Romancing the Product: The Power of European Brand Names

By Mark Skoultchi

October 13, 2008

Using European languages to create product names and company names for American brands can be a powerful strategy or a serious misstep. Here’s when it works, and why.

What do Häagen-Dazs, Saint Benoît and Clinique have in common? Answer: they’re all successful European brand names for stuff manufactured right here in the good old U.S. of A. They’re also living proof that one of the most effective ways to telegraph luxury or premium quality is to use a product name or company name that’s derived from a European language. And even though many American consumers are hip to this trick by now, most don’t mind being seduced with a European come-on if the product lives up to its promise.

The vaguely Scandinavian brand name Häagen-Dazs was coined in 1959-by two Polish immigrants living in the Bronx-to lend Old World flair to their line of ice creams. The strategic naming worked, and the super-premium ice cream soared to success with its incorrectly placed umlaut. Similarly, the product name Clinique adds French cachet to a skincare and makeup line from Estée Lauder (itself a “Frenchified” version of Josephine Esther Lauder, one of the company’s founders). And on a smaller, local scale, Saint Benoît has created a nice little stir-and is commanding premium prices-with its small-batch, French-style yogurt, even though it’s “crafted” in Sonoma County, California.

Bottom line: when branding products for American audiences, foreign-sounding names can play off stereotypes of other nations and trigger associations we retain on a preconscious level. For instance, French product names can suggest luxury and premium quality; Italian product names, sexiness and high fashion (or at least great espresso); Scandinavian names, superior milk products and icy pure water and vodka; and German names, impeccable automotive engineering.

There’s only one catch with foreign branding: you have to make sure your products are in synch with, and can live up to, their European mystique. An ultra-rich ice cream like Häagen-Dazs can easily make good on the promise its name makes. (As can Saint Benoît’s creamy yogurt, developed by brothers who grew up in France, where simple local foods like hand-crafted yogurt are more of a tradition.) On the other hand, a mediocre ice cream with a fancy European product name will only come across as pretentious and silly.

Of course if you’re really, really clever, there’s even a place for ironic foreign branding that plays off the implicit pretension of certain foreign-sounding names. Witness the success of LeSportsac, the iconic American bag company whose bags are “proudly manufactured in the US.” Its tongue-in-cheek coined name blends Old World panache with New World street smarts, to suggest a brand that’s both chic and practical-and sophisticated in a hip kind of way. Which is, perhaps, the best of all worlds.

So could a European-sounding name be right for your brand? Before you proceed down this road ask yourself:

  • Do the associations invoked by a European name fit your brand and its personality?
  • Are the associations central to your brand’s positioning?
  • Which language/s are most appropriate? (Italian, for example, tends to be livelier and more masculine in tone than French, which has a softer feel.)
  • Are you overlooking another, more direct route to the same message? (If your maple syrup is made in picturesque Vermont, for example, do you really need to go trekking to France for an evocative name?)
  • And finally: can your brand deliver on the inherent promise of superior quality or luxury certain European languages evoke?
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