A rose by any other name
Naming a company, brand or product is not as simple as adding ‘i’ to the beginning of a word. A name has to invoke a sense of what it is trying to describe, while avoiding the potential intellectual property and translation issues that may arise. David Benady investigates
The mobile payment wallet developed in the US by T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T is a powerful, though unusual, reminder of the complications that can arise when naming brands. The Isis e-wallet – which allows users to pay for goods and services by tapping their mobile phones against a payment terminal – was launched in 2010.
This was long before horrific stories about the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIS, hit the media. But to avoid any association with the militant group, the payment brand announced in July that it was scrapping the Isis brand and was searching for a new name. Over the summer, the company announced that it was rebranding as Softcard.
A rebrand may not do the e-wallet too much harm, according to Siegel+Gale’s global director of naming Nik Contis, as it should get a boost from the publicity. “It’s unfortunate that this has happened, but fortunate for Isis because no one has won that space and now everyone knows about something called Isis that got a name change,” he says.
Fortuitous maybe, but brand naming is a process strewn with difficulties. Creating a powerful, relevant and original name is one of the great challenges of branding. There are just 26 letters in the English alphabet and some quarter of a million words in the Oxford English Dictionary, but millions of brand names are already vying for mindspace. Coming up with a strong name can be like searching for the proverbial haystack needle. “Every week our job gets harder…just do the maths,” says Contis.
First, the name must have a powerful ring to it and hopefully evoke what the brand or business stands for – Twitter is often cited as a great example of this. The name must be fresh and not already in use in its sector (Apple Computer argued for years that it was in a different category from the Beatles’ record label Apple Corp, though eventually entered the music business). For global brands, the name should avoid any unwelcome connotations in another language (Mondelez can sound extremely rude in Russian, Crains Chicago Business news reported.) And one can only hope that it does not acquire unfortunate associations as did payment brand Isis.
JP Campbell, CEO and co-founder of One Feeds Two, a non-profit that donates a meal to a child in need for every purchase of an item that bears its logo, says the naming process was a creative challenge, to be sure, but that choosing a brand name led to consideration of cultural issues as well. “Once I had a list of names I then started running my favourites past some trusted friends who had good taste and a knack with words. But the biggest hurdles are often securing a trademark, and ensuring your name doesn’t have any unfortunate linguistic associations in markets in which you operate,” he says.
This may sound arduous for the agencies charged with suggesting names to brand owners, but Contis says the briefing stage with clients is most important. This comes down to knowing what questions to ask and how to interrogate the marketers: How will the name add value to the business? What is the state of the market and how do other names in the sector reflect that? How far does the name need to communicate the brand’s attribute?
He identifies various categories of names – those that use an existing word, such as Twitter, those using the inventor’s name and those that are coined. This last group is ever-expanding, particularly in the corporate sphere as brands seek non-specific names that can work in different languages. Many companies want to escape the boundaries of geography and category as they may in the future expand into different areas and countries. Amazon is a strong name as it allows the business to go beyond selling books and is understood across the world. There is also a tendency toward made-up names such as Diageo and Aegon which are deliberately vague so as not to tie the company down to any specific area.
Campbell adds, “Given how hard it is to get people to notice you, let alone remember you, I wanted a name that was really simple and stood out. I also wanted it to mirror the cause and effect element of the idea. With this criteria One Feeds Two was a clear winner.”
Contis says the thirst for new corporate brand names is increasing as mergers and acquisitions multiply with the improving economy. But renaming brands and businesses after crises, mergers and acquisitions or changes in the environment has its own set of challenges.
“Renaming is the most tricky sort of naming because the brand has already got a substance behind it,” says Benedicte Windle, development director at brand naming specialist Nomen. The agency has worked on numerous renaming exercises for companies seeking to redefine their business, either giving a more accurate description of their activities, escaping an unwelcome association or coming together in a merger.
The agency worked on renaming French independent energy producer Séchilienne-Sidec as Albioma to provide a better description of its work. The new name reflects its activities in thermal biomass and solar power.
The name was created to denote the company’s brand values and its work with biomass and biofuels. Bios means life in Ancient Greek, emphasizing care and respect for the environment and recycling. The message is combined with a new dawn (alba in Latin), indicating a future for energy production away from fossil fuels.
But not all names which work on a corporate level have the same resonance with consumers. Centrica, the holding company of British Gas, includes the notion of central heating but it sounds far from warm from a consumer perspective. This is a corporate name that may make sense for investors but leaves its end customers scratching their heads.
Nick Smith, copywriter and author of Living Ratings for brand strategists Living Group, says, “It’s important to understand that a new name can’t transform any brand or company. Communications are key; it’s what you make the name mean to people that matters.” Campbell adds, “it is important to recognise that a brand is made up of a number of components that represent your organisation and what you stand for – a name is just one part of this. We are a very young organisation with a great name, but until we defined our values we really struggled to communicate consistently. Now that we are clear on these values and what we stand for, we use them to anchor everything we do.”
But the process of coming up with new names is long and complex. Typically it involves the agency drawing up a list of 400 or 500 potential names then working with the client to narrow these down to a shortlist of 50, of 10 and then of three or four. At this point, the agency will start checking the names for availability and linguistic connotations in other languages.
There are many examples of names that have been adopted where the company discovers later that they contain some unwelcome meaning or are already being used in a different sector. The classic example is car model the Chevy Nova – when it was launched in Latin America, the company realised that ‘no va’ means ‘doesn’t go’ and is used to describe faulty machines in Spanish. Recently, Ernst & Young rebranded as EY, only to later discover that this is the name of a gay magazine. This underlines the importance of due diligence on potential names.
Windle says of the naming process, “We have clients who say their comms agency has produced 600 names and the marketing people don’t like any of them. I can say to them with hand on heart that I could take that list and help them find the right shortlist of three to five names.” She says often the problem is that there may be up to 10 people on the corporate team deciding the brand names, all with different perspectives. Ultimately, it may require one person to take charge of the process.
“Given how hard it is to get people to notice you, let alone remember you, I wanted a name that was really simple and stood out.”
She adds that many companies ask for a name that begins with A, as this puts them at the beginning of the alphabet meaning their name will show up early on in searches and directories. Many appear to have followed this route – insurance giants such as Aegon, Aon and Aviva and the former Philip Morris holding company Altria. But the beginning of the alphabet is becoming overpopulated with names so she advises brands to seek out names starting with letters further along the alphabet as they will stand out more in unpopulated letter categories – the likes of dating site Zoosk, property search site Zoopla, Microsoft’s Xbox and Xerox seem to have taken this on board.
Meanwhile, the Brand Union’s worldwide development director Tim Hill says brand naming is such a rigorous process that checking the availability of names tends to squeeze the creativity out of it, “You might get one that isn’t the first name the client really falls in love with. Generally, you go with a name that fits in with the brief.”
He says clients often become frustrated by the lengthy process involved as trademark lawyers scan categories in different markets to ensure it is not already in use. “Many clients are in a rush, particularly in the product space. When you have a product they have developed, they think it can take up to four weeks, but when it’s all about legal checking, it can take three to six months.”
For some, the name may fit culturally, legally and in terms of brand personality, but communicating it to customers and building their loyalty in the newly-renamed brand adds an ongoing challenge. Campbell says the One Feeds Two name was initially a tagline for his food business, the Elephant Juice Food Company. When it was given to the foundation as well, he says, “The biggest challenge in executing this was bringing our existing customers with us. People are generally scared of change and don’t always want to understand your reasons for it. That said, if your values are consistent those customers will eventually return and recognise you in spite of a renaming or change in direction.
One project the Brand Union worked on was creating a name for a new, consumer friendly bank in Russia. After testing various names, it settled on Leto, which in Russian means summer, so denotes a brand which is warm, approachable and friendly.
But the process of naming is not just about coming up with catchy brand names that trip off the tongue. Once a powerful brand name is established, there is an architecture of sub-brands, divisions and related activities and descriptors that need to be named.
Joanna McGrath, managing partner at Rufus Leonard, says the agency has done a number of projects helping brands to come up with names across their brand architecture, such as Lloyds Bank and London Stock Exchange. One piece of work the agency did was for British American Tobacco, creating descriptors for its e-cigarette brand Vype. It decided that the product should be referred to as an ‘e-stick.’
“It is interesting to think how did Apple go about looking at ‘i-’ as the connecting thought for all their products. We go into companies that haven’t done that process and look at names to see how they connect so they all match back up to the parent brand,” McGrath says. It is also interesting to consider that Apple dispensed with the ‘i-’ prefix for its smart watch, which it is calling Apple Watch rather than an ‘iWatch.’
Perhaps the company reasoned that the prefix had become over-used. Some argue that the i originally indicated internet, a concept no longer worthy of acknowledgement in a now-desired and near-luxury brand.
Having a background in linguistics can be helpful when working in naming, according to Rebecca Robins, director of EMEA and Latin America at Interbrand. Understanding the derivations of words help creates names that need to work across languages. People with linguistic backgrounds also have an intuitive sense of the way names are constructed and how certain letter combinations influence the tone and energy of a name. She points to Hobnobs as a brand that redefined category conventions through a name that overtly referenced the experience and authenticity of the brand. She says, to imply a sense of speed and energy in a name, sound symbolism suggests you should use short vowels and dynamic consonants.
On the secret of a strong brand name, Robins says, “A great name affords differentiation in the sector, resonates with your audiences and future-proofs your product or company over time.”