The name is the game

BY Sue McCluskey

Naming a brand can be as emotional as naming a child—so here are some tips to help you stay objective through the process.

Naming is one of branding’s dark arts. As anyone with children or pets knows, it’s a highly emotional task, where objective criteria are often derailed by subjectivity, trends or unconscious biases.

To further complicate matters, global brands require product and company names that either resonate in multiple languages or are at least inoffensive in multiple languages (see Geoffrey James’s 2014 Inc. article “20 Epic Fails in Global Branding” for more on this topic).

To help make the process smoother, here are some tips based on my naming experiences through the years.

Why take the road more travelled?

Let’s start with looking at the most common types of names: literal and category-driven.

It’s easy to see why many companies and organizations choose a very literal name. Some want to tell the consumer as much as possible in a glance, such as Toys “R” Us, Blinds To Go or Big Ass Fans. If you plan to keep your business focused on one type of product or service indefinitely, a literal name can be a helpful shortcut for a consumer looking for what you’re offering. The only drawback is that this type of name may limit your growth, so if additional products or services—or movement into other verticals—are part of the plan, you may want to go in a different direction.

Other companies often choose a name that fits in (however indistinguishably) with competitors, such as HSBC, CIBC or RBS in banking, or the slew of “i”-prefaced, non-Apple tech names that proliferated in the early 2000s. While it’s often easier to get corporate approval for same-y names than for inventive, evocative ideas—less differentiation is generally perceived as less risky, after all—it’s a missed opportunity in most cases.

In 2010, my agency was hired to work on the rebrand of Wines of Ontario, the marketing body responsible for getting more Ontarians to choose homegrown wines and visit the province’s wine-growing regions. It didn’t take long to see that every wine-promoting body around the world, from France to Italy to Australia to Chile, was using the “Wines of … ” phrasing. Within that competitive set, Ontario’s wine industry—small in comparison, lacking any significant history before the 1980s and suffering from low consumer regard—didn’t stand a chance.

Our solution (in addition to a complete identity overhaul) was to recommend a rename to “Wine Country Ontario.” This helped differentiate Ontario’s wines by making a break from the worldwide “Wines of … ” categories, adding a touch of romance to the name, and starting to communicate that Ontario’s wine country regions are desirable tourism destinations.

Make it distinctive for an advantage

Consumer behaviour research shows that distinctive names can work to a business’s advantage. In their 2005 study “Shades of Meaning: The Effect of Color and Flavor Names on Consumer Choice”, marketing professors Barbara E. Kahn and Elizabeth G. Miller found that consumers react positively to imaginative names. Their research showed that non-literal product names such as “millennium orange” or “snuggly white” elicited appreciation.

“People jumped to the conclusion that the marketer must be telling this information for some reason,” explained Kahn. “They said, ‘Even though I don’t understand the reason, it has to be something good because marketers wouldn’t tell me something that isn’t good.’ When they stopped and spent time on the name the assumption was that it was positive.”

Kahn explained her subjects’ responses to creatively named jellybeans and sweaters, saying, “when consumers encounter an unfamiliar name which is counter to their expectation that the marketer would be providing a familiar name, they try to determine how the adjective describes the color/flavor. If they discover the connection, the consumer may congratulate himself for solving the problem, resulting in positive affect.”

In other words, add just enough of a provocative twist, and you can engage the imagination of your audience.

Add a dash of poetry

Another component to consider is how the name sounds when spoken aloud. Sonorous, abstract names (sometimes referred to as “empty vessel” names—“Oreo,” for example) can conjure positive associations just by using a pleasing combination of vowels and consonants—the type of combination that linguistics researcher Geoffrey Nunberg refers to as “a kind of portal to the romance and passion that lie just beneath the surface of the everyday.”

In 2012, when Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health worked with my agency to name their new online information hub, we looked at names that were abstract enough to capture all of the nuances of the service—anything too literal would limit the number of services and content that could be added. We also knew that the name had to work in both English and French. And we knew it needed to sound good, as it would be spoken about at conferences, in presentations, and in other face-to-face interactions.

After long-listing a number of options, the team adopted the name “Portico.” Latin for “doorway” and “meeting place,” it had enough of a grounding in a real word to support the service’s value as a knowledge-exchange portal, but remained abstract and sonorous enough to be evocative and pleasing to the ear in either English or French—regardless of whether or not the audience was aware of its original meaning.

Predict the future

Best Buy was originally called Sound of Music. AT&T was American Telephone and Telegraph. Citi was originally called The First National City Bank of New York. As technology changes, or the geographical reach of your company expands, your name could limit your brand message. That’s why we always try to look to the future of what a brand could be when naming it—not to guarantee that the business will grow or evolve, but to make every effort to save the expense and confusion of renaming if it does.

Change it if it’s not working

Finally, if you find that you’ve started out with a name that isn’t working, cut your losses sooner, rather than later. Equity in a bad, weak or confusing name isn’t worth it. BackRub changed to Google. Dreft became Tide.

Back in 2001, when my current agency began its life as a graphic-identity firm (and before my tenure here), they hired an outside consultant to help come up with a name. The result, Up Inc, captured everything the fledgling company wanted: It was short. It was fun. It was optimistic and friendly.

Unfortunately, as time would tell, it was also impossible to understand when it was spoken aloud, and in our business, where face-to-face meetings are crucial to building new relationships, this proved to be a stumbling block. (Us, cheerfully: “Hi, we’re from Up Inc.” Potential new client, looking confused: “A Pink?” “Up Ink?”)

After years of trying to educate the world about the agency’s name (and after establishing my branded-content and editorial team, who, like any good writers, always claimed that they could have named the company better), we decided to throw in the towel and rebrand.

When we launched our new name, Goods & Services Branding, our strategy was to highlight our ambidexterity—in B2C marketing (which leans toward “goods”) and in B2B marketing (which leans toward “services”). We wanted to pay respect to the fact that goods and services are the backbone of our economy, and one of our missions is to help support the success of the clients we choose to work with. We wanted to be forward-looking: one of our priorities has been to develop our own branded “goods” to help develop our skill in offering branding “services.” And finally, we wanted a name that was unlikely to be mispronounced.

Some of our clients hated the new name (more so in Canada, where the old “Goods and Services” tax was the bane of pretty much everyone—but we knew that most provinces were eventually replacing it with a Harmonized Sales Tax, so no harm to us in the long term), and some loved it. But one thing’s for sure: no one asks twice anymore when we introduce ourselves.

Six steps to better naming

At Goods & Services Branding, we follow a six-step process to develop naming options that are creative and wide-ranging, while remaining grounded in a client’s needs. Try these steps to develop names that give you a winning combo of creativity and practicality.

  1. Analyze the requirements – Think about the brand or product’s main benefits and emotional appeal. What are the benefits to working with you? Who are your audiences, and what are they looking for?
  2. Generate language – From this analysis, generate a list of terms that can be associated with aspects of the brand. Go wide on this step; it’s where the creativity begins. Look at your history, your mission, your aspirations, your product or service—any aspects of your brand that help support your value to your customers and employees.
  3. Categorize the themes – Categorize the language into broad themes. Don’t worry if some of the themes or terms overlap.
  4. Create a long list of name/tagline options – Narrow the themes into potential names/taglines.
  5. Shortlist the options – Narrow the long list of potential names/taglines into a short list of options: choose the ones that are easy to pronounce, easy to spell, differentiated from your competitors, memorable and appropriate to your brand.
  6. Be prepared to go back to the long list – Don’t fall in love with any options yet—you’ll need to go through quite a few steps to see if you can register the name locally, nationally and/ or globally. While it’s rare that none of your shortlisted names can be had, you may need to go back to the drawing board.