Many people often ask me why in the world I am not using my Russian roots (to be exact, I am from Latvia, but grew up speaking Russian in the family and at school) in my professional life. For instance, they say, I could develop some Russian or East European brands in Western Europe, or help European companies in their business development initiatives in Eastern Europe or Russia.
Good idea! I have to start somewhere, so, in order to bring some “Russianness” into my life and explore wider professional opportunities, here is an article dedicated to some “Russian aspects”, so to say, of brand building.
Now tell me, how many Russian brands do you actually know? For example, you might have heard (and even experienced somewhat closely) of Smirnoff vodka. For the rest, by and large, Russian brands are essentially unknown in Europe. One of the few recent examples or Russian brands going West is Lukoil. Lukoil's entry into the US and Europe was actually a big chance for this company to differentiate itself from other rather boring competitors (come on, how much fun is it really checking out gas stations on highways?). But, how sad, it hasn't really used this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to its advantage. Read a great juicy story about Lukoil's brand on the Corporate Blunders Blog: http://corporateblunders.blogspot.com/.
Russia does have strong brands, though, albeit mostly on the domestic market. Get an idea about what's happening on Russia's branding scene from a report about Russia's top 40 brands published by Interbrand, an international brand strategy consultancy, (see http://www.interbrand.com/press_release.aspx?pressid=248&langid=1000).
On the international level, however, Russian brands are scarce. So rare that some Western European companies are filling this gap by russiannizing their brands. Here is what I mean.
A couple of days ago I was checking out the January sales in Brussels. Pushing through the crowd of discount seekers at the Belgian department store Inno, I started bumping into various articles of clothing bearing Russian-sounding names. Here's a pair of pants by a brand MatinBlanc – the model is called Pouchkine. And here is a skirt with a poorly chosen name -- blini (“pancakes” in Russian). What does a knee-length wool skirt have to do with Russian pancakes? Maybe I am missing some deep meaning here.
On a pre-Christmas shopping trip to Antwerp, one of my absolutely favorite style and fashion cities, I bumped into a souvenir shop selling funky design items by a German brand Koziol (www.koziol.de). In fact, I had already known Koziol long before, but I guess my thoughts as regards putting my Russianness to use made me look at Koziol a bit closer. Many items Koziol makes are very functional and very funky – I bought a super-cool hair brush and an egg cup – as Christmas presents. Nevertheless, I wonder who named this company like that. Koziol means goat in Russian. In familiar Russian, however, it is used to call someone a loser or jerk. Perhaps Koziol just sounds plain funky, well, to a non-Russian at least.
And here is a particular case. I somehow have the impression that Western Europeans and Americans alike seem to be fascinated by the Russian word baboushka (also spelled babouchka, or babooshka). Often, the exact meaning of this word (“elderly woman”) doesn't really seem to matter. It must sound very Russian,or at lest very cool and maybe even stylish. That's probably why some brands use it in their marketing and PR without necessarily intending to bring about the image of a Russian granny and make it part of their product DNA.
The elderly Russian lady inspires some luxury brands, too, probably contributing a little bit of the mysterious Russia to fashion collections and brand names. Just to give you a concrete example, back in December I saw a Gucci ad on the site asmallworld.net promoting its Baboushka collection.
So, what are the conclusions? Like I wrote in my article Brand Names and What's Behind Them (see http://www.schmoozyfox.com/?p=15), if you are in the business of creating brands, double-check and triple-check what your brand names might mean in other languages. Obviously, you can't possibly consider what your brand name might sound like in some rare language. But it helps to have a culturally and linguistically diverse team of business partners and employees: they can definitely brainstorm various linguistic applications of your brand and product names. If not, use social media to get opinions of your existent or potential customers – most probably based internationally – to give you their feedback regarding the subject.
And as for Russian brands going West, I am really looking forward to some new ones appearing in Europe sooner rather than later. Even though the romantic sentiments which surrounded the collapse of the USSR are long gone in Europe and the US, West Europeans and Americans are still hungry for a bit of Russianness here and there. That blini skirt the hidden meaning of which I tried to guess is probably a good example of their willingness to satisfy this hunger.