Five minutes with Christian Turner
For successful brands the world over, sending strong signals is top priority. Yet as consumers change and marketing positions evolve, the need for compelling brand names has not only become harder, but increasingly valuable. Christian Turner has worked in naming for over a decade, extending established brands and helping organisations express the many facets of a service offering. In 2016, he became global director of naming at Siegel+Gale. Speaking exclusively to Transform magazine, Turner explains the importance of naming as a key component of brand strategy.
How did you come into the role of naming?
Christian Turner: It’s certainly true that my current role feels a little unorthodox – a very big title in the ‘global director,’ but quite a narrow remit with naming – and something that not everyone thinks about. I was a poetry major in university, and have always been able to play with language.
I started by freelancing, which is a little bit unusual in the naming role. Often it can feel like you’re just throwing names over a wall. A lot of what’s most interesting and compelling about naming, in terms of producing outcomes and the right solutions for clients, is running the projects and processes. That doesn’t necessarily mean always a provocative solution, sometimes it can mean talking them into not naming something that they previously thought needed a name, or rethinking a whole portfolio.
Moving away from freelance, I was brought onboard at Landor in New York and worked there for three years. After that I left to head up the team at Siegel+Gale, doing nothing but naming for ten years.
Why is naming such an important part of brand strategy?
I think the number one reason why naming is so important is that it’s so easy to get it wrong. I don’t think that the right name will solve a terrible product, and I do think the world’s greatest product will succeed regardless of its name. In between those two realities however, there are a lot of ways to optimise the experience.
Think about HSBC for example, a four-letter acronym. They’ve had a spectacular advertising campaign for a long time, a great tagline in ‘The world’s local bank,’ a stockpile of assets that eventually led to their ubiquity, and for a long time I couldn’t tell you what those four letters stood for.
You can use naming to reinforce the existing terms that everyone understands. If you have a router, call it a router. If you’re in a burning theatre and trying to find the exit, you’re going to look for the exit, any other cue won’t do. A lot of what’s strategic about language is figuring out what the options are, and then applying them in the right way. Siegel+Gale is a simplicity company, we believe in incorporating simple ideas across each of our projects.
Where naming has changed is that there was, in some ways, a ‘naming 1.0,’ with examples such as British Airways, British Gas, and British Petroleum – which is also true elsewhere, such as Saudi and China Telecom, for example. Yet moving on to naming 2.0 is where everyone wants to be, typified by universally positive names that, in many ways, have now become repurposed and stretched. There are ways in which language naturally works in the real world that are attractive to us. Brexit, for example, can be hard, soft, cliff-edged and entirely metaphorical, which relates to the way we begin to explain things to each other, things that may naturally be difficult to comprehend.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your role as global director of naming?
The biggest challenges are fear – worrying about being made fun of, worrying about how your boss is going to react etc. There are too many decision-makers, and sometimes the final decision-maker doesn’t get involved early enough. I’ve found, as I’ve moved into a more senior role, the more often I get to talk to the management team, executive committee and present before the board, the more I’m able to allow myself and my colleagues to become an advocate for a good idea.
I’ve run assignments in Germany, Greece, Turkey and across Europe. The London office, where I’m based, is really an EMEA office. Naming comes up all over the place, and our job is to ensure that we’re running the right process for the right location and making sure we’re pulling in resources for our geographical reach. We run a global language check, that often works as a ‘disaster check’ in many ways, to ensure that something said in one language isn’t misinterpreted to mean something else in another. I’ve noticed that when a name goes down in flames on those lines, it goes down immediately.
The public is much more receptive to a new idea or a good name than people often think. It enters a world they know, a world they’re living in, and if it’s thought through in the right way, it’s inherently plausible. The naming process often involves comparative procedures, people are quick to shoot things down and underestimate the public’s willingness to go to new places and discover new things, overcoming that is a challenge.
How important is audience perception when naming a brand, and how do you gauge perception?
With regards to audience perception, either we’re doing research or we’re not. The problem of naming is quite often grounded in the Steve Jobs quote of, ‘You can’t ask people what they want,’ but rather that you’ve got to give them what they don’t know that they need. The way people often do naming research, especially if done cheaply, is they look at the concept they’re imagining and try to draw the shortest line, closely fitting the concept and ticking the boxes. The problem with that is that it allows for no possibility of businessmen using Blackberry phones, or mother’s pushing Bugaboo strollers, for example.