Laurel Sutton could talk about linguistics all day

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Laurel Sutton is a co-founder of Catchword, a Bay Area naming firm behind names like Asana, Vudu, and many of the activity trackers from Fitbit, like Zip, One, Flex, and Force. She is also the Information Officer for the American Name Society; but Laurel's not only a naming expert. She's also a trained linguist, with a Master's Degree in linguistics from UC Berkeley.

Laurel's expertise in naming and linguistics make her perfectly suited for her current role: She now runs Sutton Strategy, where she focuses on providing linguistic analysis on name ideas. Linguistic analysis is a crucial step in the naming process, ensuring you (or your client) don't end up with a name on one of those listicles of "worst naming disasters" because you failed to realize your brand name was slang for something offensive. For some reason, the most famous example of a linguistic disaster in naming is actually fake news: the story of Chevy Nova selling poorly in Spanish-speaking countries because it translates to "doesn't go." Never happened. But there are real examples, too. Laurel provided the following list:

  • Zyklon: In 2002, German engineering giant Siemens abandoned plans to register the trademark "Zyklon" a range of home products, including gas ovens; in the same year, UK sports goods maker Umbro apologized after complaints that it named one of its sports shoes Zyklon. [Zyklon B was the poison gas used in Nazi extermination camps.]
  • Incubus: Reebok once marketed the "Incubus," a shoe named for a demon who violates women in their sleep. In 1997, the company recalled 18,000 boxes of these unsold $57.99 shoes.
  • Strange Fruit: In 2014, a Texas PR firm was forced to drop the name "Strange Fruit" after loud public outcry; they are now Perennial PR. ["Strange Fruit" is the name of a song made famous by Billie Holiday, referencing lynchings in the US South.]
  • LaCrosse: When GM debuted the Buick LaCrosse sedan in North America in 2005, the company changed the name to "Allure" for the Canadian market after someone pointed out the name's prurient connotation in French—it's slang for "masturbation." It was eventually renamed to LaCrosse in Canada in 2009, after the brand was well-established in the US.

Laurel kicked off our conversation by defining linguistic analysis as "pieces of research that are designed to make sure that any name is going to work globally." She then shared her process, which involves emailing in-country, native linguists who are also fluent in English, and asking about:

  1. Pronunciation: "Have them rate it. Is it easy? Is it hard? Why is it hard?"
  2. Negative associations: "Those can be from a cultural thing happening in that country or something in the past. It can be political. It can be just the sound of the word; this word sounds like something bad that’s a word in that person’s native language. It could be because it is associated with a brand that was bad in their country, for whatever reason."
  3. Existing brand associations: "There might be brands that were really popular in a specific city...that aren’t going to show up in trademark screening. Maybe they never had a trademark for it, [but] they had a lot of television commercials. That’s not going to show up in Google, either."

We talked about questionnaires, what it means to do a "global" check, and whether it's still important to do linguistic checks when your brand will only sell in the US (it is). Laurel shared the work that goes into turning raw results into a final report, including following up to clarify comments, adding clickable links for more information, creating an executive summary, and weighing in with her own professional opinion on which names to pursue and which to drop.

We rounded out the conversation talking about the difference between translation and transliteration. Then Laurel shared why she loves naming and linguistics: "[When] I see that this is new information that they haven’t really thought about before, that just jazzes me so much, to know that I’m passing on information, I’m educating someone. And now they know something that they didn’t know before, which is important and crucial to their business."

    Below, you'll find the full transcript of the episode (may contain typos and/or transcription errors). Click above to listen to the episode, and subscribe on Apple Podcasts or elsewhere to hear every episode of How Brands Are Built.

    ROB: Hi, Laurel. Thanks so much for being here.

    LAUREL: Hey, thank you. It’s a pleasure to speak with you.

    R: Let’s dive into what I call “linguistic and cultural disaster check.” I’m curious whether that’s the terminology you use. But if we could start just by having you describe that and why it’s such an important part of the naming process.

    L: Sure. People call this type of research different things. Sometimes they’re called disaster checks. Sometimes they’re just called linguistic checks or linguistic analysis. They are pieces of research that are designed to make sure that any name is going to work globally, and that can mean in many languages of the world or it could mean in a targeted geographic area. It’s like a focus group except you’re looking specifically for things like pronunciation or negative associations from native speakers of your target language who live in that country who can give you a good idea of whether or not a name’s actually going to work in that country.

    R: I want to just talk about the process that you use. I’ve worked with different firms to do this kind of work, and I have to admit, after I send a list of names, I don’t really know what happens between then and getting some kind of result. Are you sending emails to a bunch of people? How are they receiving the information, and what kinds of things are they asked to do exactly?

    L: Sending email is by far the easiest and quickest way. I’ve got a network of people around the globe who live in the target countries who are native speakers and who also are fluent in English. That’s very important, because often you do need to go back and follow up on questions if their answer wasn’t 100% clear.

    If you gave me a list of names, we’d agree on which languages you wanted to test, specifically what countries and what languages, and then we talk about the kinds of questions you’d like to ask them, you’d like me to ask on your behalf. Typically, that’s a question about pronunciation. Have them rate it, is it easy, is it hard, why is it hard. It’s really important to get to the why’s, just like you would in any focus group. It’s not enough for people to say, “It doesn’t work.” You have to say why it doesn’t work.

    R: Right.

    L: Are there too many consonants? Is it too long? There could be a lot of different reasons why it’s difficult for them to pronounce. So that’s one area. Second area would be whether it has negative associations, and those can be from a cultural thing happening in that country or something in the past. It can be political. It can be just the sound of the word, this word sounds like something bad that’s a word in that person’s native language. It could be because it is associated with a brand that was bad in their country, for whatever reason. Negative associations, again, the why’s are really important.

    Then the third area that I usually ask about is existing brand associations, so does this name remind you of a brand in your country. I find that particularly useful because even though the client, you, typically are doing other types of screening, like googling or trademark screening in that country, asking about brand associations will pull up a lot of stuff that you might not get through googling or through trademark searching. There might be brands that were really popular in a specific city, maybe the capital city of that country that aren’t going to show up in trademark screening. Maybe they never had a trademark for it, they had a lot of television commercials. That’s not going to show up in Google, either.

    R: Right.

    L: It’s a way of getting kind of the feet on the ground response as a person would in that country if they saw that name.

    R: Right. And it could be something that we don’t even typically think of as a brand. It could be a pop star or the name of a late-night comedy show or something that has some really tight cultural association there that we would just have no way of knowing otherwise.

    L: Right, exactly. It’s not that you’re looking for negative associations. You’re just looking for associations, positive or negative, because you want to be aware of them. So that last category typically will not be an answer that will kill a name, but for a client, it’s really important to know about those things because questions might come up or you might need to deal with it in your marketing. It’s just more data points, and I think more data is always better.

    R: Right. I supposed it conceivably could even ... It could even uncover an opportunity from a marketing and messaging standpoint.

    L: Yep, exactly.

    R: You mentioned the three buckets of question areas, but how much variability is there in the specific way that you ask those questions? I guess I’m trying to get at how much art and science goes into the questionnaire development and how much of it is kind of repeatable across each project?

    L: Some of it is repeatable, and I think that makes it easier for the respondents, as well, because they’re used to a typical format. When they see something coming, they answer in a certain way that makes sense to us. Those three basic areas, the pronunciation, the negative associations, and the existing brand associations tend to be the same from project to project, but we’ll often layer more questions on top of to it, depending on what a client is looking for.

    Questionnaires can be really long. Typically you want maybe five questions. After that, people can get a little burnt out, but I have done them to ask up to 10 questions when a client wanted some very, very specific information, because they knew that there had been some existing brands so they wanted to know about those particular associations, even if it was from 20 years ago, do you think that’s a problem.

    I’ve also done logo checks with similar sorts of questions about colors and shapes and general appropriateness, would this work in your country, and if not, please explain to me why. Those answers are more open-ended, so if you were doing a survey, it would be that big box where you have to type a paragraph about why this doesn’t seem right to me or why it’s particularly good.

    R: That’s fascinating. I have to admit, I’ve always thought of linguistic disaster check and just name research as being separate things, or logo research, to your point. But it sounds like you can kind of blend the two a little bit and frankly maybe save a little time and money by getting some of these questions answered, not only answered but answered by people all around the world, and at least use that as a gut check on some of the ideas that you were trying to express through the name or the tonality that you were hoping the name would have.

    L: Yeah, absolutely. I think what you’re looking for is fit to brand or fit to concept. You can ask those questions now. In a situation like this, it’s not like a focus group where you can have back and forth and a real discussion, but as you say, it’s really good for a gut check just to make sure that you’re not going off the rails or you’re coming up with something that’s completely inappropriate for that particular culture that you’re really trying to target.

    R: I wanted to ask, I’ve had lots of clients where I’ll ask where are you launching this brand or where are you hoping to sell this product, and it seems like increasingly, especially with online businesses, the answer is just "global". How do you handle that? I mean, we’re not going to check every single language and every single country and culture.

    L: There’s about 6,000 languages in the world. I can do it in 6,000 languages, and I’m happy to do that honestly, because that would be super fun. But most clients don’t want to spend that kind of money.

    If someone says global, I always try to drill down a little bit on what that means. If you talk about Europe, there are obviously the major, as we say, major languages in Europe, often abbreviated, as you probably know, as FIGS, right? French, Italian, German, and Spanish, and that covers a pretty broad geographical spread. Then if you want to move a little bit further east, I will ask a client, "Are you going to sell this in Russia? Is that important to you? If so, should we add some eastern European languages, like Russian and Polish?" Polish is becoming increasingly important because there’s a lot of business and tech that goes on there.

    Then we move a little further east and say, "Okay, Asia, what does that mean?" There are many, many, many varieties of languages spoken in China. Mandarin and Cantonese have the most speakers, but then there are very many regional variations and also variations within the major cities. Shanghainese is a big one that’s pretty different from others. Taiwanese is completely different. And then the varieties of Mandarin and Cantonese that might be spoken in Hong Kong are also really different from what’s spoken on the mainland.

    Again, it’s getting that geographical feel, how important is it? Are you going to sell in Thailand? Are you going to sell in Vietnam? Are you going to sell in Japan? Let’s try to actually figure those out. Then you can go south. In the same part of the world, do you want to test for Australian English, New Zealand English? Sure, we can do that. There are many other minority languages there that we could look at. South America, so South America is often grouped into developing.

    R: Oh, I see.

    L: Yeah, so that’s considered ... It’s such a western perspective, isn’t it? All of South America is developing. We don’t consider them part of us, which-

    R: I thought you were going to say that South America was split into developed versus developing, but you’re just saying it’s all kind of lumped in.

    L: Well, most people do lump it all together, even though it’s really different. South America’s huge, and there are so many different languages and the geography is different. The biggest population is in Brazil, if you’re talking about country, and most of those people speak Brazilian Portuguese, and then the rest of South America is a lot of different varieties of Spanish, and also, I want to say, native South American speakers, indigenous languages, as well. Sometimes those are important, depending on who your target market is going to be.

    R: Sure.

    L: Then there’s Africa, which is also even bigger and-

    R: Diverse, yeah.

    L: ... very, very diverse, and the languages are wildly different. You can kind of do north Africa, South Africa, and then the middle of the country or the coasts, can focus on the coasts. In the northern part of Africa, again, many different African languages, but also Arabic is really important in places like Egypt. Then moving up now, the whole Middle Eastern area. Even though Arabic is quite common in a lot of different countries, the varieties of Arabic are totally different. Egyptian Arabic is really different from the Arabic in United Arab Emirates, which is kind of a big area, also different from Jordan, also really different from people who speak Arabic, say, in Israel.

    The long answer is, there’s so many different languages. The short answer is, I will try to put together a list of maybe 20 based on what the client tells me is most important.

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    R: Do you find that there are countries or languages that you see consistent patterns in the responses? This may be my own personal experience, but for example, Polish, I feel there are often pronunciation concerns with English words because of consonant clustering and things like that. I see that Cantonese often seems that names can be interpreted to sound like something negative somewhat easily. Do you see anything like that, or is that ... You have a lot more experience here than I do. Am I just seeing a small sliver of things for some reason?

    L: I think generally English words, because they mostly come from German and some from Romance, north French, tend to have these consonant clusters and words that end in consonants. Those can be really difficult for people who speak languages that don’t have consonant clusters, Asian languages in particular, which tend to have a structure that’s more like consonant, vowel, consonant, vowel. Japanese is a really good example. There are very few consonant clusters in Japanese, and in Mandarin and Cantonese, as well.

    For them, when they see a word like a ... Pick a fairly good English word, the word straightforward. If you look at that word, there’s a giant weird cluster of consonants between the end of the word straight and the word forward. To them, looking at that, it’s completely confounding, like how do I say that. They will say, "This is really hard." There may be ways to mitigate that. If you do some creative spelling or you break the words up a little bit differently, that can make it easier. That’s just a thing generally, is consonant clusters in English can be very, very difficult for people in other languages.

    In China, I think that’s true. What you mentioned is that there’s a lot of cultural associations in China that have to do with words that sound like other words. I think the most famous example is that the word for four in Chinese sounds also like the word for death, so number four in China is really super unlucky, and this is reflected everywhere. Conversely, the number eight is super lucky. People want that. I read some article saying people will pay so much money to get vanity license plates that have eights on them, and you often see the number eight turn up in business names, imagery, stuff like that. Those things, I think, yeah, in China especially are very top of mind for those people, and it’s something for us to be aware of if we’re going to be sensitive to the cultural norms in another country.

    R: Sticking in our country, do you have clients that maybe discount the importance of this process because they say, "Don’t worry, we’re only ever going to sell this in the US," and if so, how would you react to that because of all the languages that are spoken in the US? Do you ever do just US English, US Spanish, and so on?

    L: Yeah, totally. The response that I have to them is like, "Well, okay, that’s fine, but if you have a problem, it’s going to be difficult for you to change your name." Changing a name, especially after you’ve just done a launch, is insanely expensive and complicated and is-

    R: And demoralizing.

    L: And demoralizing, and it’s really bad for your brand and terrible press and all the rest of it. For clients who say that only English thing, only US, I would say to them, "Okay. Let’s at least check Spanish, because the number of Spanish speakers in the US is huge, and it’s growing, and it’s not ever going to be less than it is right now." People who speak Spanish, even as their first language, of course they’re bilingual in English, almost all of them, but there are only going to be more.

    Spanish isn’t a monolith, so I will often say, "Let’s do Mexican Spanish, which covers California and the southwestern part of the US, but let’s also look at Puerto Rican Spanish, which is different, spoken in New York and the northeast, and let’s also do Cuban Spanish, which is also really different and which is mostly Florida but a little bit north of that as well." That’s pretty good coverage for the US.

    R: Got it.

    L: Then there could be languages as well, especially in California, huge populations of Mandarin and Cantonese speakers. Communities on the northeast have a lot of Portuguese speakers or Castilian Spanish speakers who have come from Spain rather than from Puerto Rico or Cuba or Mexico.

    R: I didn’t really ask about the process of turning raw results into an actual report that you would deliver to a client. Can you talk a little bit about what raw results even means and what the process is of transforming that into a real deliverable for a client?

    L: This is my value add, which I feel uniquely qualified for as somebody who’s done naming for 20 years but also has a linguistics background.

    R: Right.

    L: If you’ve ever seen raw data from, say, a focus group, it’s like a spreadsheet and it’s just answers and answers and answers. What you need to do is go through it and synthesize what comes out of it so when you’re testing 20 names, three people per name in 20 different languages, that’s a giant pile of raw data, and you have to go through carefully and look at all the responses and balance the answers. So if two people think it’s good and one people think it’s not so good on the pronunciation side, I want to delve into that a little bit more and see what they say about why it’s difficult to pronounce.  The same with the cultural associations.

    I always do followup on it, so if someone says, "There’s a department store with this name in Tokyo," I go online, and I look up the name of the department store and I find out if it’s big or small, if there’s Yelp reviews that give it a good reputation, and then I want to try to put that in the report as well so the client is aware of what that means. It’s not enough to say, "It’s the name of a department store in Tokyo." Is it a good department store? Is it premium? Is it high end? What does it actually mean?

    R: Right.

    L: I want to go through all of the material, look at what people say, follow up with them if I need to if there’s an unclear answer or if there’s violent disagreement between two people where someone says, "This is great," and the other person says it’s terrible. That’s not good. I need to get a better feel for what that means. I want to put it into a report that a client can easily digest, so I will do a page-by-page for each name, summarizing the highlight and putting in links, clickable links so they can go and look at the answers.

    But there’s also an executive summary in the front that says, "Out of those 20 names, here are the ones that I think they you should proceed with. Here are the ones you need to be cautious about for these following reasons. And here are the ones in my opinion that you should not bother proceeding with for these reasons." If they want to, they can look at that recommendations page and never look at the rest of the report and just go with the recommendations.

    I feel that my linguistics background has really prepared to analyze big chunks of data and pull out the relevant stuff that’s going to be important. There’s a lot of noise, and I want to filter out that noise so that the client doesn’t have to wonder, "Is this really important?" And also, filter out the random negative comments. I’m sure, as everyone knows, when you do focus groups, there’s always that guy in the back that hates everything.

    R: Yeah, I think I’m that guy.

    L: I can be that guy, too. The problem with it is, our tendency as humans is that you can look at a list of 10 comments, none of them are glowing and positive and one of them is negative, and that’s the one you focus on. You’re like, "Oh, no. This person thinks it’s terrible. That means it’s bad." Well, no. It’s just that one person. Everybody else gave you a glowing recommendation and said whatever your thing was was really good.

    R: As Sutton Strategy, you do not only these linguistic checks but also some translation and transliteration work, I think. Can you just talk about what the difference is between those things? Because I think a lot of people may not understand that.

    L: I don’t do those services myself, but I partner with lots of people who do because that itself is a skill, an art and a science put together, I think. Translation is when you’re taking words from one language and rendering them in another language, so, you know, here’s the word in English for milk and here’s the word "Lait in French that means milk, the same thing. Most clients, I find, have their own localization. That’s what it’s called, localization. Their localization team’s set up already if they’re a big company, especially tech companies, because they have to produce manuals for their users in all these languages. Translation is generally covered by a client.

    Transliteration is different. We are very familiar with our own writing system, which is western-based based, kind of Latinate or Romanized, but many countries do not use our writing system. Chinese is the one most people are familiar with, but Japanese also. Thai is really different. In India, there are several. Russian uses Cyrillic, and there are others around the world.

    Transliteration has two components. It’s typically either taking a name and reproducing it phonetically, just the sounds of the word in that other writing system, but it can also mean taking the concept of the word and rendering it in a different writing system. This is most often the case in Chinese because there is one writing system, two varieties of it, simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese, that works alongside of all the different spoken varieties that there are. For English speakers, it’s a little difficult to wrap your mind around, that the spoken variety can be so different. Mandarin and Cantonese are pretty different, but yet they use the same writing system.

    R: Yeah, it’s strange.

    L: Yeah, I know. It’s weird, but it works. It’s totally cool, and beautiful, and different, and brings a whole new level of meaning. People who do transliteration into Chinese have to consider both the sound of a word but also what those characters that they’re choosing are going to represent. The characters may not correspond at all with the sound of the word. They could be totally different.

    The ideal is for the sound of the word and the character meaning to flow, to actually work with each other, and that’s a really difficult thing. There are companies that specialize in doing that. For my clients, I say to them, "Look, you can’t just go into Google translate and pick some Chinese characters that you think are going to be correct."

    R: Right.

    L: It doesn’t work that way. You need an-

    R: Bad idea.

    L: Yeah, bad, really bad idea. You need an expert to do this thoughtfully and pick out the characters that are going to best represent the meaning of your name and the imagery. Metaphors and imagery are really much more important in China than they are here, and you want to get that exactly right.

    R: Well, you’ve chosen something where there’s a lot of nuance and a lot of complexity to be sussed out, so I trust that you enjoy it, but certainly, it seems like an important thing that companies really need to consider carefully.

    L: Well, as you can probably tell, I could talk about this stuff all day. This is my jam. Linguistics is my jam. When I was in graduate school, the two areas that I studied were phonetics, which is sounds, specifically how people produce sounds, but also more importantly, how you perceive sounds.

    When you think about language, it’s just sound that’s coming out of somebody’s mouth, and it goes in your ear, and then it gets turned into meaning in your brain. It’s incredible how that actually happens. I’m very interested in how sound works and how we perceive sounds and how sound plays into things like communication. Sound and communication work together to make meaning. I love that kind of stuff, the science of it, measuring things, looking at spectrographs.

    But the other work that I did was all about sociolinguistics, which is all about how language gets used in a social context, so how do meanings come across, how does intent work, how does language reflect power differentials or gender differentials. I feel like both those areas, again, really uniquely prepared me to do this job of naming and linguistics, and I get to use all of that when I’m doing this work and reporting back to clients.

    R: It’s a good segue into just a final question here. What is your favorite thing about doing what you do, about naming or linguistics?

    L: This is going to sound a little maybe patronizing, I’m not sure, but I love educating clients. I really do. When I impress on them the importance and fill them in on all the varieties of Chinese and I see that this is new information that they haven’t really thought about before, that just jazzes me so much, to know that I’m passing on information, I’m educating someone, and now they know something that they didn’t know before which is important and crucial to their business. That’s what the linguistic analysis does. That’s what the report does. It’s handing over knowledge that they need to have. I just love that. I want to pass along all this knowledge that I have.

    R: That’s great. Thank you for doing it, and thank you for sharing all your knowledge with me today. I really appreciate your time. We’ll leave it there. Thanks, Laurel.

    L: It was a pleasure to talk to you.

    R: All right, talk to you soon.

    L: Okay.