Product Naming: The Notion of Foreign Branding
and its use in Advertising and Marketing

Handout for LING 057, Language and Popular Culture
H. Schiffman, Instructor

``We experience the world through a cultural lens, never objectively. Branding works by adjusting that lens to frame not only how customers value the product but also how they experience it."                 Douglas B. Holt, Marketing, Harvard Business School

  1. Product naming is a strategy that marketing and advertising people use to give their product a distinctive caché that will convince consumers that their product has some value that others don't have. It often involves 'foreign branding' (see below) but may also be used in other, non-foreign branding, such as in pharaceutical product naming. Here is a quote from a recent article about pharmaceutical brand-naming that is instructive in this regard. The quote is from an article about the common cold and various attempts to deal with it, including 'capsid-binding agents', which are designed to attach to rhinoviruses in your nose.
    "There have been promising preliminary results in clinical trials of one such agent, which has now been given the unpronounceable name ruprintrivir. (Manufacturers like to give drugs unpronounceable generic names because then the only thing you'll remember is whatever brand name they eventually choose.") New Yorker, 3/11/2002, pg. 46. [Emphasis mine, HFS.]
    For examples of this kind of product naming, see:

    1. This discussion of the choices involved in the naming of the allergy medicine Claritin.

    2. Another 'neato' name is this one, for an anti-schizophrenia drug abilify. (Note the 'blending' of the word ability and the suffix -ify which usually means 'make (possible).')

    Note also the visual imagery that accompanies these products--light, blue, airy images, balloons floating up into the wild blue yonder, the "A" of Abilify straddling a road that winds off along the path toward wellness, functioning, ability...(this is an anti-schizophrenia drug). And just to top if off, here is a Helen, Sweetheart of the Internet cartoon that nicely shows these phenomena, and makes fun of them.

    And just for good measure, see this article, on branding of stocks and the effect of certain names on perceived value of the stock.

  2. Psychology and Physiology. Another interesting issue is that recent research has shown that subjects, in blind taste-tests, can be influenced to believe that they are tasting something else than they are in fact tasting, and that 'brand loyalty' can override their actual perceptions.

  3. Foreign Branding. Probably the most important product-naming strategy is Foreign Branding, a concept from advertising, meaning the technique of giving a product a 'foreign' name or brand in order to increase its desirability or 'perceived value'. (Some of the researchers refer to this kind of symbolic, abstract value as hedonic (think "hedonism") because consumers seem to think it gives them some kind of pleasure or satisfaction which they value (and are therefore willing to pay more for), even if the actual quality of the product is the same as another one, e.g. a domestic one.)

    Americans aren't the only people who like foreign brands; the Japanese have many `foreign' brands that to us might be nonsensical, such as a soft-drink called Calpis (sic). (To say nothing of the delicious 'Pocari Sweat'.) In France once I saw someone wearing a jacket labeled (nonsensically):

    Person's Club:
    On the point
    of revolutionizing
    the world produce
    --produce by persons.  

    In the US, different kinds of 'foreignness' are associated with different kinds of products. Foreign-branding of an indiscriminate kind is not found; Rather, certain kinds of foreignness are associated with desirability in various products.

    1. In Europe, various governments control the use even of names of kinds of products such as wines from certain regions (e.g. champagne), brandy ( cognac must come from the Cognac region of France etc.), Champagne must come from the Champagne region of France, and so on. The European Union's executive body recently ruled that the cheese called feta had to come from Greece, and that all non-Greek producers (such as the Danes) have to switch to another name. The Danes have vowed to go to the European Court of Justice to get this overruled. In France this technique is called appellation controlée and is applied to many different types of products the French want to control the rights to. Some people think that `France's principal and much-imitated quality designation system, [is] devised to protect producers from imitators and to guarantee authenticity to consumers. Well over a third of all French wine and all of its best wine is AOC, [...]' but others think this is just a ploy to protect French products.

      But not to be outdone, now even Napa Valley wineries in California are trying to protect their brands by using the same approach.

    2. Here (for your edification) are a couple of websites of companies that create brand names for products, using different kinds of research techniques that they have determined are useful and scientific . When you look at this, notice a couple of 'foreign' brands, i.e. cielo and Zima (which means 'winter' in some Slavic languages (!). Would that be to emphasize its 'coolness' or its 'coldness'? (Note also use of dark blue bottle, blue being associated with lower tempertures...) To find out, click on the zima home page and see all the cool people, described there as 'a little wild.') As Lexicon-branding puts it
      Our philosophy is that a great name is a "vessel" that allows you to tell a story, deliver an idea, or make a promise. A great name uses semantics, sound symbolics, and phonetics to deliver a message and a personality--in less than a second.

      The other company,, claims to create 'identity' for products. They advertise jobs for linguists to help with this.

    3. French and French-ness

      The French language and French-ness is clearly associated with a number of notions, and as a foreign-branding technique, is closely associated with food, wine, certain alcoholic beverages, clothing, especially women's clothing (style, couture, esp. high quality), perfume, sexuality, sexual desirability, sophistication, and various combinations of these. Giving something a French brand may be done irrespective of the actual authenticity of the name. The name itself may be unheard of in France, or the brand may be ungrammatical or nonsensical in French, but it doesn't matter, because the market audience for these is Americans and other foreigners, who aren't picky about such things.

      Look at some of these examples of this.

    4. Italian and Italian-ness

      "Italian" is associated with food (but not the same kind of food as French food!), with coffee, with high-fashion men's clothing and accessories , and with fancy, expensive cars. Italian branding is usually more authentic than French branding; the names aren't faked as often as with French names and brands (e.g. Esprit, Façonnable, etc.) (although Hospitaliano is certainly a made-up term.) Italianness is also associated with pure, unadultered sexuality/sexiness, as exemplified by this ad for "Baci", which means 'kisses' in Italian. The woman is not wearing much; she is offering kisses (both of the candy sort and other kinds.) She tells us that Baci are Italy's most delicious and romantic chocolates.

      Here's a Doonesbury cartoon that makes fun of all the Italian terms for various kinds of fancy types of coffee.

      In the food line, here's an ad for pizza that makes fun of the Italian (gangster?) pronunciation of English, especially the pronunciation of 'th' sounds as [d], and of the schwa following 'th' as [a], i.e. [da]. Also 'free dalivery.'

      See also this article from the New York Times about Italians' tendency to stereotype themselves about sex and sexuality.

      Here's a combination of sexiness and food, an ad for an upscale (Not Olive Garden!) Philadelphia Italian Restaurant ( Pompeii. ) Do we need to know what this woman is saying?

      Here's another send-up of Italian naming, especially (what else?) pasta.

    5. Mixed French and Italian or other languages:

      One interesting development in this area is the combination of Swiss-French watch manufacturing with Italian (or other language) brand names. Almost all watch manufacturers want you to think they are made in Switzerland (with the words Swiss made or Swiss Movement or Fabrication Suisse somewhere in the ad) but to get away from the perception that Switzerland is stodgy the product may carry an Italian (sic!) brand-name, especially if the watch in question is very high-tech in design (or even if not).

      • An ad for a Swiss watch (Kriëger) with the French words haute performance prominently displayed; the actual model is called Velocitá which is Italian for 'speed.' (Note that Kriëger isn't exactly a French name, either, so they've faked it by putting an umlaut over the "e", which, as we all know, makes it very French.) And then they've added chronomètres suisses , and just to make sure, "made in Switzerland."

      • A page from the Movado watch company, which tells you that the model called Vizio is Esperanto for 'vision.' (It also says Movado is Esperanto for 'always in motion.')

      • An ad for Acqua di Giò cologne, with the additional French text pour homme ('for men') added.

    6. German branding is usually associated with expensive, powerful automobiles, such as the Mercedes, the BMW, and a few others. Here's one that is made by Mercedes, but uses a sort of Italian sounding name, the 'Exelero'. (Might this name be a blend of 'excel' and 'accelerate'? This puppy is supposed to be able to go 217 mph.) Note also the visual metaphors associated with the BMW: the hot pepper ("This vehicle is HOT!" ), the wave ("This vehicle represents a new wave"), and innovative.

      Just for contrast, here's an article about American car-naming practices as seen in some new "dumb" GM names.

      The use of German in advertising may sometimes actually use German words in the ad, such as Fahrvergnügen ('the pleasure of driving') used in a Volkswagen ad some time ago. (But now if you do a word-search for this term, you find it has been appropriated by skateboarders, who use it to refer to some of the kinds of wild things they do on their skateboards, and even provide photographs of themselves skating off the roofs of houses, etc.) German language and brands are otherwise not used elsewhere, e.g. for food, clothing, sexuality etc., but here's an ad campaign for the Lexus RX 330, which uses fake German!

      Another usage is this same preposition, ueber used in an ad for style, 'chicness'.

    7. Russian language may be used in some brands of Vodka, but not much else, unless you count 'fake' Russian, such as Paul McCartney's visit to Red Square recently. (Fake Russian typically misinterprets cyrillic characters as if, e.g. a backwards R has the phonetic value of [r], whereas it really has the value [ya].

    8. Japanese, Chinese, other languages and non-roman scripts?

      • Occasionally some Chinese or Japanese writing may appear in an ad, to suggest exotic foreignness (?) Another trend is to use Chinese/Japanese kanji (characters) on clothing, as tattoos, on jewelry. This is particularly popular among some athletes, entertainers, hip-hop artists.

      • Here's a recent Armani creation. The caption over the photograph originally said "Swinging to Shanghai and points East."

      • This site Hanzismatter exposes the usage of many characters as just 'jibberish'; one must take pity on a person who has eunuch tattooed on his arm, especially if he thinks he's a big macho guy.

      • More often imagery is used, i.e. pictures, especially of Asian people.

        Or, a faked Chinese restaurant name is created with a fancy umlaut over the "y" for exotic effects. In actuality, no Chinese transliteration scheme (PinYin, Wade-Giles) ever puts umlauts on consonants; maybe on vowels, e.g. ü , but not like this. But then this is just Chinese fused Asian cookery...

      • Another kind is this representation of a pop-star named `Donna' who has some interesting fake characters running down the side of her image.

    9. Mixed Language Another technique is to use some 'foreign' language along with some English or other well-known language.

      • This image uses English and French in the same sentence to convey to convey the rapidity with which you can be whisked from London to Paris.

      • The Acqua di Gio ad uses both Italian and French; in tiny print on the bottle it says Pour Homme (for men). While we're at it, though it isn't particularly an issue of language, but more of masculinity, look also at this ad which, like the previous one for Acqua di Gio, uses an image of a man that is probably not aimed at men so much, but probably more toward the 'metrosexual.'

      • Another example is the advert for the Lincoln Navigator which uses French derriere instead of the Anglo-Saxon term, to imply a classier product.

      • Another is the Maxwell House coffee advertisement, which uses four languages (English, French, Italian, Spanish) in one ad to say `Good to the last drop.'

      • Here's an example of an American product that calls itself Bread du Jour

      • And along with mixed English-Japanese, ("Ingrish" or "Japlish") there is also mixed French-Japanese, known as Franponais.

  4. Really really foreign branding Another technique is to create a brand name so exotic, nobody has a clue what language it is from. (But it doesn't matter: we're so cool and sophisticated, we don't need to know that [ixi:z] is not only not English, it's actually in IPA phonetic transcription.) In case this isn't clear, here are some other examples of this brand.

  5. Here's another product (for hair care) with spurious umlauts. (Apparently at one point this was more of a 'got to be me' kind of product, but now umlauts have invaded...

    And here's a cartoon that makes fun of the supposedly foreign by referring to 'Hoax' Ethnic Food. Notice how many of the 'hoax foreign' foods have umlauts and/or other kinds of accent marks--a true sign of foreignness! (Notice also that the vender in the cartoon has a bushy moustache--clearly a foreigner.)

  6. Not to be outdone, the on-line humor mag "The Onion" posted this little story recently:
    Ünited Stätes Toughens Image With Umlauts. WASHINGTON, DC.

    In a move designed to make the United States seem more "bad-assed and scary in a quasi-heavy-metal manner," Congress passed a bill Monday changing the nation's name to the Ünited Stätes of Ämerica. "Much like Mötley Crüe and Motörhead, the Ünited Stätes is not to be messed with," said Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK). An upcoming redesign of the Ämerican flag will feature the new name in burnished silver wrought in a jagged, gothic font and bolted to a black background. A new national anthem is also in the works, to be written by composer Glenn Danzig and tentatively titled "Howl Of The She-Demon."

    The conclusion, apparently, is that umlauts over vowels, being associated with German, contributes an impression of 'toughness' (since we know how tough and disciplined those Germans can be, nicht wahr?)

    Another possibility is to create a totally fake language (or try to create the impression that there is some language out there with these forms). This seems to be particularly common with names of ice creams and/or (frozen) yogurt; the trick is to use umlauted vowels as freely as possible, even where no known language so uses them:

  7. Liquor advertising (especially high-priced or exotic liquors: Mexican Kahlua? Tecate beer? German beers?) is an interesting example of having to deal with foreign branding, especially if the brand name is too strange sounding. See the example of an attempt to deal with a Polish name, Wyborowa Vodka .

    Contrast this with the ad for Belvedere Vodka also a Polish vodka, which hides this fact almost completely, except for the tiny notation na zdrowie ("To your health") under the bottle. Otherwise, the ad suggests solidity, hand-crafting, continuity, doing things the same way as one's father, etc.)

  • Readings: The concept of foreign branding is dealt with in market research on advertising;

    1. A sample of this is included in your coursepak, the article by LeClerc, Schmitt, and Dubé on foreign branding. Other bibliography here

    2. Metaphor A number of writers have pointed out the the necessity of establishing a metaphor for the product in the advertisement. This metaphor is usually primarily visual but may also be linguistic.

        Some examples of these might be

      1. this advert for men's clothing, which 'speaks' for the wearer.

      2. An ad for financial advice/management showing a road The high road is straight and narrow; the lower road wanders around, and the people on it look confused. Caption says: If wealth is a destination, we are uniquely capable of helping you make the journey.

      3. An ad for a beauty product manufactured by Chanel called Précision . The text of the ad claims that you can have your `skin profile' discovered using their unique Diagnostic Tool and you will also receive a free and generous sample. The metaphor here relies on our knowledge of the word "precision." The French word happens to have an "é" in it, so that tells us it's not an American thing. But it's scientific and their unique tool can determine exactly what you need. The word Précision is printed smack-dab in the middle of the model's forehead. How' s that for precision?

      4. The BMW ad that says that landscape is a vast swath of motion . The other images (the pepper, the wave, the Calder mobile) are metaphors for `hotness', `newness' (new wave), and `creativity'.

      5. Another financial management ad that uses imagery from musical notation comparing `the market' with an elaborate, confused, complicated musical score (consisting of notes with short-term value, such as 8th notes etc.), while Defined Asset Funds are steady, solid and unchanging, represented by whole notes . (Note the metaphor of musical note with financial note?)

      6. Look here for some cartoons that rely on metaphor:, last modified 8/31/07