Brand name translation – things to consider

Why brands translate their names for new markets (and you should too)

If you’re looking to expand internationally, you might have noticed it’s common for organisations to change their brand name.

Every brand has its reasoning for switching names, which we’ll dive into in this article.

But first, let’s set the scene with Walkers and Lays crisps. 

A British manufacturer created the famous crisp under the name of Walkers. American snack brand Frito-Lay later acquired it in the 1980s and used the established ‘Lay’ name to afford the crisp more legitimacy when breaking into the U.S. market. And if you’ve ever been abroad, you’ll know the new name was a success.

Surprisingly, the name switch created a divide and unite mentality between Lays’ fans and Walker’s fans. Leading to a host of content like this YouTube video where two creators put the same products head to head. 

Comparatively, “Dr Martens” trades under the same name in every country. As a result, they’ve achieved fantastic brand recognition and cult status with many of its fans. It was unlikely another shoe company would brand themselves as a Doctor and therefore didn’t clash in new markets.

So, there are perks to both keeping your brand name and changing it. But there are multiple reasons why you might have no choice but to translate your company name.

Why products have different brand names around the world

europe map

Username already in use: tackling existing competitors when expanding to new territories

As we discussed, Dr Martens were unlikely to come across a second Doctor-based shoe manufacturer when they were first expanding. 

However, when companies use their founder’s namesake or common words, they are more likely to compete against a pre-existing giant. 

This is exactly what happened when the founder of T.J. Maxx wanted to expand to England. After exploring the market, he changed the company name to T.K. Maxx to avoid clashing with an already established retail chain called TJ Hughes.

The rather ostensibly named Burger King encountered the same problem as Jack Cowin tried to launch the franchise in Australia. But this time, the competitor had already trademarked the same name. So with Burger King’s permission, Jack renamed the franchise ‘Hungry Jack’s’ after himself. 

Failing to change your brand name when an existing company already trades under it can lead to some legal ramifications. But that’s not the only way your brand name can get you in trouble with the law.

Illegal or immoral terms

In the U.K., it is illegal to include Limited or LTD at the end of your brand name. There are also some grey areas when it comes to permitted language. For example, you might find swear words aren’t strictly illegal, but local chambers or government bodies will still reject them on moral grounds.

Local naming requirements

Quebec, the largest province in Canada, is incredibly protective of its French culture. One way they manifested their French pride is to require all brand names and signs to be in French. With the only exception being registered trademarks with the Canadian Intellectual Property Office.

The most famous example was KFC’s Qubecian rebrand to PFC – Poulet Frit Kentucky – to match the local language and grammar.

Poulet Frit Kentucky quebec canada

That doesn’t say what you think it does: changes to brand meaning in new languages

The third and final reason we’ll share today on why brands may have to change their name is around localised meanings. 

Language learners will be familiar with “false friends” – identical or similar words in two languages that hold very different meanings. 

Unfortunately, brand names aren’t immune to this phenomenon, like the smartphone brand Lumia, which in Spanish means prostitute. Or the word ‘Bath’ in English, which means ‘Bad’ in Dutch – one to watch for any bathroom brands out there!

Reasons you may want to keep your ‘foreign’ brand name

If you manage to jump through all of the branding barriers mentioned, you’re free to explore the pros and cons of changing your brand name.

However, if we’ve already tripped you up, hop to the next section to learn more about the different approaches to translating your brand name.

Perfect by association: regional stereotypes

We’re already aware that words can hold negative associations in new languages. But certain words, or sounds, in this case, can have positive associations too. Stereotypes are powerful things. And while we would usually disagree with judging a book by its cover, brands can use certain assumptions to their advantage.

For example, Germany is known worldwide for its efficiency & quality engineering. As such, a German-sounding name can give potential customers the impression that the brand is also efficient and offers products of high quality.

Think of these famous German brands. They all have principles in common that are hard to deny: Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, Audi, Siemens, Adidas, Porsche, Deutsche Bank and Bosch.

Hopping over to France, we see the same concept, leaning towards luxury and style this time. Just picture Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Hermès, L’Oréal Paris, and Moët & Chandon. They all ooze the French way of life.

If your Italian sounding brand offers delicious food, or your Nordic brand is ingeniously minimal, it may be in your favour to keep your original name.

How to adapt your brand name to new territories

Some brands choose to pick an entirely new name for a new territory that better aligns with the local market. Choosing an altogether new name is sometimes the most straightforward route, but your marketing will largely start from square one.

Alternatively, you can translate your brand name to keep some recognition & retain the values you’ve attached to it. Just as Mr. Clean became Meister Proper in Germany and Don Limpio in Spain.

There are two ways to translate a name, Transliteration and Transcreation.

The main difference between Transcreation and Transliteration is that the former focuses on context and intent, while the latter prioritises literal translation.

Transcreation looks at the intent, style, tone, and context to find the perfect equivalent in the target language and culture. “Trans” meaning to transform, and “creation” meaning to create anew.

coca cola light can on beach

A great example here is Diet Coke Vs Coca Cola Light. In the U.K. and USA, you’ll find Diet Coke, but travel to mainland Europe, and you’ll only see Coca Cola light. They made the switch because ‘Diet’ refers to what you eat in most of Europe. It doesn’t describe low-calorie foods or drinks as it does in Northern America and the UK.

If you’re interested in the differences between localisation and translation, we discuss the ways to approach each here.

Transliteration, however, takes a language-based approach and is commonly used to translate between alphabets, directly swapping letters. For example, Coca Cola becomes كوكا كولا in Arabic.

While you may be taking steps to avoid your current name breaking local rules, who’s to say your new name won’t either without the proper research. Just look at our marketing translations gone wrong blog to see what we mean!

In both Transcreation and Transliteration, it’s best to work with a professional translator who can conduct the proper due diligence for your brand. That includes reviewing existing brands, legal restrictions, and secondary meanings of words in your target market. 

Fortunately that’s exactly what our team does, so feel free to drop us a message about your brand name & expansion plans.

Lucy LEaF blog 2020

About the Author


Lucy Pembayun is the founder of LEaF Translations and a qualified German to English translator. Specialising in marketing, website and SEO translations, Lucy spent over a decade working as a freelance translator before launching LEaF Translations back in 2017. A passionate advocate for ethical business and sustainability, Lucy recently spoke on the topic of Net Zero for Businesses at the annual Business Summit for the York and North Yorkshire region. Outside of work, Lucy enjoys exploring new places and cultures, playing and watching football, and spending time with her family and friends.