Louise George Kittaka
Feb 19, 2019

How to name a new brand in an age of global business

We explore the tricky business of christening a company or product destined for various different markets, without getting egg on your face.

Coca Cola in Mandarin (可口可乐 or 'ke kou ke le') means ‘delicious happiness’
Coca Cola in Mandarin (可口可乐 or 'ke kou ke le') means ‘delicious happiness’

It’s hard enough to create a winning name for a product or company for domestic use. Thinking up a moniker for a brand that’s born in one country but has global ambitions is a whole different ball game. This task is particularly challenging in a market like Asia, where so many different languages, writing systems and cultures come into play.

We asked branding and advertising industry insiders for their insights on the naming process and the factors that need to be taken into consideration, as well as some examples of successful names. But first, some that didn’t turn out as planned.

(Very) lost in translation

China can be a tricky market. Increasing numbers of global companies are trying to make an impact in China but sometimes things get a little confusing when it comes to names. One example is Airbnb China, when the brand launched in 2017. After months of careful consideration, a three-character moniker 爱彼迎 (ài bǐ yíng) was chosen and announced (see the promo video below). The individual meanings of the three characters are  “love”, “mutual” and “welcome”, so it seemed a good fit.  According to Airbnb’s official channel, the meaning denotes “let love meet each other” because “more and more Chinese travelers are getting to know interesting people through Airbnb around the world”.

However, many social media users weren’t enamored with the name. Critics howled that it sounded “clunky”, was difficult to pronounce, and carried less-than-salubrious connotations due to the “bi” sound in the middle (sometimes used to mean the equivalent of what English speakers call "the C word", in recent Chinese internet vernacular).

The internet and social media has a lot to answer for. While it was never really intended to be a global brand, an Osaka-based refrigeration company caused some unintended merriment online with the launch of their ubiquitous mascot character in 2013. It isn’t hard to see why — the character, a happy egg with wings, was christened “Fukuppy” in English letters. The name is a combination of the Japanese word for “good fortune” plus the English “happy”, and is also a nod to the company name, Fukushima Industries.

Unfortunately, along with the very obvious issue, some people also linked the name to the ongoing problems with the nuclear reactor in Fukushima prefecture at the other end of the country. The company subsequently removed the English lettering of the character’s name from their website. For the record, the “correct pronunciation” of the cheerful egg’s moniker is Foo koo pee.

Getting everyone on board

“If you’re targeting many markets, segments, dialects, etc. across a diverse region like Asia, go for widely understood naming conventions or sounds," says Samantha Hayden, director of strategy at Superunion in Singapore and an experienced international branding specialist. "And I can’t stress this next point enough: take time to understand the cultural context of your potential name — a linguistic disaster check is your best friend during the naming process.” 

“Naming is a fun process, but make no mistake: it’s also incredibly rigorous,” Hayden points out. “One of the biggest mistakes people make is going with a name that ‘feels good.’ My team and I understand the importance of imbuing strategy in the naming process, so we meet with clients to understand their strategic and creative parameters, and put together the very necessary creative brief to ensure alignment between our team and the client team.”

Takashi Fukuda, creative director and brand consultant with Dentsu Inc. in Tokyo, says that it is very important to include all parties in the naming process, while still ensuring that one person plays a central role. “Naming ideas can be gathered from multiple people, but one person should be responsible for organizing and selecting names. [You need to] have direct interviews with key stakeholders and clearly define the thoughts or concept behind new names. It is important to present many naming ideas, as well as having logic and the ability to explain them clearly.”

As a recent example of effective branding, Fukuda cites ABLIC, a Japanese analog semi-conductor manufacturer that adopted a new name in January 2018 after its capital structure changed. The new name combines the two words “ABLE + IC” (Integrated Circuit), symbolizing the company’s semiconductor technology that “makes the impossible possible”. 

“While defining the naming concept from interviews with the CEO, and narrowing down the naming ideas from the trademark checks in Japan, we also did a survey of overseas trademarks and ran checks with native speakers. And for the Chinese market, proposals by experts were also made,” says Fukuda. 

It’s all in the experience

According to Shinichiro Fukushima, a senior copywriter at international activation agency Geometry Global’s Japan office, protecting the brand you’re trying to promote should always be a priority. He notes that sometimes this means creating a new name when a well-established domestic brand goes international.

Calpis, for example, is a milk-based beverage widely loved in Japan. “'Cal’ comes from calcium and 'Pis' is from the Sanskrit word 'Salpis', which is one of the five tastes described in Buddhism,” explains Fukushima. “In English-speaking regions, however, the beverage is marketed as Calpico because the word 'Calpis’ sounds too much like 'cow piss’ in English. What matters most is to respect the market and its unique culture. And then you connect with the people you are talking to.”

Calpis and its sister version for English-speaking regions, Calpico

Charlotte Wilkinson, a branding specialist and the founder and director of Hello Sister, a Singapore-based firm that helps clients create effective marketing strategies to engage women, says adapting names for China can be even more challenging. “For much of the work I’ve done in China, products are really very new to market and we’re trying to establish what a consumer can experience when consuming, so in Mandarin the name may phonetically sound similar to English but the meaning may be more descriptive. For example, Coca Cola means 'delicious happiness’ or 'ke kou ke le’, whereas Lays Chips is 'le shi’ which means ‘happy things or moments,’” she explains.

Packaging is also a key consideration, she says, given the varying lengths of names and phrases in different languages. “Asian brand names can be a lot shorter in pack space demand but the reverse can be an issue when taking Asian brands global.”

Wilkinson advises always looking to the next stage when considering brand names. “Be future focused — consider what is the brand ambition, so that the core brand proposition still stands in the future and ultimately the name stands the test of time.”

While a winning brand name is highly desirable, it is still just one aspect of a successful launch. Leonard Le, senior strategic planner with UltraSuperNew in Tokyo, says: “Because Asian markets are so competitive and filled with a mix of local and foreign brands, a really good, memorable name ends up being only one part of the puzzle. It becomes increasingly important for brands to be at the top of their game in making clear the myriad reasons why their brands are unique and more compelling than their competitors. If successful with their communications, then a good brand name becomes the way to encapsulate all the brand associations built up in the minds of consumers.”

What’s in a successful name? A whole lot more than most of us probably realise.

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