Odamaki & Selection of Tradenames

Languagehat has pointed me to an interesting blog on etymology, Odamaki. I’m adding it to my RSS feed. It looks like it will provide some good stuff, although it doesn’t appear to be updated all that often.

But someone is wrong on the internet, so I have to comment. Back in October Odamaki had a post on Nokia’s trade name Lumi, which in an obscure Spanish dialect means “prostitute.” Odamaki’s etymological commentary is accurate, but he makes the error that most such discussions make: failing to understand that the meanings of trade names simply don’t matter. It’s not a “mistake” to name a product that has a negative connotation. No one has ever shown that such a name has ever impacted sales of a product. I used to name products for a living, and I can tell you it doesn’t matter. (There are branding consultants that will tell you otherwise, but they are trying to peddle their services, so of course they will tell you that you need to hire them to spend many billable hours researching product names.)

Now, it is possible to name a product badly. No one would ever buy “Vomit” perfume, for example. But no marketing exec in their right mind would ever name a perfume “Vomit.” What we’re talking about here is subtle connotations that might slip past the normal brainstorming that occurs in a marketing department prior to a product launch.

Let’s look at some common cited examples of “badly” named products:

  • The infamous urban legend of Chevy Novas not selling well in Mexico
  • Coca-Cola allegedly meaning “bite the wax tadpole” in Chinese.
  • Reebok’s line of Incubus sneakers, which had a successful sales run, but after production was halted when Reebok streamlined its product line, a local news outlet twigged to the demonic implications that no one had commented on before.
  • The hugely successful Bimbo bakery. The giggling the name causes in its English-speaking markets doesn’t seem to have affected its sales.
  • And my favorite, because I used to work there, is the graphic-chip maker NVIDIA, whose “envious” and “spiteful” name did not prevent them from growing to a $5 billion company in just ten years.

People are really good at processing polysemy. They recognize that word in one context does not necessarily mean the same in another. So if a name has subtle negative connotations in one context, those connotations are not going to carry over to the trade name. People may recognize the negative connotation, but if they do, they quickly discard it in the new context. This is a sub-case of the etymological fallacy. The origin of the word does not determine its meaning; its use does. What matters in a trade name is the brand reputation you build, not where the name comes from.

[This post was edited for clarity on 5 January 2012.]

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