More 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

My vacation in Japan helped me understand firsthand how consumers in other markets perceive U.S.-branded products. Or at least “hear” U.S.-branded products, because the mere sound a spoken brand name makes can determine that product’s success. Or so I heard. In addition, wordplay and subtlety make no difference to consumers in other markets who don’t get the meanings.

Instead, simplicity may be the better tactic when going abroad. To illustrate, here is a small sampling of products from three of the top native Japanese consumer-goods companies. Note how simple, generally speaking, the names are, and how they accord as a rule to the pattern of Japanese words (Japanese words, almost without exception, consist of relatively short strings following the pattern, consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel): Sunstar products such as GUM, Ora2, Butler, and Sunstar Tonic; Lion products such as Clinica, Dentor, Between/Between Maxi, Etiquette, and Hitect; and Kao Corp. products such as Merit, Pure Whip (soap), Sofina, and Oriena.

Given these successes, I arrive at two more rules, in addition to the first two I shared in my June 2006 column:

• Adopt a naming and testing process that generates a higher percentage of usable names. I met with professionals at a healthcare company in Japan to discuss naming, and they said that names generated in the United States were not Japan-friendly, that is, many of them “sounded strange.” Of course, the holy grail of naming—a universally usable name—is perhaps unattainable. However, it is possible to come up with a process that minimizes names with poor or mediocre usability internationally. I recommend two simple and cost-effective measures. Your core naming and steering teams should include several nonnative English speakers with international marketing experience as well as nationals from your key markets. They should provide feedback early and often in the process on name pronounceability and meaning.

Unless you have a monopoly, it’s insufficient to say: “they’ll figure out how to say it.” Too much is at stake in this global marketplace, and there is far too much competition. Not to mention the risk of confusing consumers with a name similar to another in the market (as in the case of Zyrtec and Zyprexa).

• Listen to the market before you follow simple rules like these. These rules will, I believe, yield a higher percentage of names that work in Japan. And rules like these apply, with some basic modification, to the conventions in many other languages. But in the end, the voice of the customer trumps any simple list of guidelines. A trip to the pharmacy in Yokohama will still uncover a number of exceptions to the rule—brand names that seem to be tongue twisters or that contain difficult foreign words. Listerine, for example, is widely popular in Japan, with some Japanese mistaking it for a native Japanese product. Unfortunately, there is no easy analysis to determine whether the name succeeds because of this strangeness or despite it.

The market position and distribution and pricing strength of certain products may be credited, rather than a particular attribute of the brand, or it may buck the odds because of an enormous advertising budget. In the end, though, smart marketers play the percentages, and the above rules should give you better than even odds in the name game.


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