04 Aug 2015 19:39 IST

Why Western-sounding brand names work with buyers

They create a mystique and aura around the brand, raising expectations of fine quality

The American Marketing Association (AMA) defines a brand in very simple terms: “A brand is a name, term, design or other feature that distinguishes one seller's product from those of others.”

A brand is therefore a mark of distinction — a definition of what something is. We all associate brands with some things that we like and other things that we don't. For example, the moment one mentions a BMW automobile, you assign various attributes to it – it looks great, it is featured in James Bond movies, it is a symbol of luxury and is always superbly engineered and so on. But the one factor that is universally associated with a BMW automobile is that it's extremely expensive.

It has taken the BMW brand decades to build and nurture this identity.

Protecting dominance

Companies invest billions of dollars in product management and marketing to help sustain their brand identities. Volvo is associated with safety; Apple, with innovation; Toyota, with reliability; Rolex is known for being precise. There are tens of able competitors but somehow, over time, these brands have been able to preserve and protect their dominance. And the companies that own these brands are proud to talk about how their products evolved.

Coca Cola has a separate section on its website dedicated to the heritage and history of one of the most enduring products the world has ever seen.

Nation branding

Many companies display the flags of their countries to suggest that simply because the product originated from within a nation’s borders, it is purportedly better. A Made in Japan, Germany, Switzerland or the United States label on a product automatically allows the manufacturer to demand a premium price.

Some brands don't create impressions quite so positive. The Ford Edsel and Chevy Chevette were known to be lemons: cars that suck the owner’s cash out with repeated trips to the repair shop. Europcar is associated with poor customer service often subjecting renters with strict inspections when they return cars. Amway network marketers are known to be pushy and even relentless in their pursuit of their next ‘Independent Business Owner’. When Korean brands entered world markets they were supposed to offer “80 per cent of the quality of Western companies at 50 per cent of the price”. It is a tribute to the Koreans that they took this criticism as a challenge, steadily improving quality while now competing with the world’s best.

If a brand signifies something about the underlying product, what do the following brands have in common: Fogg (deodorants); i-Ball Andi (tablets); Park Avenue (apparel); Concorde Silicon Valley or Monte Carlo (apartment complexes), and Fiama Di Wills (shampoos and soaps)? Answer: They are all quintessentially Indian but sport impressive international names simply to convey an impression that the quality is better.

Harish Bijoor, a brand strategy specialist, pointed out a few years ago in the University of Pennsylvania’s Knowledge@Wharton publication that international sounding names add allure. “At times you do not understand the brand name, but the mystique and aura about the name is enough to create excitement …. the foreign-sounding name is all about quality cues that are superior to the Indian name, which is designated as ‘low quality.'

This phenomenon is not unique to India. In China, Frognie Zila, a clothing brand, and Chrisdien Deny, a retail chain, are popular with Chinese customers for the same reason. In a story in The New York Times which highlighted how Chinese companies have adopted names to project foreign flair, a consumer, Fu Rao, is reported to have said, “Buy Chinese brands? Never.” Ms Fu complained that Chinese products were shoddily made and lacking in style. “Foreign stuff is so much better,” she said.

Ambiguous and elusive

Which is why trying to find out the origin of such companies requires skills that would make Hercule Poirot, the fictional Belgian detective, created by Agatha Christie, proud. If a company website exists at all, it only lists product information. The “About Us” link, if present, is vague and contains no information about the management team. The “Contact Us” link takes one to an online form but phone numbers and addresses are not provided. These are not traits one would expect from a company that wishes to be known for the product it makes.

Knock-offs

At the extreme end are outright brand knockoffs intended to deceive and nothing else. Walk down any Indian or Chinese bazaar (frankly, any Asian market) and you are sure to find Adidos, Hike and Fuma shoes. The NY Times story even mentioned the infamous Johnnie Worker Red Labial whiskey (the spelling is accurate). “Chinese brands copy because they believe it enables them to get an easy, quick win,” said Vladimir Djurovic, president of the Labbrand Consulting Company in Shanghai. “They play on the confusion.”

All of these hardly conform to the spirit of the AMA definition of what a brand is. But are these brand strategies, whose key intent is to directly or indirectly mislead, effective? Absolutely, positively yes.

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