Naming next

By Jemma Elliot

To kick off 2014, some of us at Wolff Olins have been getting to grips with naming challenges as part of broader client projects. We can’t talk about them in detail yet, but we can say that many of the organisations we’re working with have a presence in multiple markets. This means there’s lots to consider when deciding what they’re called. It got me thinking about the future of naming as a discipline.

When brand names help us quickly and easily express what we mean, we absorb them. I jot notes on Post Its, not pressure sensitive sticky papers, and I spend a disconcerting number of waking hours using PowerPoint, not a presentation graphics programme. We cling to euphemistic brand names that spare our blushes, which is why Viagra and Prozac entered the OED in 2001. When brand names are words for new technologies, we can only embrace them. What else would we call Velcro? The same goes for new behaviours. When there isn’t a pre-existing verb for an action that quickly becomes commonplace, the brand name is used as a verb. This is why I Skype and Google (but I don’t Bing – brand-verbs can’t co-exist). It’s something etymologists call anthimeria.  

Because of western capitalism and the scale of the English language, English speakers have been front of mind for name consultants. Organisations with international market ambition chose English names regardless of origin, hence Thai government-owned Thai Airways, Korean conglomerate LG Electronics, and Middle Eastern investment managers, Investcorps.

Tricky words were simplified so they were easy(ish) for English speakers to say. Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo became Sony, from the Latin for ‘sound’. Seikikogaku kenkyusho became Canon, Lianxiang - Lenovo and Nintendo Koppai dropped the last bit. At the same time, as western brands grew and Roman letters became a sign of sophistication in some markets, local brands like Korean café Twosome Place and retailer Bean Pole jumped on the bandwagon.

But the English language won’t forever be the biggest. The British Council predict Hindi, Arabic and Spanish will claim at least as many native speakers in 2050 and Mandarin leads the charge on that front. Chinese webpages are multiplying and as the Far East becomes a bubbling hotbed for the science and technology sectors, English may well be displaced there too.

Rising consumer power adds fuel to the fire. Despite some spluttering, the goods market in China is still growing by 13% annually and behemoth brands with western names are coming unstuck. Chinese relies on characters, rather than a phonetic alphabet, and every character is a drawing with layers of meaning. In this context, names have deep significance. Phonetic representations of brand names look limp and intentional meaning, literal or associative, is lost. Brands are now looking for homonyms that pack a semantic punch – no light undertaking – and specialist cross-cultural consultancies have been quick to fill a lucrative gap. This is how Reebok became Rui Bu, meaning ‘big steps’, Colgate is known as Gao lu jie, ‘revealing superior cleanliness’, and Coca Cola is Kekoukele, ‘happiness power’.

Beyond this new off-shoot of the naming industry, the language shift is having a more fundamental impact on brand names. Qatari telco Qtel leveraged its linguistic roots in a recent rebrand, becoming Ooreedoo – the Arabic for ‘I want’. Chinese telco Huawai, pronounced wah-way, decided to stick with their name in America and make a feature of the fact it’s hard to pronounce. Xiaomi, China’s answer to Apple with a larger market share than its American rival, hired an ex-Googler to focus on international markets and has no intentions of changing its distinctly Chinese name. Similarly, Shang Xia, a luxury, Hermes-backed brand founded in 2008, has just opened its first Paris boutique after success in Shanghai and Beijing.

The evidence is limited at the moment, but I’ve no doubt the movement will gather steam as markets gain confidence and stature. This means English speakers will be increasingly exposed to unfamiliar sounds. Initially challenging letter combinations will become recognisable and we’ll be able to pronounce them with ease.     

And when a brand comes along that’s impossible to describe using existing English words, we’ll absorb it. Language protectionists worry about the impact of Anglo-saxonisms in other languages – borrowed words in Chinese, the rise of Arabizi in Arabic, Gairaigo in Japanese and Franglais (je tweet, tu tweetes, nous n’avons plus de ‘hashtags’). Languages are already changing shape around the edges and English will too.

When choosing a brand name, this linguistic shift brings about four key considerations:

Carefully consider the potential of future, non-English speaking markets at the outset. If Chinese or Arabic-speaking consumers are likely to form an important target either now or in future, feed this in to the naming brief. Having foresight at an early stage avoids clumsy retrofits or costly re-brands at a later stage.   

Co-create with the specialists like linguists and native speakers of foreign languages. They’re invaluable. Bring them into brainstorming sessions and spend time face-to-face to explore possibilities. For existing brands, consumers should be considered specialists too. Why not open up the exchange with consumers and consult them directly? (For more on this exchange see our recent Game Changers report, The New Mainstream.)

Carry out cultural and local checks early because understanding potential problems at the outset saves time and heartache longer term. An initial disaster check will ensure your name doesn’t mean something unfortunate in another language or dialect. It’ll weed out issues linked to similar-sounding local brands. Google searches only go so far and it’s impossible to get the full measure of this stuff from your desk.

Play, invent and turn what may seem like frustrating parameters into positives. They’ll make your approach more creative, which is no bad thing. It might have all kinds of unexpected advantages.

For more thoughts on naming and the Wolff Olins’ approach, have a look at our naming handbook. We’d love to hear your experiences too - share thoughts with @wolffolins and @jemelliot1.     

Jemma Elliot is a lead strategist at Wolff Olins London. 

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    Great brand naming insights from one of my favorite agencies to work with. "Carefully consider the potential of future,...
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