BIK Terminology—

Solving the terminology puzzle, one posting at a time

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    Barbara Inge Karsch - Terminology Consulting and Training

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Brands, names and problems

Posted by Barbara Inge Karsch on March 20, 2011

The concept denoted by the term “brand” includes many different aspects of a product. Considering that it evolved from the common practice of burning a mark into cattle for identification, it certainly contains the aspect of marks or symbols.

In his book, brand failures, Matt Haig[1] says that ‘[b]rands need to acknowledge cultural differences. Very few brands have been able to be transferred into different cultures without changes to their formula.’ He then lists many of the well-known cases where translation errors or naming misfortunes did lasting damage to a brand:

Beavers in Redmond by BIK

  • Clairol’s Mist Stick curling iron launched in Germany: Mist is the German word for manure.
  • The Silver Mist car by Rolls Royce was not a good choice for the German language market for the same reason.
  • Rover connotes a dog; apparently, Land Rover had a problem selling cars; I am not sure that is still true. That connotation would obviously not bug me very much.

These are funny, if you are not the branding manager of the respective product. At Microsoft, product names, but also many feature names went through a process called a globalization review. A target language terminologist, who is a native speaker of the target-market language, reviews the suggested name for undesirable connotations in the target culture.

If the English name of a new feature is not to be retained in the target-language software, a so-called localizability review is performed. During this evaluation, the terminologist checks whether the connotations that the appellation has in English can be retained easily in the target language. They often try to find a designation that is very close to the original. If that is not possible, they will let the requesting product group know.

Here is a nice list of brand naming considerations offered by brand naming company, Brand Periscope, on their website:

  • easy to say and spell
  • memorable
  • extendable, has room for growth
  • positive feeling
  • international; doesn’t have bad meanings in other languages
  • available; from trademark and domain perspective
  • meaning, has relevance to your business

Sounds simple, but this terminology task is something that is forgotten very often. Product developers might have very little exposure to other cultures and/or languages and don’t think to include terminology or linguistic tasks or checks in their development process. When translators, localizers and terminologists point out a faux-pas, it often is either not taken seriously or it comes too late.

1. Haig, M., brand Failures: The Truth About the 100 Biggest Branding Mistakes of All Times. 2003, London: Kogan Page Limited. 309.


One Response to “Brands, names and problems”

  1. Licia said

    Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that the “magic words” politically correct are the only fail-safe way to ensure developers pay full attention to such issues!

    On a more serious note, elsewhere I remarked that globalization and localizability reviews require specific cultural competencies – the ability to recognize any characteristics that are peculiar to the language and culture of the source context and to identify any implicit information contained in the source text or visual items, compare them with the cultural framework of the local market and determine if they carry across also into the target culture.

    Although language professionals are usually well suited to provide meaningful contributions in this area, not all multilingual individuals are aware of cultural implications that might require attention; in some cases additional training might be necessary, especially for those based in smaller markets.

    At Microsoft, we used globalization (and localizability) review checklists which I developed to help ensure consistent input across languages, including E-2 (English as a second language), which helped us gather some very interesting input for English versions which might not have been so obvious to native speakers.

    PS You can add Irish Mist to the list of product names that didn’t work too well in the German market! 😉

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