Business

Firms grope for enticing product names

Walkman works, but Vitz, Calpis, Autoboy don't play well in Peoria

Nissan Motor Co.’s popular March compact becomes the Micra in Europe, while Toyota’s Vitz is known as the Echo in the U.S. and the Yaris in Europe.

Calpis, a famous beverage in Japan, is Calpico in some countries, while Canon’s Autoboy autofocus compact camera goes by the name Sureshot in the United States.

With Sony’s Walkman as an exception, Japanese consumer products are often renamed for overseas markets, in part because of already registered trademarks but also because some names would prompt anger, or at the very least, chuckles.

But some companies are trying to market their products globally using just one name.

Anecdotes abound about the missteps nonnatives have had in trying to come up with English-sounding names.

Kao Corp., a household-product giant, plans to start selling its Econa cooking oil as Enova in the U.S. next year.

Company officials reckoned that the name Econa may evoke a cheap image with U.S. consumers. This is not the perception Kao hopes to achieve with its body fat-curbing cooking oil, which is expected to be priced four times higher than run-of-the-mill oils.

Calpis drinks, produced by Calpis Co., are jokingly known as “cow piss” in some countries.

Sony Corp.’s portable music player Walkman, which celebrated its 25th anniversary earlier this month, was initially booed by the company’s overseas sales staff for its typical “Japlish” sound.

So it was once sold as Soundabout in the U.S., Stowaway in the U.K. and Freestyle in Sweden.

Yet the name Walkman caught on overseas, as tourists and flight attendants brought home the popular gadget, giving Sony a global brand.

Today, the Walkman has gained full-fledged citizenship as an English word; it was entered into the Oxford English Dictionary in 1986.

Adopting several names for a single product is questionable in terms of efficient marketing and detrimental to a coherent global corporate brand.

“Names are the most essential element for consumer recognition and differentiation from competitors,” said Yuji Matoba, president of a naming consultancy Nihon Brand & Research Co. “If a company aims to operate globally, it should have a uniform name.”

With Japanese businesses growingly aware of the strategic nature of their intangible assets, like corporate brands, they are paying more attention to their products’ names, he said.

“When we started this naming business 18 years ago, the attitude of companies was ‘why the heck do we have to pay for a name?’ ” he said. “But today, we are getting a lot of orders not only for domestic products but those meant for overseas markets.”

Nissan Motor Co. is one of the major companies that began to review its naming practices, setting up a global naming team at its headquarters three years ago, with a committee chaired by President Carlos Ghosn that meets once a month.

Before that, the company used to let its overseas marketing staff pick names for their respective markets.

At home, naming vehicles had been a rather haphazard affair, with those involved in developing models submitting potential names, said Akinari Okabe, deputy general manager in charge of global product naming at Nissan.

“We did not have any clear naming process. We are now designing product names from the viewpoint of a total corporate brand strategy,” he said.

The change is part of Nissan’s centralized global brand-building efforts engineered by Ghosn, but the revised naming process also has a significant cost-cutting effect.

In the past, as many as 30 candidate names were tested for possible trademark registration for a single model.

“Checking a trademark costs some 100,000 yen per country, so if we put 10 names through the test for 190 countries where we sell our cars, that alone costs nearly 200 million yen.” Okabe said. “This is not the kind of waste (fierce cost-cutter) Ghosn would overlook.”

Today, Nissan narrows down names to around five before trademark screening, and its annual naming-related costs were slashed to one-third, according to the officials.

Nissan has also started a “slang check” in 10 languages, including Malay and Arabic, for candidate names, a practice the officials confessed had never been done before. The company pays extra attention to avoid sexually suggestive or discriminatory terms, or words that evoke accidents or death.

And for a globally operating company like Nissan, such language tests are necessary even for purely domestic products, said Okabe, citing a not-so-cute episode over the name of its minicar.

“We named it the Moco for its small and chubby image, but we received many letters from people in Spanish-speaking countries after the news of the release reached there,” Okabe said. “We then learned that Moco means snot in Spanish.”

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