As brands become increasingly international, it is ever more important that names are suitable for use around the world. But finding the right name for a product or company is expensive, time-consuming and fraught with difficulties. Apart from problems of meaning and pronunciation, all names have to be legally registered, which involves a lengthy and costly search to ensure that they are not already in use.
One company that recently had to undergo this process is Saatchi & Saatchi, which has changed its name to Cordiant - to distinguish itself from the London advertising agency of the same name.
Malcolm Parkinson, chief executive of the Saatchi subsidiary Siegel & Gale, led the team that was charged with developing a new identity. He said: "There was confusion between the advertising agency in London and the holding company, which covers a number of different sorts of businesses. We needed to come up with something quickly that would outlive the current local difficulties with the London advertising agency."
Mr Parkinson led brainstorming sessions at Saatchi offices in London and New York. These produced a number of names, but the company eventually settled for Cordiant, which he says "gives the sense of accord, and from the heart". Fortunately there were no other companies registered under that name, so the process could be completed quickly.
Saatchi may have developed a new name in-house, but many companies use specialists. John Murphy, chairman of Interbrand, which was responsible for naming Hobnobs and the Ford Mondeo, says: "The problems are legion and the task is getting harder and harder as brands become more global."
To develop names, Interbrand recruits members of the public who are interested in words and language. These are usually crossword and Scrabble buffs drawn by ads in such publications as the Times Literary Supplement and Private Eye. They are paid expenses, sign a confidentiality agreement and waive copyright. Groups are given an outline of the problem - for example, the name for a chain of off-licences - then fuelled with wine and nibbles to begin brain-storming.
The branding specialist DDG also recruits creative thinkers, but its groups focus less literally on the problem in hand. One of the first steps is for the group to pair off, lie on the floor and draw pictures while listening to rave music. Jonathan Mercer, a DDG partner, says: "We try to run groups in the morning, because research indicates that people are at their most creative at 10am. It is very easy to get the first 50 per cent out of people through brain-storming and addressing the problem directly. We try to make the leap, get people thinking creatively, and get the other 50 per cent by approaching the issue side-on."
Once a shortlist has been drawn up, it has to be checked for pronunciation - the letter R, for example, is unpronounceable in Japanese. Names also have to be checked for unintentional double meanings in other languages. The Brand Naming Company has a "black museum" of foreign products presented in a way that would be impossible to sell in the UK.
Its director, Bridget Ruffell,says: "We have to be very careful about linguistic and cultural nuances. It would be so easy to get it wrong."
Once it has been established that names are neither unintentionally funny nor offensive then the difficult task of legal registration begins. All three companies use specialist trade mark lawyers, who trawl through international lists of company and product names.
Mr Murphy says: "Legal checks are hugely expensive and time-consuming. A search costs £300 per name per country. You also have to identify to which class your product belongs - food or pharmacy, for example."
Ms Ruffell says: "You might start out with 250 names but you recommend 10 to the client and then search the one that they are really keen on simply because it is so expensive." However, the naming companies and their clients agree that the time and effort spent on developing the right name are well worth it. After all, Spain's Bimbo bread and Germany's Colon cleaning products are unlikely to make the leap to international brands.
Meanwhile, Volkswagen is still deciding whether its people carrier, called Sharan and acceptable in continental Europe, will have to be rechristened for the UK market.