How to decide whether your product names need translating

Published on May 9th, 2016

New product

When you launch a product overseas, one of the toughest branding questions you and your team might face is whether to translate the name of the product in question. It is not a decision that you can take lightly either. Starbucks’ Gingerbread Latte famously failed in Germany when it didn’t translate the name into German. Sales quickly took off after the firm corrected its mistake, but that does not mean translating product names is always the way to go. You couldn’t imagine Apple translating “iPhone” into different languages – and for good reason too. In fact, when looking back at the most successful products in history (e.g. Nike Air Jordans or PlayStation), few of these product names were translated for international markets.

So how do you decide whether your product names need translating?

Every market is different

This may not come across as the most exciting answer, but it is absolutely vital. Let’s go back to that Starbucks example for a moment, because there were many things at play in this case. First of all, gingerbread is a hugely popular holiday treat in Germany, but Starbucks was only able to capture that holiday spirit once they marketed the drink as ‘the Lebkuchen Latte’. After this decisions was made, sales flourished.

Some markets also respond better to product names in their native language than others. In many Asian countries, for example, English names for international products are often perceived as more appealing. This sentiment is not quite so strong in Germany and many other European nations. So things need to be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Another relevant example to bring up here is Sony’s strategical decision to name its famous PlayStation console, “プレイステーション” or “Pureisutēshon”, by combining two English words. Their product continues to dominate the gaming industry to this day.

Also Read: 6 Reasons to Translate Your Content Using a Professional Translation Service

Every translation is different

The most common reason to translate a product name is when the original means something that’s not so welcome in the target language. Nokia chose the name Lumia for one of its product lines, which later turned out to be a slang term for “prostitute” in Spanish. This was also the case for Peugeot, as the name itself means the same in certain parts of China.

That is the extreme end of the spectrum but there are often more subtle things at work in translation. Ideally, you would want to know how your target audience receives the original name and a potential translation. You can do this by field-testing the two names (and maybe some variants) with sample audiences where possible; the results will often surprise you.

There are also cases where product names simply don’t translate or they lose their creative meaning in the process. This is where knowing the difference between translation services and transcreation is important. Translators look for the closest equivalent product name in another language, while transcreation aims to capture the same brand message or more like its ‘essence’, even if the wording is different.

How important is the product name to your brand?

We referred to Apple in the introduction of this post because it is an important example where the product name (i.e. the iPhone) has become very vital to the brand and its identity. So vital, that it has even managed to become more ‘recognisable’ and familiar to the user than the brand (i.e. Apple) itself.

So in these cases, translating a product name would cause more harm than good from a global branding perspective. Most products do not have this intrinsic level of branding power, but it is very important to spot when they do.

In 1985, Nike partnered with a rookie Michael Jordan whose agent insisted the company develop a signature shoe for the player. Nike wasn’t the global giant it is today and the company was struggling against the might of brands like Adidas. The company put its faith in Jordan’s talent and offered the player a five-year $500,000 contract with a first-year sales target of $3 million. His shoe made $126 million in the first year alone, propelling Nike into the world’s biggest “sneaker” manufacturer, and the Jordan Brand is now worth more than $5 billion. To this day, the Nike Air Jordans story could be the ultimate example of a product becoming a true global brand and why companies should never translate a product name as impactful as Air Jordans.

The final decision falls on you

Another important point to remember is that there are no rules on translating product names. It is product sales, brand perception and marketing results that justify such decisions – and only you can make those decisions. Big brands often go against best practices and sometimes it pays off. It is a case of knowing when it works and when it doesn’t.

Those are the kind of tough branding decisions global brands and companies would often need to make. Guesswork leaves you vulnerable, but with solid market research and testing product translations vs their original names, you will get all the information you need to make those calls with more confidence.

If you need help deciding which product names need translating, our team of language and cultural consultants, can provide support. Contact us using the form on our contact page and one of our team members will get back to you.

Posted on: May 9th, 2016