Localizing brand names

When a company enters new markets it needs to determine its company brand and product name strategy. There are three core options for this: maintain source English names; transliterate the names using the local language character set; or transcreate the names.

Each of these paths will bear significant consequences on brand positioning. These considerations affect not only written localized text for web, user interface (UI) and documentation, but also audio recordings in localized multimedia for multicultural offerings. In audio production, for example, the voice talent will need to adhere to the company brand messaging strategy and comply with the pronunciation, elongation and accent fitted to the requestor’s choice. When selecting the voice talent for a localized audio production, localizers should also consider cultural elements that enhance the corporate brand in the target markets. Cultural elements, for example, would include use of a voice gender (female or male), voice tone (formal or colloquial) and voice accent (focusing on a particular region in market or targeting a generic locale, thereby applying a more “standard” accent).

In some markets where English is widely understood, such as India, Germany or Israel, it is acceptable to leave the product or brand name in English. They will be understood, at least for the most part, and the corporate branding will be maintained. In India, for example, multinationals prefer to maintain English brand names, as English is widely used in India, especially in urban areas. Name transliteration in India would be relevant only if the company is targeting rural regions. Devanagari, the principal script for writing several languages in India — Hindi, Marathi, Sanskrit — is phonetic. Therefore, name transliteration is a fairly straightforward process.  

The downsides of keeping company or product names in English include the risk of not being understood by the few in-market consumers who do not read English letters. There are also issues of bidirectional text in mixed language string display. For example, a localized application into a right-to-left language, such as Hebrew, Arabic or Urdu, will have within the same string both right-to-left localized text and the left-to-right text of names left in English. This will cause word inversion bugs during testing once the localized application is compiled. An example of that is iPhone’s localized Hebrew UI version. When the English brand names — MobileMe, iPhone, Apple Store — appeared at the beginning of the strings, there were no text inversion bugs. However, when the English names appeared in the middle of strings, in between Hebrew words, word and letter inversion bugs occurred. Apple had to develop a tool that identifies problematic strings up front and flags them for translators.  

This decision whether to leave a name in English or to localize depends on the target locale, target audience and vertical. This leads us to option number two, transliteration. In some languages, name transliteration from English to target languages may be a seamless process maintaining the original name phonetic pronunciation using the local character set. However, in some other languages, this could be a tricky and tormenting task. This is where the Western phonogram clashes with the Eastern ideogram. These two systems, language for the ears vs. language for the eyes, could even be considered opposites.

 The main considerations in name transliteration are to ensure that the transliterated name is pronounceable in the local language and to ensure the transliterated name doesn’t bear any negative connotations. In Mandarin, name transliteration is a complex task and requires much in-market research and knowledge of current trends, political sensitivities and regional preferences. A classic example for global brand name transliteration into Mandarin is Coca-Cola. When the company decided to launch in China in 1927, it faced the problem that Chinese script is not phonetic. The Chinese writing system is logographic and ideographic, meaning each symbol represents one idea. To find the nearest phonetic equivalent to Coca-Cola required a separate Chinese character for each of the four syllables. Out of the 40,000 characters, only about 200 were close enough in pronunciation, and many of these implied negative connotations. The company finally chose a sequence of characters that would sound similar to Coca-Cola and means “to allow the mouth to rejoice.” However, when read, these characters could also mean “bite the wax tadpole” in Mandarin. Another example is the company name Google. In Mandarin, the l sound is difficult to pronounce. Therefore, Google resorted to rebranding its search engine to Gu Ge in China. 

Unlike Chinese, Korean characters are phonetic, not ideographic. Therefore, it is simpler to transliterate a source English name into Korean, mirroring same or similar pronunciation of the source English name. 

In Japanese, the katakana character set is designed for foreign name transliteration. That said, there are certain sounds in the source English that cannot be transferred in katakana because they are not easily pronounced in Japanese. For example, it is standard to replace v with b and th with s for name transliteration into Japanese, to accommodate for pronunciation issues. In the case of v, however, the unconventional katakana ヴ would be used in some cases on a preferential basis. For example, Vogue is transliterated as ヴォーグ which includes the v sound, rather than ボーグ representing the b sound. Beth is transliterated as ベス (Beh・su) with the s sound because no alternative katakana character is available. Another issue to consider for Japanese transliteration is elongation, where the length of the vowel is stretched to reflect the desired accent and emphasis. For example, some companies prefer to transliterate the word user as ユーザ (yu・u・za), keeping the end vowel sound short, while others would prefer to transliterate as ユーザー (yu・u・za・a). 

Yet another challenge in katakana is multiple transliteration options for the same source English word. For example, the word manager can be transliterated as マネジャ、,マネジャー、,マネージャ、or マネージャー. These are all preferential alternates, defined by the company’s approved styles. Hence, it is important to establish a transliteration glossary for name usage across the different content components and platforms.

There are plenty of examples of transliterated company and product names that carried negative connotations in the target market. Oness launched its security door lock product into 14 languages, bearing the original brand name. This worked perfectly in 13 markets, but the company had failed to realize that in Israel Oness means rape. The Turkish beer Efes likewise lost its chance to reap revenue in Israel, one of its exported target markets, just because of its inappropriate name transliteration. Efes means loser in Hebrew. 

When Procter & Gamble wanted to launch their soap product Dreck to US consumers 70 years ago, they discovered that it sounded like the German and Yiddish words for dirt, garbage, body waste and another four-letter pejorative word. Since Procter & Gamble was proactively researching its name branding acceptance, thankfully, the company changed the name to Dreft. Somewhat similarly, Paxan Corp., an Iranian company, produces a line of soaps and detergents under the name Barf. This word means snow in Persian, and hence is most appropriate to the product. In English-speaking markets, however, the product name doesn’t serve as an optimal marketing pitch. Likewise, the Japanese sports drink Pocari Sweat doesn’t do service to the product among English speaking consumers.

The third option is to transcreate and provide a new appropriate name in the target language that bears the brand messaging or carries the conceptual translation of the source English name. For example, the company Shell Oil chose to translate the meaning of the external skeleton of a mollusk in Mandarin: 壳.

Based on the company’s global brand strategy and international market usability and visibility expansion, transcreating the company name may be a fitting choice. Ensuring that transliterated names carry positive or neutral association in the locale market, and are easily pronounceable, also apply to transcreated names. A name or icon bearing a negative connotation will drown the brand. For example, Twitter’s high visibility egg icon alludes to a sensitive or offensive association in the Arab culture.  Additionally, ensure the transcreated name is available in the locale market.

Google registered its Gu Ge brand name in China only seven days before another company, Gu Ge Technology, did. Gu Ge Technology actually sued Google, but lost in the trial. Corona, the Mexican beer producer, had to negotiate in different countries to secure its name, which means crown in Spanish. Corona eventually adapted its name to Coronita in Spain, as a compromise.  

In the medical industry, name evaluators generally develop a “name safe” test to make sure that an anti-depressive, for example, does not sound too similar to a strong tranquilizer, or that the name does not get lost in the doctor’s handwriting. In the pharmaceutical industry, naming a product is literally a matter of life and death. According to the FDA, 13% of medication errors stem from name confusion. 

Suggested source English names considered for transliteration or transcreation in international markets should follow a name evaluation process to ensure brand names are appropriate. The names should be submitted in a survey to three validated in-country linguists who conduct the market research and provide a report suggesting alternative names if the source words bear negative connotations, are difficult to pronounce locally, are not available or are easily confused with another brand name.