The Brand Mason’s Peer Review: 7 Common Cents Naming Insights

Editor’s note: The following is a guest post by The Brand Mason (Steven Mason), a marketing, communications and naming artisan. Follow on twitter: @thebrandmason
Over the past 22 years, Steven has been a marketing executive at—and consultant to—public and private Internet security/networking, enterprise software, B2B platform, e-Business firms, and consumer packaged goods (CPG) firms, as well as a teacher of subjects as diverse as compiler (computer language translator) design and English grammar, mechanics and usage.
Here, he revisits the
7 Common Cents Insights for Brand Naming by adding clarity, context, and an alternative viewpoint. Contact The Brand mason at steven [at] thebrandmason.com

In his previous post, Mikal offered 7 Common Cents Insights for Naming Your Product/Company:

  1. The product is what matters
  2. There is no best way
  3. A name is just one component of a brand
  4. Do a competitive analysis
  5. Don’t commit any fatal errors
  6. Consider tying to something already understood
  7. A great name will help you, everything else is incremental

This post will function as an open peer review of the concepts presented.

1. The product is what matters

I would express this idea a bit differently. First, a great name can launch a bad product, but the product is unlikely to engender loyalty. If it depends on repeat buys, it will fail. If it’s a one-time, one-trick-pony, on the other hand, this may work. (I’m not endorsing this, because I think the modus operandi is a fundamentally dishonest one: I am simply making an observation.) Second, I advise looking carefully at the authenticity of the attributes/qualities suggested by the name. There must be a direct connection between what the name suggests/evokes and the ability of the product/company to deliver on same. Listerine used this very effectively: the name intentionally sounds medicinal; everyone “knows” medicines taste bad; therefore, they used a negative attribute which “proved” bactericidal effectiveness. My view is that the lack of a clear, strong nexus between a name (and tagline) and the benefits of the product/company is one of the biggest problems in naming.

Where I would disagree with you is that I view a name as an overarching concept that integrates all salient aspects/attributes of the brand, rather than as a component of the brand. The name is the “word that stands in” for the brand—i.e., an invented concept that must be reified to be made useful. Metonymy in action.

(continue to read The Brand Masons take on the six other naming insights)

2. There is no best way.

I would say there is no best naming tactic or set of tactics. But there is a best naming strategy. That strategy is, in short, begins by recognizing that a name is an invented concept that integrates all salient aspects of the brand and that ultimately comes to represent them (sometimes in conjunction with a tagline). Given that premise, a proper naming strategy begins by looking at what a product/company does, what benefits it offers, whom/what it competes with, to whom it offers them, what (in an ideal world) one wants evoked in a customer’s mind when he is exposed to that name. That is, you start with the end, not the means; with the evoked, not the evoker. Once you’ve got a handle on those issues, you can codify the attributes of a brand, develop a positioning/messaging statement (some say positioning is passé, but I’m not focusing on the semantics here) and see the big picture. Only then is it possible to start to develop names and to have measurable criteria, as well as the most important criterion, against which prospective names can be measured. Google is a great name for a number of reasons (for Google, if you’ll excuse my reflexivity), but it’s not a very good name for an ultra-conservative bank. Without context, to which you alluded in your post, there is neither a good name nor a bad name, although certain names can be ruled out a priori because of terrible phonology, etc.

3. A name is just one component of a brand.

I agree with your segment’s title. I would say that, as noted before, a name should be a complete integrated representation of all salient characteristics of a brand, but that does not mean the converse is true. If a name is absolutely perfect, but other representations of the brand – or parts thereof – lack brand congruency, then you are introducing confusion, arbitrariness and contradictoriness into the equation – the combination of which destroys or enervates the brand.

You make indirect reference to the fact that a name alone can’t always do the job. Very true. An abstract name requires a functional tagline. But I argue that the name+tagline must, at a high level, convey what the product or company does (or, if everyone knows what the company does, then they must convey a key benefit). Ex: Cingular: Raising the bar – which was later changed to AT&T’s awful “Your world. Delivered.” What the f*** does that mean? Is this the ultimate invitation to narcissists? But then someone got smart and came up with “More bars in more places,” which is brilliant because it’s authentic and it works at so many levels, from the concrete to the metaphorical. And, yes, it’s also memorable, witty and easy to say. A+.

A couple of personal examples
The Brand Mason doesn’t require a tagline, but it’s self-explanatory; but if I want to concretize that I do naming, I can write: The Brand Mason™/Marketing, Communications & Naming Artisan. A different example. There is a prosthetic knee (the Rheo Knee®) made by an Icelandic firm named Ossur. It’s for transfemoral (i.e., above the knee) amputees, and it’s an amazing, bionic-like device. Here’s the key: conventional prostheses force the user to walk using an uncomfortable, artificial gait; the Rheo Knee rheostatically adjusts, using real-time feedback, to the user’s natural gait, so it’s almost akin to walking with one’s original leg.

Now, when I was asked to do the tagline here, the typical suggestions were along these lines: Bionic technology today; Advanced technology for natural walking; etc. The characteristics all the suggestions shared is that they were awkward, non-distinctive, and unevocative. The company name of “Ossur” the product name of Rheo Knee were givens: what was needed was a phrase that emotionally connected with the prospective user, that was succinct, and that suggested action (i.e., a verb, because you’re not sleeping with the leg, you’re walking on it). So the tagline I created was: Walk Your Way™. That’s it: 3 words, 3 syllables.

I tend to like verbs in taglines whenever action is suggested or required. For a cell-phone-based service that allowed people to listen to news being read to them from newspapers, magazines, etc., I created: Hear the news you don’t have time to read™. But sometimes the result is very important. For a company that sells software to the Armed Forces, software which speeds up the delivery of data that commanders in the field need in order to know the most recent enemy positions, etc., I took the cliché of “mission critical” and transmogrified it into “decision critical”—leading to the tagline Delivering Decision Critical Data™, just the kind of thing generals and other military decision-makers want to hear, and precisely what the company’s solutions actually do (authenticity).

One of your examples can be used to illustrate an interesting phonological example. “Roxio iTunes” is impossible to pronounce, because the long “o” is immediately followed by a long “i” – very different than the phonetic “pull” in “Apple” followed by the long “i” phoneme.

4. Do a competitive analysis.

Couldn’t agree more. I would add that you shouldn’t typically use those recurring words in a name or tagline (unless you’ve got a brilliant strategy to co-opt them), but they very well may be attributes of your to-be-developed brand name. Of course, if the recurring words appear in descriptions of competitors whom no one’s ever heard of, and there are no extant intellectual property issues, then they’re there for the taking (but only if it makes brand sense).

5. Don’t commit any fatal errors.

Also agree here. There are other errors, to be sure, but you’ve nailed many of them. I would add that a name that fails to be evocative is usually, but not always, fatal, because a non-evocative name isn’t memorable. If nobody knows your name, you’re not going anywhere, a la Cheers.

6. Consider tying to something already understood, a saying, a memory, or word.

Good points, again. I would elaborate on this by noting that any new concept or word that is wholly independent of its forebears is tremendously difficult to remember. Memory experts will tell you that people remember by association (with events, with mnemonics, with people, etc.) – remove any vestige of association and you are asking more of your audience than you should. I would also say that it’s possible to succeed in spite of a good name.

For example, I disagree with your prior post in that I don’t regard eHarmony as a good name (its assonance saves it from being god-awful; the idea of “harmony” is fine but generic; but the “e” is terribly dated and, after all, there’s no such thing as on-line marriage) – Squidoo is at quite memorable and more evocative, and I’d place it above eHarmony. (I don’t personally like the name, but it’s objectively effective.) But with names, there is no way to test the null hypothesis, barring figuring out how to exploit quantum physics’s “many worlds” theory, such that in one instance, eHarmony or CareerBuilder launches with that name and, in another, they launch with an ostensibly better one. No matter how successful a company is, it is possible that a better name would have made them more so or done so more quickly. No matter how poorly a company does, it is possible that an inferior name would have led to their failing sooner. Attributing success to a bad name is just one example of the post hoc fallacy in action in branding and naming.

7. A great name will help you, everything else is incremental.

In my view, a great name that’s been created according to the strategy I briefly outlined above will do a lot for you, producing results far superior to an average name. But often an ostensibly great name isn’t great because it’s not brand congruent. Naming your son Genghis will certainly give him a distinctive, memorable name. But if he is not a tough guy (and assuming, of course, that most others know who Genghis Khan was), it could cause him a world of troubles, unless he’s seeking an MMA-based career. If you take evil personified, Adolph Hitler, you’ll find that he’s typically referred to by his surname, because Hitler sounds more foreboding and is easier to remember than Adolph – plus no one wants to personalize a genocidal mass-murderer by using his first name. People of whom others are fond, or who are idealized, get their own identities: JFK and FDR, their initials’ becoming a metonym not just for the person but for what others think the person represents.

Here are a few resources:

· Al Ries22 Immutable Laws of Branding; the law on naming your category stays with me

· Igor InternationalBuilding the Perfect Beast Naming eGuide and their blog snarkhunting (they have the best package of naming insights to me)

Ries’s book is great and Igor is one of the very few naming firms whose methodology and work I respect. Those guys know their stuff. Perhaps because I am an individualist, but also because no statues are named after committees (or crowds), I don’t at all support naming for/by/due to the crowd or the selecting of a name via Survey Monkey. What happens is that people don’t evaluate the name in terms of legitimate naming or branding criteria; they just respond to the name based on whether they personally like it (or they act like expert marketers, but are actually dilettantes at best and they decide a name is “right”). Yes, anyone can come up with a great name, from the janitor to the CEO, but naming is not a popularity contest (“popular” does not mean good, effective, or brand congruent anymore than does using the evaluations of ten Britney Spears’ fans to rank different performances of Liszt’s Sonata in B minor) and it should not be a democratic process. It should be a rigorous one based on objective criteria that can applied to the specific context a naming/branding project requires.

Some red herrings – no it doesn’t have to be a verb, that’s optional at best. Yes it’s cool if they can say ‘Google’ it or ‘Xerox’ it but who’s to say being a verb is the right word type to own? I make a PowerPoint, I don’t make a Google. BTW the verb/noun thing only occurs with market dominance it doesn’t cause market dominance – your product does. 

As I noted above, I typically use verbs in taglines, in order to encourage/implore/incite action. Names that are verbs can work, but without context, it’s meaningless to say that all names ought to be verbs (or any other part of speech, for that matter).

And in general I usually disagree with Seth Godin’s insights his insights on naming also fall into this bucket (I think it’s because I’m an academic at heart and it feels like he makes a lot of assumptions in his correlation between cause and effect). Even if exponentially more people listen to him for business advice than me.

I went to school with Seth. Brilliant entrepreneur from day one, turning failing enterprises into profit-generating ones. But his fame doesn’t automatically make him right, either – fame’s not being a criterion of truth or falsity. Having said that, I don’t always agree with Seth, but here I think his points in the article you cite are right on, except that I disagree that a generic name can ever be good, even if it’s searchable (i.e., it’s always going to be a drag on the company and it invites competition). I can say this as both an intellectual who will talk to you about Aristotle or Kant or number theory or abnormal psychology and as a marketer who believes people need to grok stuff instantly.

What are some company/product names that you like? And why?

Among other names, I do like The Brand Mason for a few reasons. First, one should never use the word “brand” if you do branding because it’s generic. Second, here is a classic exception to that rule, to the conventional wisdom, because I happen to have a last name that suggests artisanal abilities. Combine that with “brand” and you have an evocative name where you’d think you’d have nothing but a soporific generic. Third, through my name, I illustrate simultaneously why names such as “Brand Experts” are terrible (Igor provides a panoply of such awful names) and why the conventional wisdom sometimes needs to be turned on its head because of context.

6 thoughts on “The Brand Mason’s Peer Review: 7 Common Cents Naming Insights

  1. Great feedback on Mikal’s post, Steven, thanks for taking the time to share it with us!

    Name alone, name + tagline, name + logo, and logo alone are all important representations of the brand. Since the name is a component of most of these [potentially all, since it’s often incorporated into the logo] *and* has to stand by itself, I agree that it is the single most important encapsulation of the brand. One thing I’d add though is that over time, brand attributes can attach to the name even if they’re not there to begin with. Google and the “i” prefix of iPod, iMac, iPhone etc. are good examples of this. If the company and product are successful, the name’s meaning and resonance are likely to evolve over time. Now that I think of it, the same’s true for unsuccessful companies and products — Edsel and Enron both have very different connotations than they originally did 🙂

    jon

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  2. I think Jon and I are both rounding out point 1.

    I agree and disagree with you about the name being all the salient points of a brand and not just a component.
    I think that in the formation of a name, there is give and take between the brand attributes and the name. When you look at any final options for brand names, you realize that adopting a different name would take your brand in a subtlely to completely different direction- depending on the final name (see: kumo and the hypothesized bing). So while the name encompasses the brand attributes, some brand name options prioritize different aspects over others.
    Additionally some brands are empty vessels. Polaroid and Xerox two completely different companies, however I’d posit that the names themselves are interchangeable for their products. And in that case the name is just one component.

    Another example – Advance Business Systems. Boring name right? Well growing up their whimsical ads were all over my television. I even forgot their name typing into live.com (there is a name for you) ‘advanced copiers we live and breathe this stuff’ anyway the ‘we live and breathe this stuff’ makes it clear that they are a less stodgy brand – so again in this case the brand NAME doesn’t do the heavy lifting.

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  3. I agree that it shouldn’t be a democratic process in the sense of ‘ok everyone vote on which ones you like’

    But I’d add that what brand attributes are important/resonate should be an inclusive process of both internal and external feedback. I’d also add its useful for finding out words that people just flat out don’t like – and why. Then its our job to synthesize that information – determine whether or not its a roadblock and continue with a recommendation / decision.

    Open question – where do you put external feedback in your process? Is customer research a part of your naming/tagline process? And how do you go about ensuring you’re getting the right types of feedback…

    Even asking other marketers can have a group think-type aspect to it.

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  4. To jon: You’re very welcome. Thanks. You are absolutely right that brand attributes not initially present can attach to the name later (I refer to these as “organically or experientially-derived” attributes).

    These new attributes are not arbitrary, however (nor do I believe you’re suggesting this). Not only are the name’s meaning and resonance likely to evolve over time, as you point out, but the very mission of the company can evolve and/or be perfected (or disintegrated!) over time. This accounts for some, but certainly not all, of the attribute “drift.”

    Edsel and Enron both acquired negative connotations not because of branding mistakes, but because of corporate errors and/or exogenous events. The “i” prefix is completely exogenous; as it became part of our communications currency, it made sense for exploit that acquired meaning in branding. That’s what Apple did. The Ayds diet product was dealt a death knell by the AIDS virus. No one could have predicted this, but the company can and should be blamed for failing to rename immediately. Just pure hubris.

    To Mikal (1st post): Thanks again for your comments. You are positing what I might term the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of Naming: the attributes affect the name, but the name affects the attributes, too. You are right that different brand names emphasize different attributes. That’s why some attributes are more important than others. Equally weighting every attribute creates naming errors, but all attributes are not created equal. Those that are essential must be reflected in a name.

    For those who don’t know which ones are essential, I would argue they haven’t properly done their positioning. Attributes and competitive analyses beget positioning which begets a name. If the order is changed, then chaos ensues and names become arbitrary selections rather than choices made on the basis of reason. (And, yes, a brilliant intuitive leap could generate a name a priori, but even then, it has to be established that the name meets the proper criteria.)

    The dilemma that you describe – two different names taking the brand in subtly different directions – is accurate, but what its existence says to me is that the value and prominence of the different attributes hasn’t been fully examined: they’ve all been stacked up equally rather than evaluated for strength, eliminated/merged for duplication, etc. I’m sure we’ve all seen positioning “meetings” where 4 synonyms for a single attribute “beat” one unique word for a powerful attribute. That’s where the error arises; early clarification doesn’t lead to a single name, but it does provide clarity about which name reflects the attributes you want.

    Now, working backwards, if you are leaning toward a name that seems to conflict with your rank ordering of attributes, then it’s time to reexamine those attributes’ rankings. Perhaps in discussing the name, you’ve come to a new realization about the attributes, and that type of “give and take” is worthwhile and fruitful.

    As for Advance Business Systems, any way you look at it, that’s a terrible, god-awful name. It’s not just stodgy, it’s generic and grammatical awkward (at best). Their tagline is an attempt to get around that, because perhaps by now they’ve established some identity, but it’s still a terrible name. It is incapable of doing any lifting, let alone heavy lifting. Whatever they’ve accomplished would have been easier, better and more productive had they had a good or great name.

    To Mikal (2nd post): I seek internal and external input because independent minds often think of new ideas or see connections one cannot or does not. I neither undervalue nor overvalue it. In other words, I evaluate the input based on its merits, whether the source is a checkout clerk at the store or the CEO. I look solely at the idea, not at the person. Now, if the product is aimed at 18-24-year-olds, seeking input from septuagenarians wouldn’t be very helpful. So you have to take demographics and psychographics into account. I have found that engineers (and I’ve been an engineer) often think they can name a product, but they would never think that you or I could code their applications or tell them how to improve their code (generally, a correct view, excepting my software background). Some CFOs immediately condemn a name, but imagine if you tried to tell them how to properly interpret some obscure FAS.

    If you do branding and naming, you’re being hired because of your expertise, and sometimes it’s necessary to assert that. One reason for having a process is that it enables everyone to see how you’ve gone from nothing to a finished product. It also enables you to emphasize that it’s possible to love a name, color, etc., but to recognize that it’s inappropriate. Personal, subjective preferences need to be acknowledged and discounted in favor of objective, impersonal decisions based on the personal, subjective impressions and objective needs of the target market (yeah, that’s a mouthful).

    You ask “where do you put external feedback in your process? Is customer research a part of your naming/tagline process? And how do you go about ensuring you’re getting the right types of feedback.” My perspective is different than many others here. I am an individualist and I reject groupthink, consensus-building for the sake of consensus – knowing that it leads to watered-down mediocrity and the destruction of great ideas, and the weighting of all opinions equally.
    I cannot tell you how many times I have created names and/or taglines that generated initial uncertainty, only for the customer to find that, once in the marketplace, customers loved it. People typically don’t like the unfamiliar or something that’s changed. Therefore, the better a name is, often the more resistance you’ll find to it (this is particularly true as the size of the company gets larger and you’re dealing with committees, BODs, etc.) This is why I emphasize, again and again, that everyone has permission to love or hate a name personally, but that isn’t what the process is about. It’s about what will work and achieve the company’s branding/rebranding goals.

    To answer your question: I find feedback immediately useful in identifying brand attributes. Everyone wants to contribute and everyone understands it’s not about the name, so the pressure is off. I create a matrix of the attributes (weighted if appropriate) with prospective names/taglines (which my team or I has typically come up with: if there’s a great suggestion from someone else, we’ll include it, or if the scene is more politically sensitive, we’ll include our names as well as a couple of the company’s favorites.)

    By getting buy-in on the matrix, what happens is that the grading (typically “A” to “F”) of the cross products of each name and attribute explicates why bad names are bad. I also make a very strong effort never to present a “bad” name myself ☺ I then seek feedback based on the presentation of the matrix. This gives everyone context, so that when a bad name is proposed, it’s a straightforward process to evaluate it against the relevant attributes, and then everyone agrees that the name is terrible. If someone comes up with a better name or tagline (it happens, albeit rarely), then we’ve already got a process in place that makes it easy to see the strength of the contender.

    Customer research is important in the following ways: for B2C products, you need to understand the psychographics even more than the demographics, although both are important. For both B2C and B2B, you need to know what they’re buying now, why they’re buying it, and why they’d switch. Focus groups in which bored people pimping themselves out for $$$ produce valid results no better than chance, in my view. But here’s a trick for a consumer product. Take your package/bottle/etc. and put it on a shelf in a real store (yes, with permission of the manager). Then see what real customers actually do. Do they see it? Do they pick it up? Do they laugh? Do they cry? If you can get a snapshot of your customers’ behavior in their actual buying environment (with an e-commerce product, you can conduct a similar experiment), you’ll find that’s infinitely more valuable than watching focus group sessions.

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  5. As always interesting post.
    Very interesting your matrix point of view. I can see successful outcomes from your process of what you’ve put forward.

    Agree advance business systems is a bad name, I couldn’t even remember it after a decade of their ads, but it was one example of the name not doing the heavy lifting of a brand.

    Putting a brand in the shopping experience great idea, I hadn’t thought about this.

    I might have 1.5-2 more posts on naming coming up. I think you’ll enjoy a post I have summarizing a naming academic study.

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  6. @Steven Mason, this was extremely timely for me from a pure academic standpoint. What was more insightful was your approach to asserting your expertise. I often joke with my friends that a Building Architect will allow you to make some changes to his plans to incorporate “customer feedback”, but would never let you do something stupid, like have your kitchen sink and dishwasher in the polar opposites of your space. Those two things go together without any question. All too often I’ve noticed that common sense is left by the wayside to placate an executive. I also really agree with your position on consensus building. In addition to your points, “knowing that it leads to watered-down mediocrity and the destruction of great ideas, and the weighting of all opinions equally.”, I would add that it limits the natural constrains on a problem or situation that allows for creativity in the first place.

    Thanks for sharing….

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