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Associated Press
Show attendees look at a large display at the LG booth at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Saturday, Jan. 10, 2009.

When UK-based café chain Pret A Manger announced it would open two outlets in Paris, MarketingWeek columnist Mark Ritson noted a consistency problem for the international brand.

“To British ears, the Pret a Manger name conjures up associations of high quality cooking with a cosmopolitan twist,” said Ritson. “But Francophile readers will know that the name has rather mundane, low-end connotations when encountered by Gallic ears.

“Imagine a new London restaurant called Ready to Eat Food and you’ll get the idea. As my French friend Guillaume put it last week, gesturing to a newspaper announcing Pret’s French venture: ‘Le nom c’est un problème en France.’”

Many companies like Pret intentionally choose foreign-sounding brand names because of the images certain countries and regions help convey to consumers. As Ritson explained, to non-Francophiles, a French name related to food will probably conjure up visions of France’s famously excellent cuisine.

Some of my own colleagues in France disagree about why Pret’s brand name is a problem in that country, or whether it poses a problem at all. However, the question raises an interesting issue: many brand names, like Pret, chosen for their exotic sound may not work well when they return to the countries from which they were borrowed.

In Korea, the American sound of the brand name Lucky GoldStar evokes positive images of high quality. However, when labeling electronics in the United States, the same name sounds cheap and cheesy. U.S. consumers have taken the same company’s revamped brand names, Zenith and LG, much more seriously.

If you think you have a difficult time saying “Lucky GoldStar” with a straight face, try telling a friend about the PPPhone (pronounced “pee pee phone”), a VOIP software application from Japan. International Systems Research has seen a lot of success with this product and similarly named products like PPPush, but this success originated in Japan, where these names do not produce uncontrollable snickering. However, even after opening a branch office in Monterey, Calif., ISR has not seen fit to change its business-to-business brand names like LG changed its business-to-consumer brand names.

In markets where a product or company name seems foreign, branders have great liberty to create almost any desirable meaning. Sometimes that works well, and, although the brand may take on a whole new meaning where the language of the moniker is not understood, well-prepared companies can avoid worrying about their brand names sounding ridiculous upon an eventual return to the market that inspired the name.

Domo Technologies is a new business intelligence venture by Omniture co-founder Josh James that uses the foreignness of its brand name to its advantage. In addition to emphasizing the brand name’s Japanese origins in the expression “domo arigato,” meaning “thank you,” Domo’s marketing team is taking advantage of the opportunity to add even more of a positive flavor. In good humor, Domo’s launch party refreshments included fortune cookies stuffed with positive pseudo-definitions for terms incorporating the word “domo.” For example, one read, “Do∙mo’d (v) – Jimmer’d.”

The clothing retailer Aéropostale may have initially conveyed the original meaning of its French name – air mail – with aviation-themed store designs and merchandise in the 1980s. However, the brand’s modern meaning among clients is now far removed from its original references to France’s old Compagnie générale aéropostal. Most of the company’s customers, who double as walking Aéropostale advertisers, have no inkling of the word’s origins.

When a word is simply foreign and exotic, its meaning may not matter to the customer, particularly when it is used simply for the sake of style. Even within the country of origin, sometimes true definitions do not matter and the name can take on entirely new meanings.

Another clothing label, Hollister California by retailer Abercrombie & Fitch, has decided to present an image far different from that of the actual city of Hollister, Calif. The company claims to sell “SoCal-inspired clothing” often plastered with the “SoCal” abbreviation and allusions to surfing underneath its prominently displayed brand name. However, the city of Hollister, Calif., is actually a small farm town, with no beach, established in Northern California (NorCal) in 1868.

Personally, I would prefer to wear a T-shirt supporting the real town’s local high school sports teams, the Hollister Haybalers, but the clothing company’s large international customer base apparently prefers a more “exotic,” beach-themed image of California, even if that is not true to the city’s image.

Some companies like Pret and Hollister will succeed when borrowing words from other languages and locations, even when they repackage these “exotic” brands with completely different meanings. However, unless adapted, sometimes such names like Lucky GoldStar risk sounding ridiculous in the moniker’s native tongue.

The wannabe exotic brands that have the greatest chance of avoiding blunders – a la PPPhone – will be those that are crafted with a complete knowledge of their original and potential meanings.

As always, when dealing with branding in foreign languages, an ounce of preparation is worth a pound of cure.

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..