The current series of advertising billboards from Allianz — an international financial services company, with its parent company headquartered in Munich, Germany — are really wonderful, and their creativity inspired this post about brand name pronunciation. Here is one billboard example I recently captured in Minneapolis with my iPad, to the left.

How we pronounce words, names, places, and brand names can make a difference. Often the difference reveals whether you’re an insider or an outsider. For example, when you mispronounce my name, you prove you really don’t know me. In addition, to the extent there is one “correct” pronunciation of a word, place or brand name, saying it the “wrong” way can lead to humor and sometimes ridicule — at least for those who know how to say it “right” and are proud of it.

There were always good chuckles as a child when one of our grandmothers who visited us from east of the Mississippi would refer to the capital of Iowa as “Dez Moinez.” All things considered, she probably enjoyed outsider status. And I have no doubt that my wife and I were the butt of jokes when we arrived in Minneapolis more than twenty years ago, asking how to get to Wayzata, but calling it Way-zata, instead of Why-zetta (and, no, we didn’t learn how to incorrectly pronounce the town name from the erroneous references in Beverly Hills 90210).

Consider your last dining experience where a separate menu and wine list was left with your table already adorned with a white tablecloth and crystal stemware. Seems like some of the menu items and wine names exist for the sole purpose of making you feel like an outsider, at least at first blush. I still remember my first experiences with Gnocchi, Foie Gras, and Bruschetta. Restaurants that actually number their wine selections are especially kind to outsiders, no?

What about brand names, have you ever felt like an outsider when exposed to a new brand for the first time? Has humor ever surrounded the mispronunciation of a brand name, in your experience? To the extent Pronounce It Right is a reliable and accurate online pronunciation resource, many Americans regularly butcher the “proper” or “correct” pronunciation of many brand names — especially those originating outside the United States, brands such as Porsche, Yves Saint Laurent, Bvlgari, Christian Louboutin, and Louis Vuitton. Yet, PronunciationHub purports to offer “the single and correct pronunciation of this word” for Porsche, which still seems a bit Americanized, but probably less Americanized than how most say Volkswagen. It nevertheless acknowledges two versions for Nike, the European version and the American version. Finally, for what it’s worth, I’ve never heard anyone pronounce Chipotle Mexican Grill this way: Ship-uh-lay.

After South Korean automaker Hyundai’s Genesis model won North American Car of the Year, it ran this clever 2009 Superbowl 30 second television advertisement: “Win one little award and suddenly everyone gets your name right: It’s Hyundai, like Sunday.” Apparently PronunciationHub didn’t get the memo, as it’s Hi-Un-Dye to them.

What about trademarks? Well, if you regularly feel like an outsider when it comes to being corrected about proper brand name pronunciation, become a trademark type, where you can earn a living in a world where, you’ll be comforted to know, there is no “correct” way to pronounce a trademark, as the USPTO’s Trademark Manual of Examining Procedure (TMEP Section 1207.01(b)(v)) teaches:

“Similarity in sound is one factor in determining whether there is a likelihood of confusion between marks. There is no “correct” pronunciation of a trademark because it is impossible to predict how the public will pronounce a particular mark. Therefore, “correct” pronunciation cannot be relied on to avoid a likelihood of confusion. See, e.g., Kabushiki Kaisha Hattori Tokeiten v. Scuotto, 228 USPQ 461 (TTAB 1985) (SEYCOS and design for watches held likely to be confused with SEIKO for watches and clocks); In re Great Lakes Canning, Inc., 227 USPQ 483 (TTAB 1985) (CAYNA (stylized) for soft drinks held likely to be confused with CANA for, inter alia, canned and frozen fruit and vegetable juices); In re Energy Telecommunications & Electrical Association, 222 USPQ 350 (TTAB 1983) (ENTELEC and design for association services in the telecommunication andenergy industries held likely to be confused with INTELECT for conducting expositions for the electrical industry); In re Cresco Mfg. Co., 138 USPQ 401 (TTAB 1963) (CRESCO and design for leather jackets held likely to be confused with KRESSCO for hosiery).”

So, while there may very well be valid branding and marketing reasons to develop a “correct” pronunciation for a brand name, as some of the examples demonstrate, there will still be a wide variety of pronunciations adopted by consumers, probably explaining why the USPTO has determined there is no such thing as a “correct” pronunciation, at least when it comes to comparing marks as part of a likelihood of confusion analysis.

For other DuetsBlog guest posts discussing the pronunciation of brand names, consider these: Nancy Friedman’s That Story About the Chevy Nova? It’s a No Go, Mark Prus’ Sonic Bimbo, Nancy Friedman’s “Los Doyers” Goes Legit. Are You Cheering?, and Mark Prus’ Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time…