Product Name Makes No Sense? Probably a Trademark Issue

0 Comment

Greg Anderson at the ChinaBizGov blog has a great little trademark find from his area of expertise, China’s auto industry:

China Car Times reports that the new Chevrolet Volt was unveiled at an event in Shanghai today, though it won’t be going on sale until sometime in 2011.

I’m always curious to know how the names of foreign products are Sinicized for sale in the Chinese market. In this case, GM has picked the Chinese name ??? (wo lan da), a name apparently intended to sound somewhat like “volt”. (Incidentally that’s the same ? used in Wal-Mart in China: ???.)

I wondered why they didn’t simply call it “volt” in Chinese. I mean, they do have electricity there, and it’s also measured in volts. So I looked it up.

The word “volt”, meaning a measurement of electricity, is translated as ?? (fu te), which sounds exactly like the Chinese translation of Ford Motors, “??” (fu te).

Excellent example of how product names and trademarks intersect in China. You’d probably be surprised how often that strange brand or product name you see was actually the second, third, or 14th choice of the brand owner. Why settle for the crappy name? All the “good” ones were already taken.

Now consider the complexity of multi-jurisdictional trademark practice, as illustrated in that Volt example. In a perfect world (as envisioned by a trademark lawyer), all product/brand names would be cleared in all jurisdictions, for all languages, prior to any sort of rollout/PR/usage of that name.

Sounds simple, right? Choose a few possible names, farm the searches out to your global trademark counsel, and choose the best one that has been cleared everywhere.

Well, I can think of several reasons why real life doesn’t work that way:

1. Budget — Many firms (not GM, but smaller companies) simply don’t have the budget to obtain global clearances for all product names.1 They have to prioritize markets, and then they clear the name in additional jurisdictions as they move into those markets. If a conflict arises, they use an alternative name. This end result is what GM is doing with the Volt.

2. Preference — Let’s say that the U.S. is by far your number one market, and the name “Volt” can be used there. Even if you find out that the name is not available in China, it might be worth it to go ahead anyway, knowing that an alternative will have to be used in China, and perhaps in other countries. Your preference for “Volt” in the U.S. is so strong that it trumps trademark conflicts in less important markets.

3. Timing — Some industries have very short product development cycles. Getting something on the market fast is key to success, and waiting for several years (potentially) to clean up a trademark conflict is simply impossible. If a conflict arises, a quick decision to either abandon the name, or pay to license/assign the mark, must be taken.

These are only a few reasons. Remember that we are talking about multiple jurisdictions, each with their own local rules. Moreover, each industry has its own quirks related to product lifecycles, advertising restrictions, and name preferences.

The number of factors is quite intimidating, and companies must also make sure that all the right people are “in the loop” when such decisions are being made. This can be quite challenging when it’s a multinational, with individuals responsible for branding stationed worldwide, many of them speaking different languages.

So the next time you see a bizarre brand name, keep in mind that there’s a good chance it’s the fault of some trademark lawyer.

  1. By the way, searches can get really expensive. Not only are they performed based on the product/service in question, or related items, but separate searches should be done for alternative languages. The different permutations can add up quickly. []

One response on “Product Name Makes No Sense? Probably a Trademark Issue