Why Choosing Brand Names is so Risky

When George Mason University rebranded their law school to honor former supreme court justice Antonin Scalia they were perhaps too hasty. As soon as the Antonin Scalia School of Law was announced social media users were quick to point out what the university had apparently not noticed: that the two most obvious acronyms were ASSLAW and ASSOL. The rebranded school was quickly re-rebranded Antonin Scalia Law School, which becomes a much more acceptable ASLS, though I suspect rival schools will continue to call them "Asslaw" for a long time.

George Mason University is certainly not the first to make this mistake, though it is strange that they did not recognize the problem in their own language. Many other organizations are initially oblivious to the problem, as when the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China initially used the acronym CACC but wisely changed it to COMAC when informed by speakers of romance languages of the unfortunate association of the first idea.

Very often it is not the acronym that causes problems but the name itself. The now defunct search engine Cuil made the branding mistake of choosing a name nobody could pronounce, but in addition it had the added downside of sounding too much like "cul" to French speakers. Occasionally the problem is a combination of acronyms and the way they are pronounced in other languages, as when the acronym APT was dropped because to French readers it sounded too much like "a pété".

Most of the time unfortunate brands are simply the result of the name having an unsuspected meaning in other languages. Swedish furnishing store Granit used to have a lamp called Prick -- the word just means "dot" in Swedish -- and IKEA, a company I suspect does this on purpose, offered a box called "Nobb". Many of these could have been identified simply by looking in a dictionary, though the pronunciation and slang usage make this complicated. Sometimes, too, the problem lies in a combination of elements, like when Unilever introduced a new version of their Nogger brand ice cream that was black and, for the short time it was on the market, was called "Nogger Black".

Probably the only safe way to filter candidate brand names is to ask people familiar with all of the languages and culture of target markets to review ideas, making sure that you check also with younger people who might be familiar with emergent slang and older people who might have a better memory of history. Do this before you announce a new brand and spare yourself some embarassment.


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For lectures, workshops, one-to-one coaching and writing on branding and other communication topics you can contact Andrew Hennigan by email at speaker@andrewhennigan.com or by phone at 0046 730 894 475 or 0033 6 79 61 42 81.

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