The brands that got lost in translation

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I have a pretty straightforward checklist for companies that are considering rebranding under a new corporate name – clear brand positioning, a strategic brand architecture, an integrated marketing launch plan and, top of the list, ensuring that the new company name doesn’t sound like ‘oral sex’ in one or more of the countries that it will soon be operating in.

That last hurdle would seem like the most obvious and easiest to negotiate. And yet companies seem to plough straight into it with remarkable frequency. Most languages, aside from English, are littered with ill-advised brands that got their naming horribly and hilariously wrong.

Take Spanish, for example. Remember when Mitsubishi named a sports utility vehicle the Pajero only to discover that the name literally means a crazy man who pleasures himself repeatedly into unconsciousness? Or the famous case when Purdue Chicken translated its classic slogan ‘It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken’ into a Spanish version that claimed: “It takes a hard man to make a chicken affectionate.” More recently, who can forget Nokia naming its new smartphone Lumia – Spanish slang for a prostitute.

And now we have Mondelez to add to the big, black book of brand naming mistakes. Only a week ago it was all looking so good. There was an army of Kraft executives using impressive words like “crowdsourcing”, “due diligence” and “higher purpose”. There was that survey of 1,000 Kraft workers and the clever idea of combining the ideas of an American and European employee into one. There was the pre-approved, pre-registered ticker symbol – MDLZ – ready to go on the New York Stock Exchange.

Umpteen focus groups had been conducted across 28 countries proving that the name was a winner. And there was an excited Kraft CEO who thought the name suggested “making today delicious” and her even more enthused CMO, who saw Mondelez as standing for “taking small moments in our lives and turning them into something bigger, brighter and more joyful”.

Now we have ‘Mondelez to add to the big, black book of brand mistakes

Just one small snag. The name sounds like the Russian for oral sex. Not only is the word itself unspeakable in polite Russian company, it’s unrepeatable in a whole series of Eastern European countries where Mondelez was planning to operate.

Great work, Kraft! You’ve managed to insult about 300 million Russian speakers and give the rest of the developed world a good laugh. Best of luck with that new employer branding campaign and the Moscow launch event.

Kraft is not the first company to invest in a Latinised brand name only to discover that it has unfortunate connotations. Barely a year passes without a company creating one of these new identities and then discovering an unintended, usually filthy, meaning for its new name.

What on earth is going on? I have a theory. I think Thor, the God of Branding, is angry.

Branding was invented by the Vikings. The word literally means to burn the mark of a founder or creator onto a product to claim ownership and communicate distinction. And so it was for thousands of years. Until the late 1990s when a small cadre of heretics emerged in the UK and the US. They rejected the authentic, original meaning of the branding concept and replaced it with faux Latin names like Diageo, Consignia, Altria, Corus and Ingredion.

These fake names were vaguely positive and easy for most cultures to pronounce. More importantly, despite being met with increasing scorn and ridicule from consumers, they were empty names that could be trademarked and used to create domain names that were instantly available in every market.

But they also meant nothing, literally. As a result they should not be confused with real brand names. In fact, they are the opposite of brands because rather than naming a company after a person or place or moment of culture, they are named by cold strategists who have replaced an emphasis on history and provenance with one predicated on emptiness and control.

And in a superb twist of fate, or perhaps the revengeful act of angry gods, many of these faux names have become cursed with unintended and unfortunate associations that have rendered them entirely useless. It’s a measure of just how badly many of these faux brands have fared that most marketers deem Diageo a raging success because it continues to mean nothing (positive or negative) a decade and a half after its creation.

The lesson for marketers, the real ones at least, is to respect the old ways. Name your companies, your products and your services after someone or something. Call me old-fashioned but I would rather take a trip on The Flying Scotsman than the 3.42 to Carlisle. And I’d rather buy my chocolate from a company named after a great man who did good deeds, than a sterile, confected concept which sounds like a sex act conducted in a housing estate east of Moscow.

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