Branding Rules Inspired by My Japanese Vacation

Studying the Japanese market firsthand and talking with consumers yields some interesting insights. This is the second column in what is now a three-part series on English in global product branding.

By Robert Sprung

Given the opportunity to write about their vacation in Japan, many people would focus on the temples of Kyoto or the fish market of Tokyo. But, then again, they wouldn’t be in a position to pen an article on branding issues for a packaging magazine. My unusual trip included a visit with a healthcare products company, many trips down the aisles of the local pharmacy, and numerous conversations with typical Japanese consumers (in the spirit of full disclosure, they include my in-laws) about which brand names work well in Japan and which ones don’t. I’ve distilled the essence into a few reasonably simple rules. These rules cost little to follow, but they can yield significant benefit or help you avoid potential embarrassment, regardless of your target market.

Two rules are suggested here, and in our July 2006 issue, two more, plus a list of product brand names that work.

• Take the time to understand the basics of how the Japanese language works. The rule applies not only to Japanese, but also more generally to any of your large target markets. Given many of the brand names currently developed, American marketers often are unaware of even basic rules of how words are put together abroad. Japanese words, almost without exception, consist of relatively short strings following the pattern, consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel. You can cite as examples just about any Japanese brand names you already know: Sony, Yamaha, Honda, Shiseido. Names that deviate markedly from this structure have the danger of becoming tongue twisters. Best to avoid strings of consonants, silent letters, and names with multiple l’s and r’s. Easier said than done—these issues are rife in U.S.-generated names.

A point made by several Japanese natives with whom I spoke: “It matters much more how a name sounds than what it means.” Some of the examples of popular consumer brands mentioned above bear this out—as do some of the names that sound funny to our ears, such as Creep. (Creep is the top brand of powdered coffee creamer in Japan; the word has no actual meaning to the Japanese.

• If you’re using English, keep it super-simple. In the prior piece in this series, “Is English Good Enough?” (Pharmaceutical & Medical Packaging News, March 2006), we wrote about how “broken English is the world’s language.” Depending on your market, you can generally assume that consumers abroad have some familiarity with English. But you assume too much if you believe that knowledge includes any level of wordplay or subtlety. Names that sound clever here generally lose much if not all of their impact abroad. Unfortunately, wordplay or cleverness is the hallmark of much naming, so the danger is producing names that are easy to pronounce and understand, but are lifeless.

You can also never take for granted what an English word means abroad. In Japan, the word “foam,” because of its early introduction in certain product names, is broadly associated with a face wash; using it to signify shampoo or mouth rinse might raise eyebrows. Finally, keep in mind that many product names, even those based on English words, will end up in Japanese characters. Words that play on the look of English letterforms may lose much of their visual punch (the flipside: Japanese transliteration can give the consumer a clear roadmap at pronouncing an otherwise difficult English name).



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