Case Study: Is the New Brand Name Offensive Somewhere?

The client:

Inspired ideas that simply sell.  That’s one of the taglines of Yamamoto, a well-known Minneapolis-based ad agency. Their website video says it all: “We are awake, we are around, we are alive, we are here, we are big, we are small.” They have a reputation for custom-crafted, highly creative work and intense client interaction.

Their question for Tembua:

Does this word mean anything in Swahili or Arabic or Chinese or any one of another dozen languages?

Yamamoto came to Tembua for help evaluating a new brand name they had created for one of their clients. Because the name was a nonsense word with no meaning in English, they were concerned that they may have accidentally stumbled on a foreign word that some people found offensive. They were wise to check—we’ve heard stories like that! Our question for them:

Who’s going to see the name?

Tembua approached this interesting assignment by first asking for the geographic regions where the new brand name would be promoted. The next step was identifying languages for each region. For foreign countries, we chose the primary and secondary languages as listed on government sites. For regions of the United States, we pulled language usage data from the US Census Bureau and chose the top languages for each.

For languages with many variants, we used the ones primarily spoken in each region.

How we researched their question:

We knew our client needed more than a simple yes/no answer to their initial question. Not only were we investigating possible meanings and offensive implications of the new name, we were interested in the feelings that name generated for foreign speakers.

Tembua’s project manager created a simple questionnaire that asked four questions:

Does the new brand name mean anything in your language?

Does the sound of the name have any connotations—negative or positive?

Is the name similar to another product in a different category or a geographic designation?

Does that name sound like any offensive terms?

The questionnaire was sent to five native speakers of each of the languages identified. For  languages with different variants , we added a native speaker of each variant spoken in the region. The recipients were chosen from Tembua’s extensive list of translators, interpreters, writers, editors, and subject matter experts around the world. They were asked to report their first impressions and then write a sentence or two about the brand name.

Tembua’s report to the client:

Yamamoto received from Tembua a complete report on any meaning, possible offensive connotations, and other impressions of the brand name in each of the languages surveyed. For example, one linguist reported it sounded like a calm body of water in his language.


Yamamoto’s client was pleased with the results and went ahead to use the brand name and related collateral with confidence.

Yamamoto is one example of how Tembua uses its expertise to assist clients all along the linguistic value chain!

Contact me to ask if we can help with your language questions!

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Patricia May

President and CEO

612-280-6945 cell