A brand is often a company’s greatest asset. Frequently more than just a logo, tagline, or ad campaign, a brand is the sum total of the consumer’s experiences and interactions with it. Brands are fueled by a purpose and nurtured by the emotional attachment that they cultivate with their target audience. They are the vehicle by which a company defines itself, allowing it to differentiate its products and services from those of its competitors. Brand names can have a significant impact on the consumer’s perceived quality of a product, an item’s price, or even someone’s intention to purchase. The rise of global branding has transformed the marketing industry over the past century. While many brands have been able to successfully conform to a variety of cultures and their values, the discipline is littered with examples where that wasn’t the case. In a field complicated by cultural factors, the diversity of languages, and nationalism, adapting a brand name to the language of the target market can mean the difference between success and failure but the choice is not always so clear-cut. Linguistic and cultural assessments are key when entering a new market and this is something that Pelikan wrestled with in the first half of the twentieth century.
It was amidst the industrialization of the late nineteenth century that Günther Wagner began to use a picture of a pelican as a trademark derived from his family’s coat of arms. It would go on to become what is today one of Germany’s oldest registered trademarks with an official registration date of November 27, 1878. Fritz Beindorff would join the company soon thereafter in 1881 and would eventually become the firm’s sole proprietor by 1895 following the retirement of his then father-in-law, Günther Wagner. Under his leadership, a stylistic version of the German word “Pelikan” was introduced along with the pictorial to help prevent ambiguity and the Günther Wagner trade name was slowly phased out. This started around 1896 with a line of liquid drawing inks but by the early 1900s, the company was trading under the Pelikan brand in earnest. As the brand expanded to markets outside of Germany, there was a time when it chose to translate its name. In linguistics and marketing, this is known as phonetic transliteration or transcription. Phonetically transliterated brand names have a similar pronunciation as the source but are usually devoid of their original meaning in the target country. Perhaps it was serendipity then that the German word for pelican was a cognate with a similar appearance, pronunciation, and meaning in a variety of different languages.
With its denotation intact, Pelikan endeavored to translate its name into English and French during the early 1900s though the early 1950s. This is why many advertisements, price lists, products, and packaging are labeled with either Pelican for English-speaking and Pélican for French-speaking markets. This practice was prevalent in regions such as the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Spain. Such a convention seems foreign today and is widely regarded as only serving to weaken a brand by diluting its global recognition. This trend towards translation was not universal or even uniformly applied, seemingly reserved for only the company’s largest trading partners. We know that the French translation did not survive in usage beyond the 1920s but the English version can be seen in advertising and print media through the 1940s. This includes bottles of ink which were the first and longest running product lines to be branded with the translated name. Other products such as fountain pens and pencils continued to be labeled “Pelican” through the early 1950s. Examples of items with the Pelican branding have included, but are not limited to, the 100N (1937-54), 140 (1954-64), 400 (1950-56), and 500 (1950-56) fountain pens as well as the Auch Pelikan 200 and 210 mechanical pencils. By the mid-1950s, the brand as we know it today was unified under the name Pelikan across all of its markets.
- Innes, Luke. “Is Your Brand Name Global? Nailing Brand Name Translation.” 3/1/2015. Last accessed 11/5/2018.
- Schäfer, Detmar. “Pelikan The Brand (How the baby bird got into the nest, and how many).” 2013.
- The Fountain Pen Network. “Pelikan With A ‘c’” 6/3/2018. Last accessed 10/8/2018.