Warning: Foreign-Sounding (or Foreign-Looking) New Business Name

In 1915, California farmers banded together to rename the ahuacate, a pear-shaped fruit with pebbly skin and an oversized pit inside. They knew this Aztec word was hard for Americans to pronounce, and the Spanish version of the name, aguacate, was just as difficult for them. The new made-up name they agreed upon, avocado, sounds vaguely Latin American but does not present pronunciation problems for English speakers.

Those California farmers wisely recognized that an unfamiliar product with an unfamiliar name is hard enough to market, and when it also has a name whose sound patterns are unfamiliar to the ears of the public, that’s one success barrier too many.

Foreign names for companies or products sometimes do very well in the American market. We also see plenty of pseudo-foreign names – created by misapplying spelling patterns found in foreign languages. For example, “soleil” is the French word for sun. When a suntan lotion placed a circumflex mark over the “o” in “soleil,” it created fake French. Such names can appeal to those who have a slight knowledge of the foreign language – enough to recognize foreign implication but not enough to identify its implementation as wrong.

Use the following four-point checklist to make sure you’re branding well by giving your name a foreign flavor rather than burdening your creation with a seriously disadvantageous name.

  1. Does the spelling create uncertainty? A Chinese appliance company uses the brand name Haier for its Germanic implication of technical quality. However, with that spelling, an English speaker might pronounce it either HIGHer or HAYer.

  2. Likewise, imagine someone confronting the brand name Pricci for the first time. It might be meant as an Italian surname, but that still leaves open whether it should sound like “preachy” or like PREEsee – or even like a cheeky spelling of “pricey.” Hesitation over pronunciation hurts word of mouth publicity.

  3. Are there diacritical marks? These include accent marks, the umlaut (two dots over a vowel, common in German), the o-slash (??) in Danish and Norwegian, the tilde (that little squiggle over the “n” in Spanish words like se??or) and many others. Sometimes these are added because they are needed to be correct in the foreign language that is the source of the name, and sometimes, as with the suntan lotion with the extra circumflex, these are added solely for effect. Either way, the marks signal foreignness and make a reader slow down and consider how to say the word.

  4. Note that many people don’t know how to type special characters. And on the web, some browsers and email readers don’t interpret those special characters correctly. Consequently, brand names with accents, circumflexes, umlauts, tildes and o-slashes often get butchered in writing. (I’ve mostly avoided using them in this article for that reason.) If your media coverage and bloggers leave them out, then your branding becomes inconsistent.

  5. Does the written name seem totally forbidding to your target audience? It’s not surprising that no one, as of this writing, has yet snagged the domain XuStore.com even though it would be pronounced “Shoe Store,” because the name Xu (also written Hsu in another transliteration system) flummoxes Westerners who do not speak Chinese. I understand that the common Vietnamese name Nguyen is pronounced nWEN, but that’s another one that many Westerners encountering it for the first time would not even dare to try.

  6. A foreign company name might also seem forbidding mainly because it’s long and contains syllables that have to be painstakingly sounded out. For example, both

    Kamehameha Kites, named after a Hawaiian king, and Vneshtorgbank (a large Russian enterprise which is now called Bank VTB), would give many Americans pause.

  7. Is your target market clueless when it comes to foreign languages? A customer base that has traveled widely and knows one or two non-English languages generally takes a hard-to-say foreign name in stride better than a stay-at-home population of English-only folks.

My advice is that a “yes” to more than one of the above four questions indicates too high a risk for your naming. Just one “yes,” however, could make for a cool invention. Remember H??agen-Dazs? That premium ice cream brand got a massive boost from its fake-Swedish name. Despite its umlaut and weird alphabetical sequences, it has only one probable pronunciation – and sophisticated, well-heeled consumers took to it like, well, a scrumptious treat.

Copyright ?? 2010 Marcia Yudkin

— Marcia Yudkin is Head Stork of Named At Last, a company that brainstorms creative business names, product names and tag lines for clients. For a systematic process of coming up with an appealing and effective name or tag line, download a free copy of “19 Steps to the Perfect Company Name, Product Name or Tag Line”

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