As one of the linguists at Lexicon, I have a lot of explaining to do – often it’s to clients, about why Name X won’t work in Language Y for Product Z (in compiling our GeoLinguistic Evaluations); or to clients with even greater curiosity, about the meanings of seemingly scary words like ‘obstruent’ and ‘sonorant’ and how they’re important when it comes to sound symbolism. The majority of my explaining, though, happens as part of our proprietary creative and evaluative processes: explaining the various ways a candidate name can be parsed (or broken down and interpreted); effective metaphors for conveying product attributes; the semantic networks for potential name candidates and their components; etc. Another exciting aspect of my job is keeping up with all of the latest linguistic news. Take, for instance, linguists’ recent discovery of a previously undocumented language called Koro (Explorers in India find something almost unheard of: a new language). Having been involved in documentation work myself (on an endangered variety of the Zapotec languages spoken in Oaxaca, Mexico), this is especially exciting for me. And while we won’t likely be adding a native Koro speaker to our network of linguists and native speakers around the world, we value the discovery as it adds to the growing body of documented linguistic diversity.
Along the same lines, my favorite linguistics blog is Language Log, which every now and again will have a post particularly apropos to the naming and branding industry. For example, Puke is about products from other countries whose names mean extremely inappropriate things in English, including a brand of snack chips called ‘Only Puke’.
We can laugh at the products featured in this post, but because of their names alone, many English speakers won’t even try them – it’s a shame, too, because I can attest that Pocari Sweat is actually quite delicious! When you’re dealing with markets in a wide variety of languages, you need to verify how your brand name will be received in each and every one. A product’s name is its first impression, after all, and part of our job is to make sure it won’t mean ‘puke’ in any of our clients’ markets.
Even within the United States, various languages are at play. A recent article in the Washington Post suggests politicians should be aware of the influence of Spanish-language media in the US, especially in this election season. But marketers should be aware of this, too: Latinos aren’t just key constituents, they’re a large chunk of consumers as well.
At any rate, we’re happy when it’s us that have to do the explaining – that way our clients won’t run into a situation where they’re the ones having to explain why in the world they tried marketing Product Z in Language Y with the Name X.
—Greg Alger, Linguist