Naming Products Is No Game

For advice, big businesses often turn to consultants such as David Placek, whose insights can also help smaller outfits

Lexicon Branding's experts have been dreaming up product names for more than two decades -- and while you may never have heard of this 18-employee company, based in Sausalito, Calif., you see and hear its handiwork every day -- names like Dasani, Swiffer, and BlackBerry, to list just a few of its creations. Coming up with catchy product names is a lot harder than the layman might imagine, especially in this Global Age, when a word that might inspire admiration in one country can just as easily inspire red faces or unintended guffaws in another.

That's why, when a company is kicking around a name that it hopes will become a household word, it turns to an international network of linguists for their input, sometimes with surprising results. Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein spoke recently with David Placek, Lexicon's founder and president, about how his outfit taps into this global wisdom to avoid embarrassing and potentially costly gaffes. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Q: You developed language-evaluation methodology called GlobalTalk. What is it?


It's a network of high-quality linguists around the world under contract with us, so we can call on them to evaluate words for language and cultural cues and miscues. It started when we contacted a well-known professor of linguistics in Brussels and he put together this group of 35 professionals. They interact with us and each other, and discuss the real value of each name and the real weight of any negative issues before we make a report to the client.

The world is getting smaller and more interlinked, and we found a few years ago that our clients were getting more sophisticated. We developed GlobalTalk because we found that we could present 5 or 10 brand names to a client for their consideration, and they would start using language as a lever to quash them. They would call up the general manager of their Portugal office, say, and he'd shoot down the name based on something being wrong with it in Portuguese.

We decided we needed to build our own professional network and have them look at our names first, before the clients could shoot them down.

Q: How has it worked for you?


Very well. For instance, we were developing a brand name for a major medical-equipment manufacturer. The name was initially reported as sounding exactly like the native word for "mournful sorrow" to speakers in an important Far East market. But the GlobalTalk team from that country, with Lexicon branding experts participating, identified the issue to be with speakers who had no knowledge of English and perceived the word as a phonetic transcription for the native word.

We also quickly determined that this issue, which at first sent shockwaves through the company, was no reason to panic -- the target audience was extremely sophisticated and very familiar with the use of Western brand names in hospitals. A less informed and less responsive report may have...delayed the launch of the brand while the issue was investigated.

Q: What happens when those negatives are missed?


It can be very embarrassing, not to mention extremely expensive. For instance, pajero is a slang term for self-gratification in Spanish. It was also the name of a sport-utility vehicle selling in Japan. When it came time to market the SUV in the Americas, Mitsubishi had to change Pajero to Montero. The expense and inefficiency of having two sets of marketing materials for the same product goes without saying.

Recently, Buick was another car manufacturer that faced a gaffe attempting to select a global brand. The Buick Regal was due to be replaced by the Buick Lacrosse in the U.S. and Canada, but the change was put on hold when younger members of focus groups in Quebec told GM that "lacrosse" was, again, slang for self-gratification.

Q: Sounds like there's a lot of slang terms out there waiting to trip up a well-meaning name.


We find that about 50% of the names we put out to the network that get flagged have some mild or overt sexual connotation. We don't ever want to be part of a pajero incident -- that wouldn't be helpful at all to our credibility! And it's very easy to make a blunder, especially since the Internet makes any brand available to a global audience, and you don't want to turn anybody off.

For instance, one of our clients makes [a version of] Band-Aids called "3-M strips." We found out that in Japan, the only context for the word "strip" was the connotation of "striptease." We wound up creating a global name, "Nexcare," that works very well.

In doing some research, by the way, we found out that one of the most-repeated name blunders really wasn't a blunder at all. The idea that General Motors' (GM ) Chevy Nova didn't sell in Latin America because no va means "it doesn't go" in Spanish is nothing more than an urban legend.

Our experts, including the GlobalTalk team leader in Mexico City, Dr. Ricardo Maldonado, totally discredited that story as linguistically inaccurate. No va and Nova don't sound alike and are unlikely to be confused, Ricardo tells us, and "no va" is a very awkward way to describe a nonworking car, so the confusion just didn't happen. In fact, the Chevy Nova sells like crazy in Mexico.

Q: What other positive experiences has the company had with the international name-vetting network?


We created the brand name Zima for Coors (RKY ) with help from the GlobalTalk network. I put out a message saying that we were looking for a name for a light alcoholic drink that would be cold, crisp, and refreshing. I got a fax in quickly from our Russian linguist saying that zima meant "winter" in Russian. I circled the word because I thought it was beautiful and unusual, and the client loved it. We sent it around the world to make sure that it didn't have a negative connotation anywhere, and it didn't.

Q: You did a lot of work for technology companies during the dot-com boom. Did your consultancy suffer after the industry's dramatic downturn?


We really stayed very diversified, even during the boom years. We've always had clients like Proctor & Gamble (PG ) and Eli Lily (LLY ), and we had business in Europe and Japan that we never abandoned, even when it was tempting to do nothing but lucrative high-tech contracts. That policy paid off for us during the downturn in 2000, because our company didn't collapse, and we didn't even have to lay off anyone. We also stayed small, and we still work out of one office, which keeps our costs way down.

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