The Name Game

Brands spend millions of dollars and countless hours every year to name their products, services and, indeed, themselves.

Brands spend millions of dollars and countless hours every year to name their products, services and, indeed, themselves.

What’s the payoff?

The rationale behind this investment in money and time stems from the belief that finding the right name will determine the commercial success of the thing being named.

As the number of brands increases rapidly—all those new tech start-ups, digital apps and pharmaceutical drugs—pressure mounts to find names that not only stand out from the crowd, but also evoke just the right feeling or thought.

Psychology drives branding

Much of this thinking is based on consistent scientific evidence, which shows that names—more precisely, the sounds made by vowels and consonants alone and in combination—cause consumers to feel and think in specific ways. The best naming professionals and companies know, for instance, that the consonant v conveys vigour or liveliness (think Viagra), while t communicates speed or immediacy (think Twitter), and p luxury (think Porsche). The same principle applies for combinations of letters. Again, naming experts understand, for example, that the combination gl conveys the sense of ease or smoothness (think Glassdoor).

Linguists call this effect sound symbolism—the way sounds convey meaning independent of what a word may actually signify. The brand names of today’s prescription drugs are fertile terrain for instances of sounds used to evoke emotions. Trulicity, for instance, is the brand name of a drug intended to help people with Type 2 diabetes control their blood sugar. The name doesn’t convey that meaning. How could a single name communicate all that information? Instead, its prefix tru connotes reliability and trustworthiness, while the name as a whole suggests elegant simplicity.

While sounds are key to generating sought-after thoughts and emotions in prospective buyers, they make up just one part of naming. Virtually all brand names are divided into one of the following six categories.

Naming conventions

Mandate descriptors are just that—they describe what brands do. Think Home Depot and United Parcel Service.

Evocative names are names that conjure up thoughts and feelings. Think Amazon and BlackBerry.

Neologisms are names that are invented words. Think Vaseline and Windex. In fact, both of these names have become such fixtures in our collective lexicon that they have come to stand for the things themselves—petroleum jelly and window cleaner.

Acronyms and contractions. Acronyms are abbreviations formed from the initial letters of other words and pronounced as single words. Think NATO and NASA. Contractions are shortened forms of a set of words. Think FedEx and Nikon. In case you didn’t know, Nikon is a contraction of the Japanese phrase Nippon Kogaku, which means Japanese optical.

Characterizing names are those that ascribe specific qualities to a brand. Think Speedy Messenger and Reliable Home Heating.

Eponyms are names that stem from people. Think McDonald’s and Tommy Hilfiger. So powerful are eponyms that brands often invent people to serve as the embodiment of their brands. Think distinguished-sounding people like the fictitious figures behind Häagen–Dazs, or fun and obviously fake folks like Mr. Clean and Mrs. Dash.

Name change is natural in brand evolution

Not all brand names are cast in stone

Any brand should consider a name change when its name no longer allows the brand to stand out, and certainly when the brand changes industries, products or strategies.

A classic example is IBM. The three letters stand for International Business Machines. For many years, that’s what the company produced and sold—mostly tabulators, commercial scales and industrial time recorders. Over the years, the company shifted its emphasis from these items to computer hardware and software, which included large mainframe computers and almost-indiscernible universal product codes. Those are barcodes assigned to virtually every product sold. The company needed a name to reflect its move from analog to digital, from selling equipment that recorded information to selling systems to process information. IBM isn’t the most elegant solution, but it removes any mention of the company’s old products and outdated strategic focus.

Like IBM, each brand must understand the value of its existing name within the market it is determined to enter. Does its current name resonate with those in the new market? If it doesn’t, a brand should consider changing its name. Such a transformation is often a natural step in the evolution of successful brands.

Name choice depends on brand voice

Creating a brand name must start with mapping. Define the reason for the creation of the name, set the objectives the name must achieve, and dive deep into the history, purpose, character and audience of the brand in question.

Next comes name generation. Conduct research develop lists of names and carry out cursory searches to diminish the chance of name infringements. The more naming experts involved at this stage the better, because individuals tend to have keener creative sensibilities for two or three of the six categories. The more people, the more likely all categories will be covered fully.

Names reach the brand awareness zenith when they become nouns and verbs unto themselves. “Do you have any Q-tips in your bathroom?” or “Facebook me the details” are fine examples of ultimate naming success.

After a year, gauge performance and collect the winnings—or spin again.