From Kraft to Mondelēz. Make today delicious, around the world.

It’s 9 pm and I have just finished skyping some of my creatives in Russia to double-check on a heated debate happening in the world of global marketing. I wanted to be absolutely sure before I add to the rather controversial discussion.

On 21 March, Kraft announced that its new global snacks company will be named Mondelēz International. (Please note there is a crucial macron over the second ‘ē’ – which a lot of journalists did not include, in fact, neither does it appear in the body copy of the press release from the official Kraft Food corporate site.)

The company said the name (pronounced mohn-dah-LEEZ) was inspired by the suggestions of two Kraft employees. It is intended to evoke the idea of a “delicious world” as “monde” is derived from the Latin word for “world” and “delez” as an expression of “delicious”.

Jez Frampton, global chief executive officer of Interbrand Ltd., talked about Kraft Foods Inc.’s name change to Mondelēz on Bloomberg Television, referring to the move as a clever idea.

Here’s where the debated started. After the announcement, it was quickly reported that when pronounced as “mohn-dah-LEEZ” the name immediately drew feedbacks from Russians. Apparently, it means something else to Russian speakers, say those fluent in Russian slang (when pronounced, it sounds like the Russian slang for a sex act). After  checking with a few Russian copywriters and they all confirmed that people will certainly make fun of it; they also believe that the male audiences will likely be the ones to be starting the joke.

Back in August last year, Kraft already announced officially that the company would be splitting in two by the end of 2012. And like any creation of a new name, it had gone through a long process. According to Kraft, they have crowdsourced ideas from employees, and more than 1,000 participated, submitting more than 1,700 potential names. The inspiration for Mondelēz came from two employees, one in Europe and another in North America. From what it sounds, it was probably the result of a blend of two ideas.

Kraft also commented that they have properly vetted the new name. According to John Simley, they have done “extensive due diligence in testing the name…that included two rounds of focus groups in 28 languages, including Russian. We determined misinterpretations in any of the languages to be low-risk.”

Many people blamed it on the language issues, and indeed quite a few blunders like this had happened in the world of international marketing and branding. I recall here just a few examples:

  • When Volvo first came to America, the brand also drew controversy because of the similarity between the Swedish car manufacturer’s name and female anatomy
  • General Motors had to change the name of its Buick LaCrosse sedan in Canada after it found that the word LaCrosse is slang for masturbation in Quebec
  • On Bugati‘s website in December 2010, they have advertised a car available in “rape yellow” which was the result of French to English translation error of “rapeseed plant”

Naturally, we question why the problem was not spotted within a big multinational company with multi-cultural staff? What about the creative or brand agency who had provided consultancy service to the client? What about the research company who orchestrated the focus groups in 28 languages? Did they do the research locally?

I believe the reasons are sometimes more complex.

Even if they have conducted naming research, my speculation is that due to the confidential nature of the research, they may not have revealed the full context of the name, so the respondents only were able to respond to a very tightly defined definition, or the questions were set in such ambiguous way that people could not give the feedbacks judged from the whole background.

Another possibility is the reasons behind the name change often could be complex and all the stakeholders contributed in the decision process, which often ends up in a ‘mish-mash’ of messages. A small twist to a name often will end up a disaster. Not every name change could be as lucky as and managed to conquer the challenges like Accenture (formerly Andersen Consulting) or Altria Group Inc. (formerly Philip Morris).

Let’s just take a look at some of the recent name changes and their rationales behind it, and you’ll know what I meant.

Abbott Laboratories spinoff will be named AbbVie

“The beginning of the name connects the new company to Abbott and its heritage of pioneering science. The ‘vie’ calls attention to the vital work the company will continue to advance to improve the lives of people around the world.” According to Richard Gonzalez, CEO of the drugs business.

Sara Lee Corp.’s beverage spinoff will be dubbed D.E. Master Blenders 1753

“When determining the new name, we thought of things like strong heritage, leadership, dynamic brands, bold growth, operational excellence and a great place to work…D.E Master Blenders 1753 captures all of those elements.” According to Michiel Herkemij, executive vice president and chief executive officer, Sara Lee International Beverage.

Corn Products Inc. will rename as Ingredion

“As the current name would suggest, Corn Products make a number of food ingredients from processed corn, like starches and sweeteners. But the company also makes ingredients from tapioca roots, like starches that add texture to dairy products” According to spokesman Aaron Hoffman. And according to the CEO Ilene Gordon it will reflect a shift in business strategy, but it would better represent the company’s pallet of products.

Relaying on a name to encapsulate a huge ambition may well be one of the main reasons.

Whether the name Mondelēz will be under further scrutiny is unsure and whether the company will evaluate all the feedbacks from the public is yet to be seen. At the time of writing this, we understand that Kraft is also working with the creative firm Attik on a corporate identity for Mondelēz, let’s hope some magic could be done to rectify this situation.

I would like to hear your thoughts.