What's in a 品牌? How to Name a Company in a Global Economy

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Every parent and start-up dreads and appreciates the challenge of naming. It's even harder when your brand has to travel. That which we call Coca-Cola does not, by any other language, sound as sweet.

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I used to think that Haagen-Dazs meant something. I presumed the origin was Scandinavian. In fact, the name means nothing in any language and originates from the Bronx. But the name does carry implicit meaning, just as founder Reuben Mattus intended when he and his wife started brainstorming names. Faced with a growing price war, Mattus decided not to take part but instead chose to make the very best ice cream he could and charge a premium for it. The Haagen-Dazs name was intended to signal that the brand was imported from Denmark, well-known for its diary industry.

As Matthus recognized, a good brand name can be a powerful asset. At the very least a brand name serves to distinguish a product or service from its competitors. At best a brand name can infer meaning that helps define what the brand stands for. And at worst a brand name can open a company up to ridicule.

Companies know that brand names have power and these days they are sometimes pay millions to develop a new one. In these days of global commerce getting the right brand name is particularly important. Some names simply don't travel well.

A NAME THAT TRAVELS IS HARD TO FIND

If you have ever named a child, you know that choosing a name is not easy. As a school teacher my father was well aware that names can be used for good or ill. Kids will seize on anything unusual and turn it into a nickname that is hard to shake off. So my parents labored long and hard to come up with names for my brother and I. "Nigel" proved to be a good choice, particularly now I reside in the US where it is unusual but easy to pronounce and therefore memorable.

In China, Coca-Cola transliterated to "bite the wax tadpole." But a subtle language tweak implied "permit the mouth to be happy."

The origins of brand names are varied and many. The Nokia name originated in 1871 and was named after a town near one of the company's original wood pulp mills. In 1933 German chancellor Adolf Hitler ordered Ferdinand Porsche to develop a car for the masses and the Volkswagen was born (literally, the name means "people's car" in German). In 1946 Tot'em Stores (so called because of the signature totem pole placed outside each store) became 7-Eleven, reflecting the new hours of operation. These names have stood the test of time and language to become well-known around the world.

Many familiar brands simply originate from their founder's names. Henry Ford gave us the Ford Motor Company. Frederick Miller gave us the Miller Brewing Company And Sam Walton gave us Wal-Mart. Brand names like these are simple and straightforward. They are "what it says on the tin." They tell you who founded the business and what the company does.

My own company's name -- Millward Brown -- shows how difficult it can be to take a local brand international. Millward Brown sounds simple enough to the British. But even in the U.S. the name "Millward" is often abbreviated to "Millard" or turned into "Millwood." Imagine then, the problems the name poses in Mexico, China or Brazil. The Brazilian alphabet did not even include a "W" until 1990, a double "L" is unheard of, and no words end in a "D." In many countries Millward Brown is often simply referred to as "MB."

But one solution that worked in Latin America created more problems in another part of the world. The MB abbreviation was impossible to use in Korea, since Korean President, Lee Myung Bak ( 이명박 ) is referred to in the media as simply "MB." Some of his political initiatives use these initials, like "MBnomics" for his fiscal policy and the "MB Doctrine" for his foreign policy. Our social research division is normally introduced as "MB Social Research." But that could sound awfully like a Big Brother-ish campaign on the part of the Korean government to research its citizens' personal lives. So we changed the name, yet again.

ACRONYMS AND ACRIMONY

Abbreviating a name to its initials is a common strategy when an original brand name proves hard to pronounce, no longer serves its purpose of becomes unwieldy. BP is more suitable for an international company than British Petroleum. Similarly the British Broadcasting Company became the BBC and International Business Machines Corporation became IBM. GSK is less of a mouthful than GlaxoSmithKline.

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Nigel Hollis is chief global analyst at Millward Brown, a global market research company. He is the author of The Global Brand, published in 2008 by Palgrave Macmillan, and blogs at Straight Talk with Nigel Hollis.

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