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Need a Unique Brand Name? Try a Finnish Dictionary

Finnish flag with idyllic lake Saimaa in the background
The flag of Finland in the Finnish lake district Saimaa. Photo: iStock.com/joonas

What do American brands Taika, Vuori, Levätä, and startups Sisu, eero and Lumi Labs have in common? Their names all come from Finnish, and shows how brands look for unique names in a language that is one of the most difficult to learn for English speakers

If you work in Silicon Valley, you might have picked up a Taika coffee on your way to start-ups like Sisu, eero or Lumi Labs. You have probably enjoyed a refreshing Elossa kombucha when relaxing at the beach, or maybe you have added protein powder Kasvi to your superfood smoothie, after working out in your Vuori sportswear. Perhaps you have enjoyed a glass of Kukkula wine and Raaka chocolate after a long day, or maybe you have puffed away on California-style legal cannabis with a Levätä vape pen to unwind.

Silicon Valley startups and American brands have curiously taken a liking to Finnish words and names, as explained by Senja Larsen. However, unless you are a San Francisco hipster, or have a connection to Finland, you have probably never come in contact with Finnish, other than the word sauna (and some names of Formula 1 drivers, NHL and Premier League players).

An isolated language

Since Finnish is a Finno-Ugric language, it is light years away from the Germanic languages of its Nordic neighbours, and is not related to any other Indo-European language in the rest of Europe or Russia. Its only relatives are Estonian, Hungarian, the Sámi languages of the indigenous in the north, and minority languages in Finland and Russia, like Karelian.

To give you an idea how different Finnish is from other European languages, the US Foreign Service Institute ranks it as one of the most difficult languages to learn for English speakers, grouping it together with languages like Hebrew, Thai and Hindi. By contrast, you will probably pick up basic Swedish after a few trips to Ikea, as it is considered one of the easiest languages for English speakers to learn.

I have the good fortune to call Finnish one of my mother tongues, along with Swedish. I can, however, sympathise with any non-Finnish speaker that embarks on learning it from scratch. Not only does it resemble any other language, it comes with 15 noun cases! To give you some perspective, English has two.

A wine-cellar with untouched wine

An Englishman that took on the challenge of studying Finnish was author J.R.R Tolkien, and he was particularly inspired by the national epic Kalevala. Tolkien based some of his characters on Finnish mythology, and he even drew on Finnish to create a fictional Elvish language for The Lord of the Rings. The British writer described his encounter with the Finnish language as “entering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before”.

Brands have been attracted by Finnish in the past as well. In Japan, you find clothing brands inspired by Finnish design and Nordic culture, with the slightly nonsensical names Minä perhonen (“I, butterfly”), Ehkä söpö (“maybe cute”) and Otan tämän (“I take this”). Finnish also intrigued Italian entrepreneur Giuliana Rosset, when she chose a name for her winter clothing brand Napapijri. The company took its name from the Finnish word for the Arctic circle, napapiiri, but in addition to spelling it incorrectly, it curiously combined it with the Norwegian flag.

In California, the brands with Finnish names are usually not trying to sell an idea of northern winter landscapes or Finnish design, however. Differentiating from the competition is increasingly difficult in the US, so picking a word from a relatively unknown language, like Finnish, is a way to separate oneself from the crowd. It is also a way to avoid legal troubles of using names that might already be taken, as Senja Larsen points out. In some of the cases mentioned here, the people behind the brands are Finnish entrepreneurs that have wisely taken advantage of their native language when choosing a unique name for their company.

Snow, magic, and an architect

What do those American startup names mean then? Coffee brand Taika means ‘magic’, protein powder Kasvi is the Finnish word for ‘plant’, Elossa means ‘alive’, winery Kukkula takes its name from the Finnish word for ‘hill’, chocolate brand Raaka means ‘raw’, clothing company Vuori means ‘mountain’ and the cannabis vape pen Levätä aptly means ‘to rest’.

Wifi innovator eero is named after the Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, AI startup Lumi Labs takes its name from the Finnish word for ‘snow’, while Sisu, another AI startup, takes its name from the tenacious Finnish fighting spirit, a national character of resilience and perseverance. The wars against the Soviet Union during WWII, where Finland lost parts of its Eastern areas, but managed to remain independent against all odds, are the most famous demonstrations of sisu.

Other companies in the US with Finnish or Finnish-style names are Fiksu, Aalto, Avaamo, Turo, Saipua, Virta Health, Rykä and Kynsi. And although exercise bike company Peloton takes its name from the French word for the lead pack of riders in a bicycle race, I would like to imagine the name came to the founders as an epiphany in a hot sauna in the Finnish wilderness (peloton means ‘fearless’ in Finnish).

A Finnish name for those face masks?

In these days of coronavirus, a lot of companies are thinking about names for new pandemic-related products. How about following the Californian examples, and pick a Finnish word to make your brand stand out?

Sisu might already be taken, but one of these might fit the bill: turva (safety) or suoja (protection) for face masks, pese (wash) for hand sanitiser, etsi (search) or löydä (find) for virus-tracing apps, tuki (support) for mental wellbeing apps, parane (get better) or terve (healthy) for medicine, and why not toivo (hope) for the name of a future vaccine?

If you’re searching for a unique brand name, or if you’re simply looking for a challenging activity to make the quarantine days go by faster, then learning Finnish is an excellent idea.

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Anders Pettersson

Anders Pettersson

Multilingual digital marketer that has lived in Finland, Sweden, Italy, Belgium & the UK. Thoughts on languages & marketing. anderspettersson.co.uk/contact

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