Should international brands change their names?

brandnamesIn a recent Advertising Age article, Al Ries writes about how international companies may need to change their names in order to be well-received by the international market.  There are a lot of famous gaffes that very much attest to this – like the ones in this gem of a list.

But what I found problematic is that Ries doesn’t seem to clarify often enough that he’s talking about “sometimes”, not “always”.  All I could think of – and I imagine a lot of fellow readers were like me – is that there are numerous examples of international brands and products keeping their names and thriving in the global market, from the popularity of sriracha sauce in the US, to the worldwide ubiquity of IKEA, whose furnishings usually bear Swedish monikers.

At one point in his article, Ries writes about Kremlyovskaya vodka.  It’s the most popular brand of the drink in Russia, but it’s had no success in the US market.  For Ries, this is because the company kept its hard-to-pronounce (well, unless you’re Russian) name.  But personally I think it might be more about bad marketing.  For example, Stolichnaya is a highly successful Russo-Latvian vodka brand that’s kept its name.  But for international customers who don’t want to or can’t pronounce it, the company has encouraged calling it, simply, “Stoli”.  In fact, if you look for the brand’s official website, you’ll find yourself headed to “stoli.com”.

Another thing Ries doesn’t address is that some brands are successful in spite of, or even because they have foreign names.  Think about fashion: not everyone, as Kanye West mockingly reminds us in his song “All Falls Down”, can pronounce “Versace”, but they still want something from the designer!  And that’s far from the only couture brand with a name that might be tough for international consumers to pronounce.

If you’re looking for a more academic source, this study from researchers at the University of Cologne and the University of Waikato confirms what many of us probably know already, just from shopping in our daily lives: some brands will use names that suggest other countries or cultures, in order to piggyback on their reputation. For example, Issey Miyake, a Japanese designer, uses French names for his perfumes – like many others, for that matter, whether high-end couture brands or dollar store eau de toilette manufacturers!

I’ve seen the same phenomenon in France, where many local businesses or even national brands will use English words and phrases in their product names, in order to evoke the “cool” cachet that our language has here.  Sometimes, if you’re actually from an English-speaking country, the names don’t make much sense, like McDonald’s France’s recent sandwich offering, the Double Shiny Bacon (I mean, bacon can indeed be shiny, but it’s not really an adjective we’d tend to use, and probably not in a positive way…).

So if you have a brand that you’re dreaming of going global with, you don’t necessarily have to change its name.  But one thing pretty much everyone agrees on is that it’s vital to do research before entering a new market.  If your company’s name is hard for international consumers to pronounce, remember successful brands like IKEA and Stoli, and get creative, or hire a marketing team.  And it’s also not a bad idea to find a translator who not only knows the local mindset, but will also know right away if your brand name seems obscene, off-putting, or downright bizarre to your new potential clientele.  If you don’t do any of this, you run a pretty high risk of abysmal sales or earning a place on a list of translation mistakes like the one I mentioned before.  Which is great for me, because I love reading and chuckling over those lists, but otherwise something you most likely want to avoid.

by Alysa Salzberg

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