In recent months, many heritage brands have had to come to terms with their harmful histories and culturally insensitive brand names. From acknowledging their perpetuation or promotion of stereotypes like Uncle Ben’s and Aunt Jemima, to recognizing their racist or sexist worldviews like Fair & Lovely, to taking on their appropriation of culture like the Washington Redskins, many long-standing brands have had to reconsider their identities: changing their logos, overhauling their packaging, and revamping their names.
While some might argue that these brands are simply vestiges of past worldviews, it was just last year Kim Kardashian West’s shapewear company went through a rapid rebrand given backlash surrounding the original name, Kimono, and its appropriation of Japanese culture. While Kardashian claimed her intent was “innocent,” the fact that such a name could launch in 2019 suggests that our work to evaluate brand appropriateness is never done.
As a naming firm with a multinational clientele, we’ve encountered challenges ranging from testing 33 names in 13 languages for eBay, to screening logo colors and shapes for Cisco, to fielding research in five distinct varieties of Arabic for an oil company. We understand as much as anyone the critical need to ensure that names are culturally and linguistically appropriate and appealing, and have put together the following four tips to help you navigate these sometimes treacherous waters.
1. Diverse client and creative teams
Variety is the spice of life—and diversity is a key ingredient to good naming. We often say that naming is highly subjective, influenced by personal feelings, experiences, and opinions. Because of this, we recommend decisions for global brands be made not by a single individual or homogenous committee, but by a more diverse group of stakeholders. A deciding body that varies in terms of role, gender, race, age, and other attributes creates necessary dimensionality, ensuring that more perspectives are heard and more life experiences valued.
When possible, the same should go for name creation and development of branding elements. The more eyes and brains on name candidates, the more opportunities to flag a problematic association, ensuring culturally insensitive brand names are weeded out from the get-go.
2. Customer research
People make perfect. When deciding on a global name, turn to those who have the buying power. Interviews with customers from prospective markets can shed light on how a name might work in different cultural contexts, as well as identify red flags or potential conflicts. This research can be done in person via focus groups or online via surveys, and can be folded into existing research around names’ fit to concept, consistency with company image, and overall market appropriateness.
3. Linguistic analysis
Getting lost in translation is all too easy for global brands, even if you’re not actually translating a name. To avoid creating a confusing and even hurtful brand beyond your borders, turn to linguistic research, which can help determine if your brand name is free of negative associations in languages outside of English and in markets outside of the US.
When it comes to selecting a naming or research firm, we recommend opting for those with vast networks of linguistic experts, at least three per language. Each expert should speak the language natively, be fluent in English (to communicate linguistic nuance), and live in the target country (a Spanish speaker in Mexico may not pick up cultural connotations in Spain). Once you’ve chosen a firm, make sure they’re asking all the right questions:
- What is the general pronounceability of the name?
- What are the existing brands or names that are similar to that being considered?
- And, most importantly: Are there any negative or inappropriate connotations in the respondents’ language or culture?
4. Ongoing Evaluation
When it comes to branding, the work is never done. While a brand created today may seem inoffensive, the world is not static; judgments about what’s acceptable are constantly evolving. You should regularly turn a critical eye to your brand in the years following its launch. If the brand becomes hurtful, you must address the issue head on. Whether it’s changing the name (like Squaw Valley), tweaking packaging (like the Land O’Lakes maiden image removal), or reversing a former view (Gillette taking on the image of masculinity it once promoted), proactive accountability is the answer. No brand is so famous or so embedded in modern life that it can’t be evolved. Acknowledging fault and bringing about a change signal to consumers that you really do care about them and what they think.
Lasting brands steer clear of culturally insensitive brand names
Creating a strong and positive brand may seem like a tall order, but widening your lens, doing your due diligence, and keeping an ongoing pulse on your brand can lessen your chances of creating something problematic—and ultimately costly. With enough legwork, you might count yourself among brands with lasting legacies.
Laurel Sutton is a co-founder of Catchword, a naming firm with offices in the Bay Area and New York City. She is also the Vice President for the American Name Society and a trained linguist with a Master’s Degree in linguistics from UC Berkeley. (Learn more about linguistic analysis from Laurel on the How Brands Are Built podcast.)