OPINION

Lost in Translation: Corporate Branding

Is your corporate image sending messages of love, hate, profanity or sobriety? No matter how and where you travel, with or without your products or your corporate image, the chances are that a lot of your marketing messages are getting lost in translation as they make their way around the globe.

Business names are being hit the hardest as the world becomes smaller and companies go global. Each one of us is now spinning in a mix of international alphabet soup of strange names and terminologies. You invent something new, send out a release, the media talks about it and, within seconds, it becomes an international item.

Your business name image might end up as a great universal message or emulate some strange and confusing messages with insults or profanity. But why?

A Trunk Call to Britannia

Like it or not, from the Greeks to the Koreans or from the quiet Zen masters to the chanting Buddhists, all will try to figure out the meaning of your great message and the name of your new gizmo as you push for an international audience.

Thanks to several historical factors, including colonization, the largest global population is increasingly tied to a string of 26 alpha characters in English. Today, even in the oldest and remotest jungles, some form of English is spoken.

For that and for many other reasons, English-based naming has been the norm for corporate business nomenclature because it always has provided some measure of sobriety and universal understanding.

It is true that the other half of the global populace is still non-English speakers, but the process of corporate naming can seriously risk the future of a company by picking an exotic non-English word as a corporate name to gain quick attention or to cure a lingering corporate image problem.

Emotional Break-Dance

For example, a press release announcing a new company, KumangaTeq, would struggle to explain the meaning of the name in the first paragraph. “Kuman” means “mighty leader” in Serbio-Latin, and “manga” means “a very sweet mango with firm body” in Sanskrit. “Therefore,” the press release might say, “this fits our very unique branding tagline — curved for power and technology — and it matches our curvy logo design.”

At times, this holistic, homeopathically driven and overly emotional strategy is like going from the frying pan into the fire. Talk about an emotional break-dance. KumangaTeq would be a good name if its customers were all located in northern Calcutta around some Sanskrit temples, or in Croatia where there are still a few villages with traces of Serbian-Latin dialects.

In Manhattan, and in most major cities around the world, KumangaTeq would be considered bad at best.

Business Naming Trajectory

This type of naming problem is repeated just about every day around the globe. Of the hundreds of new names of various businesses — including product and service announcements — many strange names emerge every single day. True, such names fade away after the initial funding stops the branding fireworks.

They then go out deeper into other jungles, searching for new words, hoping to combine those words with other marketing pushes. During the last few years, thousands of such foreign corporate names were adopted with the weirdest stories of their cute origins. Surly this corporate branding technique will eventually exhaust itself.

Now you know why corporations change their names so many times.

The false rumor that all names in English are gone is just a branding cop-out. There are millions of great English language names available with global trademark potential, but what is missing is the knowledge to develop them as clear global corporate name identities. Focus groups and randomly pooled exotic name lists is not the way.

No Mai Mai

“Nay” is yes to Greeks. The American “yeah” means “no” to the Japanese. To the British, long distance is a “trunk,” sister a “nurse” and elevator a “lift.” A simple laugh — “ha, ha, ha” — means “mother” in Japanese, while “Ohio” means good morning. In Russia, “looks” means “opinion” and “socks” means “juice.”

In France, a simple sign of “sale” means “dirty.” The Chinese word “mai” said in a certain style means to “buy” and in another style to “sell.” When enunciated together, “mai mai” means “business.”

To appreciate this issue further, I should point out that despite the seeming dominance of English, there are some 2,700 different languages with 8,000 dialects around the world. Altogether, there are 12 important language families with 50 lesser ones. Indo-European is the largest family in which English is the most important category.

Based on usage by population, the following is a list of major languages in descending order: Chinese, English, Hindustani, Russian, Spanish, Indonesian, Portuguese, French, Arabic, Bengali, Mali and Italian.

The globalization of e-commerce and the use of digital branding for domain names point to a serious need for special sets of skills when it comes to corporate name branding.

We all better be wary of language issues. After all, the customers are no longer just on our streets, they are now all over the globe. Better learn to name correctly or pick up Chinese so at least you can properly enunciate “no mai mai” — meaning there is no more business left.


Naseem Javed, author Naming for Power and also Domain Wars, is recognized as a world authority on global name identities and domain issues. Javed founded ABC Namebank, a consultancy he established a quarter century ago, and conducts executive workshops on image and name identity issues. Contact him at [email protected].


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