAF,” reported Lee Barthiaume in Canada’s National Post. “As a result, the officers were sent scrambling, initially going with the same acronym as Colombia's most notorious guerrilla force, known as FARC.”

On the other hand, if an organization is strictly local, such international acronym blunders may not matter. Ferrovie Autolinee Regionali Ticinesi (Ticinese regional bus and train services) in Switzerland can choose to be called FART and sell all the FART souvenirs it desires, but because of its small area of influence, most patrons will not be fazed.

For organizations with global aspirations, an international brand check can prevent embarrassing missteps. In addition to checking pronunciation and meaning of unabbreviated brand names, brand checkers and linguists can verify that acronyms and initials do not have any negative connotations.

Most of the initialisms above may be crude at worst. However, many other blunders can sound much more offensive, mimicking the most obscene adult language or racist slurs. In excluding the most obscene examples from this article, my intent is to be more family-friendly, not to downplay the potential risks of brands lost in translation.

When one U.S.-based political organization decided to rebrand, it first requested —wisely — that my colleagues and I perform an international brand check. The results showed that the organization’s proposed initials had no negative connotations in dozens of countries; however, in one small European country, the same initials were widely known to be associated with a violent racist group. Having acquired such knowledge ahead of time, the U.S.-based organization could plan to avoid an international public relations nightmare by changing its name or initials, either worldwide or at least in the problem country.

Fortunately, an initialism, TLA (three-letter abbreviation) or FLUA (four-letter unintelligible acronym) will rarely encounter the types of problems mentioned above. As with all this column's warnings about potential cultural blunders in, this is merely a tip that a low-cost brand check can help prevent the worst-case scenario of an embarrassing PR nightmare. Organizations wishing to mitigate such risk can perform a simple check through a translation company, a multilingual marketing agency or their own international networks.

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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