Four Secrets to a Great Brand Name
An entrepreneur’s most significant creative challenge, from the very outset of the enterprise, is to invent a great name. And then one must do it again, many times over. A new company requires a name, and so will many of its new products and services. As this company grows, job titles will need to be invented, too, as well as names for divisions and initiatives within the organization. Like the great explorers of history, if you’re the first to arrive somewhere, you’d better be prepared to give the world something grand to call it.
Naming your brand and products is difficult, to be sure, which is why the names of so many iconic companies and endeavors are eventually revised, such as Blue Ribbon Sports (now known as Nike) and Cadabra (Amazon). The world’s largest river is a much more evocative metaphor for what is now the world’s largest online retailer, a vast conduit of enterprise and exchange. An entire boutique industry has arisen around corporate naming, many companies spending millions to find the perfect fit for their product, service, or business. According to The Atlantic, such agencies did not exist until around the 1990s when quality emerged as an equalizer in a crowded marketplace, thus elevating brand identity as a necessary mode of product distinction.
Nearly 40 years ago, I created what has since become the world’s most comprehensive art and design university, and in those four decades, I have devoted much of my creative energies to inventing new names for things, from the university’s name to the mascot’s. Here’s what I’ve learned about creating unforgettable names for new ideas.
Poets have always known that sound alone can provide some indication of meaning — a truth confirmed in an emerging linguistic field known as “phonetic symbolism.” Consider the brand L’Oréal, the way it dances off your tongue as you say it, its gentle, breathy cadence a reminder of how the product will act with equal delicacy upon one’s skin. Or FedEx. The truncated smash of words, which has become a worldwide portmanteau, suggests speed and efficiency with its two, quick staccato beats.
The New Yorker reports that names with a consonant-vowel-consonant pattern, such as Gatorade and Lipitor, are also popular, which, aside from sounding pleasant, are also easy to say and among the first speech sound arrangements learned by infants. At the New York Stock Exchange, pronounceable ticker codes (e.g., “KAG”) outperformed their unpronounceable counterparts (e.g., “KGA”) by nearly a third. Meanwhile, company names with a decisive C or K sound — Kodak, Coca-Cola, Costco — were more likely to top their industry because these sounds convey strength. If your enterprise takes off, you’ll be saying its name a lot — and others will, too. Is your new company’s name pleasant to the ear? Does it dance off the tongue? Does the sound alone speak to some essential element about your product or service?
Reverse engineer a name.
Novelists know that a title is also the book’s first line, conveying the mood and tone on a powerful subconscious level. Equally so, your brand name sets high expectations, as well it should. What is creation, after all, but an act of aspiration? In his biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson reveals the origin of the name Apple. Jobs had recently been experimenting with a fruitarian diet and thought the word apple sounded “fun, spirited and not intimidating” — words that also perfectly describe how he marketed Apple innovations to the world. Apple is fun to say: the plosive “P” sandwiched in between two perfectly approachable vowel sounds. The word pleasantly pops in the mouth. Jobs, the iconic taste-maker in the world of technology, understood the power of nominative determinism.
What emotions do you want people to experience when they encounter your company? Joy? Power? Relief? Gratitude? Glamour? Trust? Most long and front vowel sounds, when coupled with plosive consonants (P, T, K, and B, for example), can often impart energy and directness, while back vowels can sometimes connote quietude and stability. Create a list of emotions you want others to feel when they hear your company’s name and search for words and sounds that convey those moods and reflect your core values.
Lay claim to a word — or invent a totally new one.
In 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, Al Ries and Jack Trout offer us the Law of Focus: “The most powerful concept in marketing is owning a word in the prospect’s mind.” In one of my favorite episodes of Mad Men, Don Draper pitches a new name for a recently developed slide projector, which the manufacturer wants to call “The Wheel.” However, the projector’s true value, Don realizes, lies in its ability to generate the unmistakable pang of nostalgia, ferrying one around and around through time and memory. “The Wheel,” he proposes, should instead be named “The Carousel.” It’s a compelling moment of storytelling, to see how moved the fictional clients are when Don makes this pitch. The lesson here: Claim a word that carries powerful connotations you hope to evoke and make it yours.
Of course, not everyone experiences language the same, and emotional associations often come with a risk. Writer Molly Reynolds explains that the average person has a 30,000-word vocabulary, which means by the time we’re adults, we’ve created a lot of connotations — and not all are positive. For this reason, many brands opt to create an entirely new name and a fresh verbal experience. Consider inventing a wholly new idiom for your brand name. For some brands, the payoff can be bigger than imagined — such as when your product name finds its way into the dictionary, forever associated with the thing itself: Kleenex, Xerox, ChapStick, Band-Aid, Jet Ski, Crock Pot, Breathalyzer, Post-it. Pick the right name, and your product or service may one day live in the dictionary.
Look on your driver’s license.
Sometimes, your company name is right there in front of your face, on your birth certificate or Social Security card. Researchers recently found that companies named after the founder yielded a higher return than those without. Such naming constructs are viewed as confident affirmations of self, where leaders quite literally stake their name and reputation on their products and services. This method worked for Ford, Dell, Hoover, and Jacuzzi, to name a few. You have to admire an entrepreneur with the chutzpah to hang his name on the building. It takes ego, for sure, but also guts. Alternately, find another weighty name somewhere in your family tree, like the actor, producer, and entrepreneur Reese Witherspoon, whose fashion company Draper James is named after her grandparents Dorothea Draper and William James Witherspoon.
Naming anything — a brand or a baby, a new service or a new species — is an utterly human act of creative love: The willing of a new idea into existence. Embrace the challenge and have fun with it.