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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Stores' Name Games Leave Shoppers Guessing

It used to be all much simpler. Stores called "Milk" sold just that. Stores named "Clothes" didn't bother with electronics.

But then, what with economic reform and the appearance of a private sector, company owners started inundating consumers with a variety of shop names and breaking the longstanding automatic connection between a store's name and what it sells.

"The first time I went to a 'Bread' store and saw sausages I was very much surprised," said Camilla Yunosova, a copywriter at advertising agency Young and Rubicam. "I came home and told my family, I couldn't believe it."

In choosing their company name, Russian business owners now dip into everything from philosophy -- like a brick factory called "Thought" -- to sheer narcissism. The Moscow-95 telephone directory lists a mind-boggling 119 companies called "Nadezhda," 24 called "Natalya" and 19 with the name "Vera" -- all in different businesses.

Consumers who once knew where they stood with a store's name are now left floating around in a sea of anchorless words, said Russian advertising industry representatives.

The wealth of company names in Moscow with foreign words and Latin letters -- in Soviet times never seen gracing storefronts -- sparks particular controversy, winning the approval of some advertising executives and sparking the nationalist ire of both consumers and city bureaucrats alike.

Young and Rubicam's Yunosova said the phenomenon can be explained as an attempt by store owners to disassociate themselves from popular memories of the dour salespeople or unreliable supplies that characterized domestic businesses in the Soviet past.

"Sometimes people prefer to work with Western companies because they think they're more reliable and solid," she said. "A store with a foreign name makes people think at least there's some participation by foreigners."

But other industry observers advise caution. "Names with Latin letters should be used more carefully, in particular abbreviations like 'ABC,'" since not all customers understand how to read them, said one analyst.

The popularity of Western names is starting to slide, though, with the growing number of Russian firms with "very good reputations," Yunosova added.

Diana Bidjamova, a marketing manager from the BBDO marketing agency, said that two years ago, all research showed that a trademark with Latin letters had a more positive effect on the customer.

"The Latin words on a pack of juice were closely associated with higher quality," she said. "But now the market has changed markedly, and, for example, as far as food is concerned, there is no longer such a strong association."

For example, it is easier to sell sausages of the Russian "Ostankinskaya" brand than those of the imported "Kingsize" brand, said Maria Timirbayeva, a manager from the Unis advertising agency. However, some Russian brand names still have their problems. In the shoe business, she remarked, the imported brand "Forward" is still much more popular than the Russian "Skorokhod." Skorokhod has long been a byword for poor quality.

Mayor Yury Luzhkov recently tried to wipe out what he called the "abracadabra" of foreign-language signs in Moscow, saying that shop signs and billboards should "give priority to signs in Russian." A city draft decree would require signs in Russian to be placed above foreign-language signs, with the size of Latin letters not exceeding 10 centimeters, as compared with 80 centimeters for Cyrillic letters.

But major Western advertising agencies like Young and Rubicam say they can't imagine their clients posting names in Cyrillic letters.

"Our clients are international companies like Colgate or Lufthansa that are quite well-known in Russia," said Yunosova. Less well-known companies without their own logo, she conceded, could face customers being unable to pronounce or read their names.

But beware the municipal registrar not entirely at ease with Latin letters in a company's name.

The Candella advertising agency, which deals in electronic billboards, ran into a snag when a Moscow registrar somehow managed to add another "l" to its name. The original name, "Candela," an international unit for the dimension of a light's strength, had originally been proposed by the agency's French partner as an easy way to attract customers, said Vladimir Verigin, director of Candella.

The firm's current name "could cause a bit of confusion," said Verigin.

Law firms selling so-called "ready" companies -- complete with charter, registration documents, company type classification code and bank account -- inadvertently add to the name jumble.

"Sometimes we just open a dictionary and chose pretty foreign words," said one firm's representative, who asked not to be identified.

Even companies treading on the hallowed ground of patriotic names like "Rebirth" (Vozrozhdeniye), "Long Live Russia!" or simply, "Russia," are not safe.

The director of a trading company called "Russia's Interests" said he chose the name because he wanted to "defend the interests of society and the state."

But excessive patriotism could cost a company big money. "There's no point in throwing around the name 'Russia,' since it's taxable," cautioned Dmitry Gravin, a lawyer with Norton Rose.

Companies that use the words "Russia" or "Russian" in their names are required by federal law to pay a tax of 0.5 percent on gross sales revenue, said Gravin. Trade companies must pay .05 percent on their turnover, he added.

But once having hit on the right name to sell their wares and inspire undying customer loyalty, Russian companies are not out of the woods yet, advertising industry representatives said.

"Aesthetically pleasing" Cyrillic letters are the final touch, said Natalya Dobrobabyenko, director of the Promister advertising agency.

Letters to be avoided include the "unattractive" combination "ku" and an excess of the letters "i", "m", "n" and "t", which create the impression of a "solid fence," said Dobrobabyenko.

-- Elizabeth Owen and Anton Zhigulsky contributed to this article.