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

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.


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.

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.


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.

When PricewaterhouseCoopers (itself a combination of Price Waterhouse and Coopers & Lybrand) spun off its consulting unit they chose not to abbreviate but to create a completely new name. PwC Consulting worked with Wolff Olins, a branding consultancy, spending a reported $110m to come up with the name "Monday." As noted by the BBC noted the name was intended to denote a "fresh thinking and new beginnings, rather than the unwelcome start to the working week." However, the name was widely greeted with derision with many references to the lyrics from The Boomtown Rats' "I don't like Mondays." The name lasted five months and disappeared when IBM bought Monday and merged it into its prosaically named IBM Global Business Services. The BBC greeted the news with a tongue-in-cheek elegy titled, "R.I.P Monday" identifying the cause of the demise as "Mondayitis, a debilitating ailment associated with hangovers, lack of motivation and the recurring grumble of 'still four more days to go!'."

Sometimes a brand can turn mispronunciation to its advantage. The name Pepsi reportedly derives from the digestive enzyme pepsin. While it possibly a good thing that the name's origins remain little known, not everyone wants to think about digestive juices while seeking refreshment, Pepsi also proves difficult for Spanish speakers. They often resort to saying "Pecsi" or simply "Pesi." In Argentina the brand decided to make the most of this difficulty and developed a campaign announcing that 24% of Argentineans don't say Pepsi but Pecsi. The ad featured Mostaza (mustard) Merlo, a famous soccer player and coach well-known for adapting English soccer terms to be more suitable for Spanish pronunciation. The TV ad ended with the tagline "Drink Pepsi now. Drink Pecsi also." The campaign idea resonated well and was subsequently adapted for Spain with soccer player Fernando Torres who pronounces Pepsi as Pesi.


Pronunciation is probably the most common challenge faced by brands around the world. But names that mean something in their original language and culture often fail to travel. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal describes how Redalen, a bed sold by Swedish furniture chain IKEA and named after a town in Norway, sounds far too sexually explicit for Thai speakers. Of course, names do not have to be rude or fail to translate to carry unfortunate connotations. A couple of years ago in Japan I remember being nonplussed when faced with a vending machine selling among other things Pocari Sweat and Amino Calpis. I opted for the safer sounding C.C.Lemon.

Finding a name that works in every country is never easy but China may be the most challenging market of all for foreign brands. In China many Western brand names are expressed in Chinese characters (also known as sinographs). Some brands simply translate their brand name so that it will sound the same (or as close as possible) when pronounced. Others take the process a step further and imbue the name with relevant connotations: BMW translates to "precious horse," while the Chinese name for Ikea conveys "suitable for home." Perhaps the most famous translation is the one for Coca-Cola. When Coca-Cola was first sold in China local shop keepers tried to express the name phonetically using Chinese characters with sometimes bizarre results. Rather than suffer transliterations like "bite the wax tadpole," the Coca-Cola Company identified a combination of characters which sounds similar to the English pronunciation but also implies the brand will "permit the mouth to be happy."

Most brand names develop their meaning over time as the company seeks to promote what the brand stands for and the experience of using the brand adds a personal element to that meaning. But there is a lot of truth in the adage that "words have meaning and names have power." The trouble is that a powerfully constructive name in one context may be powerfully destructive in another. If first impressions count, then history suggests it worthwhile to investing to get the right name for a brand.