What's in a name? Or, for that matter, a brand? Well, a lot of headaches (and money) if you get it wrong, especially if you're not paying attention to its translation into other languages or its "popular-culture meaning" in English.
Branding a product or service is fundamental. Your brand should be protected through the registration of a trademark in all of the countries to which you will be exporting the goods or in which you will be performing services so that no other company or person can use that name for the same goods or services.
In short, you should be searching your planned brand name to ensure that it doesn't conflict with a confusingly similar name for the same goods or services. You can perform a search yourself (and for free) through the Canadian Intellectual Property Office (CIPO) database.
The CIPO database is good at finding "dead hits," so that you can eliminate names that clearly conflict with ones that are already registered. But it's not so good with words that have a variety of phonetic equivalents, or the word or words that make up your trademark, have an unconventional spelling or contain apostrophes. And it won't find provincial corporate or "doing business as" names, or trademarks in other jurisdictions such as the United States.
Thus, you might want to have your trademark agents use a search company such as Thomson CompuMark for more comprehensive information.
There's another aspect to protecting your brand that people forget. Does your brilliant brand name mean something untoward in another language? If you're expanding internationally, you should always be careful about what your brand name means or sounds like in other languages.
There are famous examples where large corporations didn't vet their trademarks or slogans well enough in other languages. For example, when Coors translated its slogan "turn it loose" into Spanish, it meant "diarrhea." Colgate launched a toothpaste in France under the name Cue, which was also the name of a well-known pornographic magazine. When Pepsi went to China, it used the same "Come Alive" slogan that was used in the United States. But the slogan literally translated as "Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead!" "Fly in Leather," a slogan by Braniff Airways, meant "fly naked" in Spanish. When KFC opened in China, "finger lickin' good" was translated to "eat your fingers off."
A Ford campaign in Belgium used a slogan that, when translated, meant "every car contains a high-quality corpse." The company's problems didn't end there. In Portuguese, Pinto means "tiny male genitals," which didn't result in many car sales in Brazil. One of IKEA's products, Jättebra (a pot for plants), was slang for sex in Thai. The famous "Got Milk?" campaign had problems in Mexico, where the term means "are you lactating?"
So always make sure your lawyers and trademark agents check for the brand's colloquial meaning in other languages. As well, ask someone who speaks that language if it means anything dodgy. Or, at the very least, use Google translate.
But it's not just translations of your brand that you should be concerned about. What does the term mean in English on the street? Does it have a popular-culture meaning that the people in charge of branding don't understand, because they're either too old or too young? For that, you might want to use Urban Dictionary.
One of the more interesting food brands to surface over the past 12 months is a health food drink and powder made of soy, using the catchy name "Soylent." Says the company's website: "Soylent was developed from a need for a simpler food source. Soylent is a food product (classified as a food, not a supplement, by the FDA) designed for use as a staple meal by all adults. Each serving of Soylent provides maximum nutrition with minimum effort." The producer said Soylent is a meal replacement based on recommendations of the Institute of Medicine and meets the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's requirements to be sold as a food, and includes all of the elements of a healthy diet, without excess amounts of sugars, saturated fats or cholesterol.
Didn't the founders, managers and funders of Soylent make the connection between their food product and a dystopian science-fiction film starring Charlton Heston in 1973 called Soylent Green? Didn't they look at the Urban Dictionary?
The plot is straightforward. In a world ravaged by global warming, overpopulation and a lack of food, Soylent Green is the main staple for the vast majority human beings in 2022 (six years from now). Unfortunately (and there's a spoiler alert coming), Charlton Heston discovers that Soylent Green is secretly made from the flesh of deceased human beings.
"Soylent Green is people!" he screams at the end of the movie.
One would think that any new product that comes to market for national and international distribution, and which has a very elaborate Web and social media marketing presence will have been extensively scrutinized by trademark agents, branding consultants, lawyers, financiers, Web designers and a host of other professionals. It's unbelievable that no one (not even the crowdfunding contributors) would have made the connection to Soylent Green and warned the client. Of course, they knew.
In many ways, it's brilliant marketing (despite the "eating dead people" stuff). But it does illustrate the point that, even in English, one has to assess whether the proposed brand name has a popular-culture meaning that could work against the company or, in the case of Soylent, for the company.
Tony Wilson is a franchising, licensing and intellectual property lawyer at Boughton Law Corp. in Vancouver, he is an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University (SFU), and he is the author of two books: Manage Your Online Reputation, and Buying a Franchise in Canada. His opinions do not reflect those of the Law Society of British Columbia, SFU or any other organization.