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The Name Game: Tips for Creating, Loving a new Brand Name

Drew Letendre

“Sudden love takes the longest time to be cured.” La Bruyère, Of the Affections, 1688

Let’s set the stage. The glowing PowerPoint rectangle glows against the wall at the end of the room. On it, a column of ten or so words—some familiar, others not—floats in white space. The brand consultant/naming expert is silhouetted against this familiar backdrop. He lowers his hand to his side, the one holding the remote clicker he’s been wielding for the last half-hour. The oblong table, down the center of the room, is strewn with laptops, pads, pencils, and coffee cups. Around it are seated a dozen or so suited men and women. Finally, the silence is broken:

“Nothing sang to me.” (slight frown)

“Nothing really jumped off the page.” (silence)

“I didn’t fall in love with anything.” (sigh)

“Nothing resonated with me.”

“It sounds like…”

“It reminds me of…”

“I don’t like anything.”

“It’s too long.”

“It’s too short.”

“Too many syllables.”

“What does it mean?”

“It’s a mouth full.”

“My spouse asked me if we were really paying someone for this.”

So goes the litany. These are real comments from real people. They are the oft-heard laments of client-side executives reacting to a list of possible new brand names. I have heard comments like these repeated in meetings with B2B and B2C business executives for more than a decade and they happen every day in naming sessions around the globe. Hearing these sorts of statements is one of the naming profession’s “occupational hazards.”

But, things were not always so. Naming has changed dramatically over the past two decades. The plenitude of “good,” available names has withered due to an explosion of new products, technologies, and companies of all kinds, requiring legally own-able names, against a limited—and dwindling—stock of good, meaningful words (especially those that have available .com domains).

As the internet economy and expanding global economy led to a name-grabbing free-for-all, intellectual property and trademark law—in the United States, anyway— became more stringent. The passage of the Lanham Act, in particular, was designed to protect “famous” brands from dilution. Some aspiring brands, entering the market, tried to buy equity on the cheap, by emulating—and exploiting resemblance to—well-known brands. The effect was like printing counterfeit currency—it devalued legal tender. Lanham created a legal bulwark around the big boys—while giving them unprecedented latitude to play in categories far afield from their core offers (but that is a story for another time).

Then there is the simple fact of dwindling supply: There is, of course, only a limited number of words in any given language to draw from when creating a new brand name. I won’t say the well is dry, but the water is low. Even with the move to create new conventions to circumvent this state of affairs—hybrid names like WellPoint and InkJet, neologies like Altria, Accenture, and the plethora of exotic drug names—the speed with which “trademark real estate” has been consumed, has been breathtaking. To be sure, this varies by category. Pharma and tech are two categories that are constantly generating new products and ideas.

This has transformed the practice of professional naming—especially the process by which we deliver and sell-in names to clients. The practice (or process) has become more about expectation management, than creativity.

So, you ask, what must a word do these days to become a useable name?

• It must be almost indisputably legally clear for use
• It must be acceptable (inoffensive) in all principal languages
• It must be unique within the relevant competitive set
• It must tie back to the business or product with a simple, memorable rationale—a short, sensible ‘business narrative’
• And, if possible, it should have an exactly matching URL—preferably, with a .com extension
• Oh, yeah, and the brand decision makers must like it

No small order, that. Good names go down in flames, all the time, for all sorts of reasons. There are a lot of trip wires. And, as it happens—and all too often—clients favor the names least likely to pass the trademark registers.

By far, the most natural consideration for choosing one name over another, or of perceiving a given name as good (or bad) or better (or worse), is simply whether or not one likes it. Unfortunately, this is also the most problematic criterion. For love—in naming as in life—can be fickle; and it can be irrational, gratuitous, disproportionate, and vary enormously from one individual to another and from one moment to the next, in a single individual. Alas, love is the beast we must domesticate.

Unsurprisingly, the names that are most likely to be loved—and most likely to get hacked—are those that are real, dictionary-based words or ones closely approximating them in sound or spelling. Just as likely to get the ax are names that are too close to words that are used in, or about the industry of the company seeking the mark. Names with “-tel-“ and “-comm-“ in them just won’t wash anymore in the telecomm space, so you get names like “Orange” and “AirTouch.” Next in line are the portmanteau names—InkJet, BearingPoint, SkyMiles. Such artful pairings expand the pool (supply), but the number of entities and objects in need of a mark (demand) seems to keep apace, if not outstrip it.

What can be done? How, when necessary, can we persuade the decision-makers to embrace a name they may not like (at least, at first) or even dislike, but that has a strong availability profile? Sometimes, selling in names like this is a bit like arranging a marriage: the business is committing another party, for life, to a name they don’t like, let alone, love, for sound reasons. Again, no small order, that.

The first thing to do is to gently but firmly drive home the naming requirements (above), making emphatically clear that its order reflects a hierarchy of importance. Availability is king. Not offending overseas customers is a close second, especially if you want to be a recognized global business. The third criterion is a no-brainer: You can’t look or sound like the competition and wouldn’t want to.

It is the fourth item that is, in my view, the most important, once you get past the others: It is ideal to have a name that that can be tied to a simple narrative that explains it in relationship to the business or product it identifies. This means the name needn’t be transparent, immediately obvious, or easily decodable. So long as the intended connection forged by the narrative—once delivered—produces an “ah, ha!” moment, an epiphany in the client, resistance to a name can melt away.

If a client understands the explanation, finds it memorable, attractive, and portable, they will enjoy the act of delivering it themselves, hoping to produce the same reaction in their audiences. Consider the example of Accenture, the name Andersen Consulting adopted in response to threatened litigation from Andersen Accounting. It’s a pretty opaque name. One would have to be in the higher echelons of MENSA to decode it into “accent on the future,” the strategic intent statement of which it is a compression. Once the provenance is revealed and the code cracked, an otherwise meaningless name becomes cool, clever, and memorable.

Interestingly, however, people don’t usually ask for “the story behind” a company’s or product’s name. It’s usually taken for granted that companies and products “just need” names and—in the case of companies—need a way to identify themselves as the authentic and unique source of certain goods or services. One reason the issue of meaningfulness is so important to clients is because most naming is about name change, which is often and rightly interpreted as a reliable indicator of more profound, underlying business events and transformations, e.g., trademark litigation or mergers, with their attendant disruptions. CEO’s and EVP’s of Corporate Communications usually have “a lot of explaining to do” and they want—again—concise, portable, plausible story lines.

Finally, let me (gently) toss out two more “metrics.” Unless a company is an Internet-based entity, the requirement of having a name with an exactly matching URL is a great way to put a “good” name out of reach. Verisign puts the number of domain names (URLs) at 225 million, worldwide—225,000,000. More to the point, Google and Bing search protocols have made typing in the full URL’s as a way to call up a website, a thing of the past.

As for liking, loving, pizzazz, (and hating, loathing, and dullness) and all the other subjective emotions and perceptions that are thought to be the ultimate standards of name selection, it hardly needs saying that appealing to or leveraging them in the first instance, as the primary goal of naming, makes no sense for those of us in the profession. However much a philosophical over-statement it may be, there is something to “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” So it is with names. It is only after the hard business of establishing names on the surer footing of availability, distinction, and relevance that we can allow ourselves and our clients to fall in love.