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Shouldn’t Your Brand Name Say What Business You’re In?

By Michael Dula

As a designer of brand identity, I’m charged daily to bring brand names to life. And the perfect companion, it goes without saying, to a great logo, is a great name. I’m not much given to opining in matters of verbal branding, but I collaborate with ‘namers’ almost daily in my corporate identity work and some recent experiences have inspired me to ‘throw my hat in’ on one issue about which I have a definite POV: naming your business after the business you’re in.

Many people in business take it as an Article of Faith that ‘Industry Anonymity’ is a weakness in a name: “It doesn’t identify our business or industry category,’ they’ll say. “It doesn’t ‘tell people’ what we do or make. Isn’t that squandering an opportunity to inform the market (and inform it immediately)?” Well, yes and no. That, as you’ll see, can either be unnecessary (in any literal sense of describe) or strategically undesirable.

Consider names, on the one hand, like Apple, Nike, Kleenex or Caterpillar, and — on the other — like GE, IBM, or AT&T. None of them inform as to category. And there are two good reasons for this: (1) some names — through sound brand strategy and intelligent implementation – have become synonymous with their categories (or the very name for a category), so ‘additional’ descriptive verbiage is simply unnecessary — Nike has no need of ‘sports apparel,’ for example. By contrast, (2) some names have become category-agnostic – associated with no (one) category – by design. They are built ‘roomy enough’ to accommodate out-of-category, diversified growth. The first kind of name is about focus, exclusion, and ‘ownership.’ The second provides the latitude or ‘license’ to expand beyond — sometimes far beyond — core businesses, into ‘adjacencies’ and/or new geographies. They’re about breadth, inclusion, and scalability. They become pliable frameworks for integrating diverse acquisitions, for blending them into a unified brand portfolio. And acronyms are their ideal form of name convention. “License plates”: anybody can drive ‘em (so long as they’re not vanity plates).

Category ownership (identification). Again, Nike doesn’t have to say ‘sports apparel’ IN or AFTER its name — because ‘Nike’ (has come to) MEAN sports apparel (and, I am quick to add, much more). Nor does Caterpillar have to say ‘heavy (or industrial) equipment’ after its name, because it simply MEANS heavy equipment. It’s synonymous with it. And it too ‘stands for’ other values. You don’t reach for Kleenex tissue…you reach for ‘a’ Kleenex (even if it’s not made by the company behind that brand…it’s become a noun). But, to the extent that a company becomes successful at accomplishing this identity of brand with category, it may also have sacrificed scalability (or, made it a much tougher path to pursue).

Category agnosticism (scalability). Now, take General Electric (GE). Again, I invoke immortal Paul Rand on ‘logos’ (with the implication for names implied…nay! Inserted!): ‘(A name) is rarely a description of a business.’ This means, of course, that sometimes it can or even should be a description of a business. Certainly, that is what the earliest corporate names classically were: very literal business descriptors — like American Telephone & Telegraph (before it became ‘at&t’) or General Electric (before it evolved into ‘GE’) or International Business Machines before it was IBM. It was their contraction into acronyms that transformed these descriptive names into ‘scalable’ brands, adapted to category expansion — whether organic or acquisitive. GE may still be ‘general’ (arguably, more so than ever — with plays in aviation, capital, appliances, and entertainment). But it’s gone WAY beyond ‘electric.’ 

The moral of the story: discard — or at least suspend — the assumption that your corporate name should ’tell people’ in the first instance, what business you’re in. There are work-a-day words that do that work and you can append them to your name — sports apparel, heavy machinery, financial services — until your name, like a sponge, has absorbed them and becomes partly synonymous with them. Names can and do play larger brand-strategic roles — ‘simply’ to identify and distinguish you; to let you ‘stand for’ more abstract or ‘normative’ (and interesting!) values like innovation (3M), reliability (Kenmore), or agility (Agilent) — to intrigue and to remind.

So, shouldn’t your brand name ‘say’ what business you’re in? No. Let a descriptor do that. Your name is much too valuable.