Innovation & Design

What's in a Name?


A name can help a brand to enter the public consciousness (think Google) or disappear quickly (haven't heard of Ultraviolet Man Summer Pop cologne, have you?)

In 1997, Google (GOOG) founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin decided to dump their fledgling search engine's working name—BackRub—for something shorter and simpler. "We spent a lot of time on the name…because we figured that it would be important for people to be able to remember it," recalled Page in Designing Interactions (MIT Press, 2006). They eventually settled on "googol" (a math term for 10 to the 100th power), but misspelled the word while checking to see whether that Internet domain was unregistered. "It turned out [google.com] was available, and [googol.com] was not," says Page. A decade later, the Google name has the cultural cachet of such iconic brands as Coca-Cola (KO), Microsoft (MSFT), and McDonald's (MCD).

New York branding consultancy TippingSprung wanted to find out what fledgling brand could be the next Google. In May and June, the firm conducted a survey (in conjunction with the Nielsen Co.'s Brandweek) to learn what new brand names are hitting the mark. More than 1,300 marketing professionals and industry observers were polled to pick the "most memorable, appropriate, or distinctive" new brand name from a list of five to seven choices. The 11 quirky categories included "Most Consumer-Friendly Drug Name" and "Worst Fragrance Name." (Disclosure: This writer participated in the survey.)

For Simplicity's Sake

When the results came in, one consensus was certain: The best new brand names are clear and simple. Easy-to-associate names like aloft, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide's (HOT) new hotel brand, stole the spotlight from more abstract monikers like Andaz, the new luxury hotel chain from Global Hyatt. "This year there was a tendency for marketers to play it safe," says Martyn Tipping, president of TippingSprung. Gone are the days of the dot-com boom when, he says, "the more unusual, the more distinctive, and crazier the name the better."

Simplicity is now king, confirms Anthony Shore, creative director of the naming and writing division at branding agency Landor Associates. "People like real words. People [prefer] names that derive from real-world associations," he says.

More Than a Name

Perhaps taking a lesson from Google's founders, many of the winning brands in the survey are reworkings of ordinary words. In the category for "Best New Spirits or Cocktail-Mix Name," Spykes, a line of flavored malt beverages launched by Anheuser-Busch (BUD) in January, beat out Kajmir, Modmix, Lichido, Navan, and Perique to garner about a third of the votes. Survey respondents made the connection between the name and the product's purpose: a potent, alcoholic "spike" for a beer, cocktail, or unassuming punch bowl.

But during the fielding of the survey, Anheuser-Busch pulled Spykes from store shelves. The product's name and its kid-friendly marketing campaign led critics from the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Marin Institute to pressure the alcohol company to discontinue it. While colorful flavors, a low price, and cutesy 2-ounce-bottle packaging are mostly to blame, the term "spiking" was no doubt interpreted by the company and these activist groups in different ways. "One could argue that they achieved their goal too well," says Robert Sprung, chief executive of TippingSprung. There are currently no plans to reintroduce the brand to market.

What a brand is named is obviously a matter of some importance for graphic designers and those responsible for the product's packaging. It's no surprise that they tend to prefer names that are short and sweet—for one simple reason: "The shorter the name is, the bigger you can make it," says Michael Bierut, partner in the New York office of design firm Pentagram. In 2003, Bierut helped design the brand identity for Ted, United Airlines' (UAUA) low-fare carrier that now flies to 20 cities in the U.S. and Mexico. He's impressed with the name go!, which won in the category for "Best New Name for a Low-Cost Airline," because it can be presented in big letters so easy to read "a kindergartner can understand."

Fragrant Hits and Misses

Calvin Klein's fragrance CK in2u (Coty), the winner of the "Best New Fragrance Name" category, is a clever code meant to be decipherable only by its target audience of generation Y, with its text message– and instant message–influenced lexicon. "We had to find new ways of talking to them, and that meant embracing the media and communities they consume," says Lori Singer, vice-president of global marketing for Calvin Klein.

This brand teaches a good lesson in naming: Have a good idea of how long the name will be in use. "CK in2u is a faddish kind of name," says Landor's Shore. But it serves its purpose, he says, because "the nature of perfumes and fashion is transient."

The survey also poked fun at failure. Spanish fashion designer Paco Rabanne was panned for the incomprehensibly abstract title of his new fragrance, Ultraviolet Man Summer Pop. And the category's other names demonstrate just how hard it can be to market perfume to men: Intimately Beckham for Him, Perfect Man Alternative, I Love Marc, and 212 Men Splash all met with disapproval from survey participants. "It's a category that people tend to be more fanciful in," says Sprung—a tactic that can backfire.

No Winning Formula

Brand naming can be a complex process involving several steps of consensus-building and tens of thousands of dollars in consulting fees and market testing.

But one survey winner, Vermont ice-cream maker Ben & Jerry's, frequently forgoes these expenses when concocting and naming its new flavors. Two customers in Britain recently completed a form on the company's Web site to submit their idea for a new flavor: Bohemian Raspberry, a tribute to a Queen song and the winner of the survey's "Cleverest Ice-Cream Flavor." "The flavor name really strikes a chord as it fits in with our long history of rock tributes, such as Cherry Garcia and Phish Food," says company spokesperson Philippa Marshall.

But there's no silver bullet when it comes to getting the naming process right. As Brian Collins, chairman and chief creative officer of the Brand Integration Group at Ogilvy & Mather in New York: "Good survey data is always useful. But I'd use it to tell me what not to do. And not simply follow the herd." He argues that the naming problem was never successfully solved via consensus. "When you want to be a pioneer—a real pioneer—group consensus won't ever get you to new territory." For that, you need a smart, relevant idea, a heap of confidence and faith, or even, as in the case of Google, no spell-checker.


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