What makes a great brand name in Singapore?

Singapore, the “little red dot” in Southeast Asia, has a landmass of just 714 km2—barely larger than Chicago.

But despite its small size, this island city-state is home to a diverse 5 million citizens, including people of Chinese, Malay and Indian descent, as well as expatriates, who make up over 20% of the country’s total population.

As business leaders around the world continue to adjust to Asia’s influence on the global economy, Singapore’s mix of ethnicities, cultures and languages makes it an ideal test bed for brand names hoping to appeal to consumers in Asia and around the world.

What then, are the rules of thumb for creating a great brand name in Singapore?

1. Follow a process. Generating a brand name is a creative exercise, but there is an accepted process for finding strong, available names.

Despite stories of California dotcoms letting employees pick names out of a hat, the step-by-step process used by branding and naming firms around the world ensures an exhaustive search for the best available names and, more importantly, prevents naming disasters.

One step in this process—screening for availability—would probably prevent a new brand from using the same name favored by three of Singapore’s best-known brands—a beer, a balm and an airline.

2. Explore all the options. Brand names come in many shapes and sizes. “Singapore Airlines” is a descriptive, real-word name. “Sands,” the company behind Singapore’s new landmark hotel, is also a real word, but is known as an associative name—it implies “relaxing, luxury vacation” without directly describing the product (i.e., there are no sands at Marina Bay Sands).

“SonicGear” is a descriptive compound, or composite name, while “Axe” is an abstract name—the relationship between axes and medicated oil is about as tenuous as that between apples and computers.

Names can also be invented words, like “Garena,” the online gaming service, or “Totobobo,” a Singaporean brand of respiratory mask (based on a loose transliteration of Chinese: “transparent protection for baby”).

3. Check pronunciation. Even in English-speaking countries like Singapore, brand names have to cater to local accents and dialects (can?).

I was recently surprised to have a name rejected because it contained the word “ridge” due to concerns that Singaporeans and Malaysians might pronounce “ridge” as “rich.”

Pronunciation issues in Singapore may also be responsible for an overused workaround: abbreviated names. While most Singaporeans can expound on the differences between NUS, SMU, HDB, EDB, DBS, UOB, LRT and MRT, it’s hard to claim the resultant alphabet soup isn’t confusing and detrimental to each brand’s ability to stand apart.

4. Test for language and cultural appropriateness. The world of professional brand naming is rich with stories of embarrassing missteps that could have been avoided with cultural checks.

The most popular story involves the Chevy Nova, which supposedly failed in Mexico because “no va” is Spanish for “doesn’t go.”

While the Nova story is apocryphal, similar, true stories abound, including Mitsubishi’s SUV, Pajero (Spanish slang for “wanker”), Starbucks’ latte (German slang for “erection”) and even PriceWaterhouseCoopers’ consulting arm, “Monday” (English for “the worst day of the week”).

For obvious reasons, these problems multiply in Singapore and other diverse markets. Testing name candidates before making a final selection is usually quick and easy, and is always more affordable than public humiliation.

Nova. Pajero. Monday. Latte.

5. Sleep on it. There’s a very long list of successful brand names that must have sounded crazy when chosen. Macintosh, Virgin, Google and Gap come to mind.

Names that seem strange, ridiculous, or even offensive at first can be the best candidates, because they grab people’s attention and stand apart from competition. It’s best to take a few days to reflect on your options before proceeding with a name.

So what makes a great brand name in Singapore? The best names are those that catch attention and convey the brand’s promise or personality.

In multicultural environments like Singapore, increased emphasis must be placed on ease of pronunciation and spelling; short, simple names often work well. Brand managers should understand the implications of using a specific language across borders (for example, young Jakartans’ perception of a brand with a Chinese-sounding name).

Of course, good names have to avoid negative meanings or connotations in every relevant language, dialect and culture. And lastly, the name must be available—often the toughest challenge.

If creating a strong brand name has you asking then how?? you’re getting the idea. It’s a bit like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

The best solution is to make the haystack big—generate hundreds of name candidates—and make the search focused by starting with a clear idea of what your brand stands for and how it should be expressed. Happy hunting.


Rob Meyerson, Strategy Director, FutureBrand 

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