What’s in a name? The business behind Japanese product naming
January 27, 2010

As an ALT in Japan, we are all more than aware that our gaijin neighbors won’t be with us forever. Each year, new waves arrive and seasoned veterans go back to Western reality. My good friend Carol is a volunteer for Kitami’s Red Cross hospital. She has been here for 2 years, the maximum for volunteers, and heads back to England in February. As she was selling and giving away her worldly possessions, I headed for the bookshelf. I’m a prolific reader, and finding English-language bookstores isn’t so easy (and I prefer instant-gratification to waiting for Amazon Japan).

I came across a small tome of bizarre Japanese news stories by the name of Tabloid Tokyo, compiled by Mark Schreiber. It has been a very entertaining between-classes read.

One chapter, which discussed product naming, was particularly interesting to me. Pocari Sweat is my favorite drink in Japan. When I came here on a La Salle travel study in 2006, we joked about how Pocari Sweat must be made. Surely, there is a mythical creature called the Pocari, roaming the backcountry of Japan. They are herded and either frightened, heated, or squeezed to render the delicious Pocari Sweat, which is then bottled and distributed around Japan. We had a lot of drunken jokes on this topic, but we never got down to why it must really be called “Sweat.”

This article doesn’t explain the naming of my favorite Japanese (non-alcoholic) beverage, but it does provide insight into the method behind the madness when it comes to assigning a name to a product here in J-Land.

 WALKMAN KICKS STOWAWAY’S ASS

dacapo (February 19, 2003)

Melty Kiss. Sweat. Pocky. What gooey, goofy environment begot these syllables? And attached them to consumer products — a chocolate treat, a drink and a chocolate-topped stick-shaped biscuit, respectively? And expected them to sell? And was right?

A product name is a mysterious thing, dacapo finds. It can be as blandly descriptive as “Green Gum,” as lovely, if meaningless, as “Saran,” and as devoid of meaning and beauty alike… as “Walkman.” Walkman — therein hangs a tale.

When Sony’s portable tape player debuted in 1979 it was called Stowaway in the U.K. and Soundabout in the U.S. Both names yielded to the drab pidgin-English Walkman, its Japanese appellation. Now you can look Walkman up in some dictionaries and find it defined, a mere name no longer.

This next story takes us back to 1958, when Japanese product naming was a prosaic matter of identifying the merchandise. Haguromo Foods’ Sea Chicken (an unacknowledged variation of the American “Chicken of the Sea”) broke the mold. Sea chicken? What on earth was that? At first, sales of the canned tuna went nowhere; the idea of an imaginative product name was ahead of its time. But — thanks in no small measure, dacapo says, to the cute cartoon “sea chicken” that starred in the ads — the times soon caught up, and sales rocketed.

What’s in a name? Product success or failure, that’s what. In 1985 Itoen surmounted numerous technical difficulties to produce the world’s first canned green tea. Its name was Kan-iri Sencha — Canned Green Tea — and it flopped. In 1989, the name was changed to Oi-ocha, derived from “Oi! Ocha!” — a husband’s curt but typical demand to his wife for a cup of tea. Sales soared.

Is there a pattern? A standard? Euphony, one might think — but Walkman? The message, perhaps — but Pocky? On second thought, maybe Glico did have a message in mind when it dreamed up Pocky. It comes, the magazine says, from pokkin — not a word but a sound, the sound the stick-biscuit makes when bitten.

“Ad budgets are shrinking,” explains an analyst the magazine consults. “If you can’t advertise a product, the name itself must be the advertisement. It has to have instant impact.”

If a random survey of your neighborhood convenience store turns up names wackier than most, the reason is clear. Convenience store cash registers keep track of what items sell and what items don’t. Those that don’t are swept out — no appeal, no second chance. If your product name is selling your product, you better make it good.

Many sound-names are word fusions, some ingenious, some tortured. AIBO, the dog-robot that went on sale in 1999, comes from AI, artificial intelligence, and a slice of the second syllable of “robot.” Cray-pas is “crayon” plus “pastel.” Kobayashi Pharmaceutical’s intestinal medicine Gaspitan pairs intestinal “gas” with “pitan (quick stop).”

For years, Japan’s top-selling car was Toyota’s Corolla, suggesting flower petals. In 2002 it was overtaken by Honda’s Fit, suggesting… what, exactly? Fitness? Fits?

Fuji Film’s disposable cameras looked like cardboard boxes. “Honto ni utsuru no? — Does this thing actually take pictures?” a skeptical customer might ask. The affirmative answer became the product name: “Utsuru’n desu.”

As with product names, so with corporate logos. Staid is out, cute is in. Would you trust your savings to a bank named Tomato? When Sanyo Sogo Bank became the Tomato Bank in 1989, it seemed a bit flaky — but people were growing tired of the solid but chilly dependability conveyed by traditional names. Depositors laughed and gave it their blessings. So now you’ve got banks with names like Sakura (cherry blossom) and Mizuho (vigorous rice plants).

Well, why not? It’s harmless, fun, in tune with the times. With subatomic particles sporting names like strawberry quark, why shouldn’t a bank call itself  Tomato? Or a drink, Sweat? Or a magazine, dacapo? (MH)

Carol, you will be missed… much like I will be missing Pocari Sweat when I return to America.

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