Contributed by Peter R. Geyer
There is an old marketing tale (that is handily debunked here) about how back in the 1970s Chevrolet tried to market the Nova automobile in Mexico, only to find that it sold poorly. When they looked into the matter, they discovered that “Nova” in Spanish could be read as “no va” which roughly means “doesn’t go.”
While it turns out that this story is not actually true, it does demonstrate the usefulness of having somebody familiar with your new overseas target market actually review your product, its marketing, and its positioning prior to release. What may seem like an awesome name or marketing strategy in one language or culture, may actually end up sending all the wrong signals in another language or culture. Even the best product in the world can be an unnecessary burden if it unintentionally sends the wrong signals to its international customer base.
As I have had occasion to walk around Berlin since moving here in 2013, I have run across several businesses that appear to be very successful here in Germany, but that I think would have a tougher time in the North American marketplace. I make my comments here with absolutely no malice or ill will. I declare upfront that I have absolutely no relationship with any of these companies, and that I have no idea whether they currently have, will have, or ever have had any plans to expand into North America. I merely offer my own unsolicited observations based purely on their names.
If you have been to a train station anywhere in Germany, you have probably seen the bakery shop Le Crobag. Since 1981, this award-winning Hamburg-based bakery franchise has offered freshly prepared croissants, sandwiches, breads, and other tasty sundries to commuters and other travelers from 120 stores located in train stations and transport hubs. It is an excellent concept – selling high-quality, freshly prepared products in high-volume and low-cost, to consumers who are on the move and don’t have time for a more substantial meal – and from what I can tell as a casual observer, it is a reasonably well-executed model. With a website that is not only in German, but French, Polish, and English, it would appear that Le Crobag has aspirations of international expansion.
What is up with that name?
When the company was first founded, Le Crobag was originally Le Croissant, but I assume that name was changed because the original name was too generic. Unfortunately, from a North American perspective (if I may be so bold as to speak for an entire continent), the Le Crobag name has a few issues. The French article “Le” is a good start, as it immediately gives the consumer an idea of who they are, and what they do. But the word “Crobag” is an epic fail. First, it sounds like an epithet that a teenage boy would call a female teacher. I can immediately imagine hearing somebody say, “Mrs. Crabtree just gave me an “F” in social studies. What a crobag!” Second, the word Crobag does not even sound French, so the French article preceding a decidedly non-French subject creates an unpleasant dissonance in the consumer’s ear.
I get that the original idea of the name was probably combining the words “croissant” and “bag,” which makes sense, as they are selling croissants that will be taken away in bags. It might be more phonetically pleasing to a North American consumer to make the entire name French, by substituting the English word “bag” with the French word “sac.” While the name “Le Crosac” still sounds like a teen epithet, it is at least linguistically consistent, and thus less jarring.
On Karl-Marx-Allee in Berlin, there is a very nice bathroom fittings boutique called Bad Couture. Its large glass windows are filled with attractive and stylish items to make your home’s bathroom look like a place where you would want to spend more time. Unlike Le Crobag, Bad Couture is a single store and, as far as I know, it has no aspirations for growth overseas. That is probably a good thing. While Bad Couture is an excellent name in Germany – where it means in a mixture of German and French “Bath Design” – it would be a death sentence anywhere in the English-speaking world.
What is up with that name?
Bad Couture is a real-world example of what is being warned about in the apocryphal Chevrolet Nova story told earlier. While Bad Couture makes perfect sense in a German-speaking context, Bad Couture in an English-speaking context is an explicit statement that the contents of the store are of tacky or poor design. A particularly pernicious trap that this particular name would fall into in North America is that it is combining two different languages into a single name (much like Le Crobag). Even though the phonetic sound of Bad Couture is not displeasing to the ear, its mix of languages would confuse an English-speaking consumer.
Americans generally will know the meaning of “Couture” through wide-spread exposure to fashion magazines and television shows about the fashion industry, and even if they do not, the word is close enough to the English word “Culture” to carry with it positive connotations. However, the German word “Bad” has the disadvantage of having the exact same spelling as an English word with strongly negative connotations. First impressions are key, and you don’t want the first impressions to be either confusion or negativity.
Of course, I do not want to pick on the Germans. Having lived previously in Europe, I was amused by some American companies that caused me to think, “Oh my! They’d better not try to export that to Europe!” And in a spirit of fair-play, I will share with you my particular favorite.
Formerly a chain, but now reduced back to its original store in Westwood, Massachusetts, Frugal Fannie’s was originally, apart from being a retailer in its own right, a clothing wholesaler. Back in 1983, when one of their major customers went bankrupt and Frugal Fannie’s found itself with a warehouse full of clothing with no buyer, they decided to open this warehouse to the public for a weekend to try to get rid of their overstock. That weekend sale was so successful that they held another one. Frugal Fannie’s realized quickly that they were on to a new concept in retail: keep overhead incredibly low, open only on weekends, and sell clothing at steeply reduced prices.
What is up with that name?
Fannie is the nickname of one of Frugal Fannie’s founders, and frugal definitely describes the type of consumer that they are targeting. But heaven help them if they ever decide to take their concept to Great Britain. I had the good fortune to attend boarding school in England back in the late 1980s. At the time, what Americans call “fanny packs” were all the rage. These belted pouches that can be strapped to your waist have made a comeback in recent years. I had one of these fanny packs, which I would use when going into town (really, it was the 1980s, it wasn’t that bad back then). However, whenever I would say something to the effect of, “Where is my fanny pack? I need somewhere to carry my wallet,” my British friends would either give me exceedingly odd looks, or they would immediately fall to the floor laughing hysterically.
It turns out that the word “fanny” is somewhat archaic British slang for female genitalia. Even though its spelling is slightly different, if Frugal Fannie’s moved to Great Britain, it is probably not the best marketing to shop in a place that brings to mind a “cheap c**t.” (My sincere apology to all readers for that last comment, but the British slang term is equally vulgar in its meaning.) Admittedly, the word fanny in North America is also humorous for being polite slang for somebody’s backside – generally used by mothers who shy away from using the word “butt” in front of their children – but the joke lacks the same vigorous punch that it carries in Britain.
I of course realize that the names of all of the companies I have mentioned here were developed with a particular market and a particular consumer in mind. For where they are now, these names are perfectly good and are perfectly appropriate, and I certainly mean none of them any malice by taking their names out of their original and intended context. But I use them here as examples of how, when you move to a new country or to a new continent, the old rules for coming up with an effective name no longer apply. That is why it is so important to get advice from somebody with intimate understanding of the target market in order to ensure something as basic as your name does not create the wrong impression.