Companies invest millions of dollars building and protecting brand names. A brand, by any other name, would lose all the credibility and loyalty it worked so hard for. Who knew Shakespeare could stay so relevant?
To put this into perspective, Fortune’s Top 500 global companies spend, on average, $1.9 trillion on brand marketing each year. Why do they care so much? Well, creating a dynamic and memorable brand can contribute significantly to the bottom line. Take a company like Wholesale Landscape Supply. Not much to remember there, right? They changed their brand name to Big Earth, and the next year they increased sales by 200%.
No different than partners struggling to find the perfect name for their newborn, companies spend a lot of time and money finding their perfect brand. Company owners build a potential list of names and, if they have the resources, they include customer research testing to find out how each name lands. Yet often research and science factor very little in the brand decision-making process, with companies spending most of their energy and resources on their product or service instead. In some cases the brand name becomes an afterthought. “If that’s true, those businesses are run by idiots,” says Mike Mann, author of the book and blog MakeMillions.com. He goes on to say that the brand name is foundational for everything else. Therefore, taking shortcuts and relying on your emotional instincts could sabotage your brand’s long-term success.
To facilitate success, spend the time upfront to choose your perfect name. Come up with some naming strategies and use data-driven research to help you get to the one unique and memorable brand name. But before you can even do that, you must have a clear brand strategy that identifies your brand position, promise, and reason for being. Your final brand name should encompass and embody your brand strategy.
Here are five possible approaches to finding your perfect brand name.
1. Use people names as the brand
Consulting firms like lawyers, accountants, trainers, and agencies tend to use founder, owner and inventor names as their brand, since their consumers are buying expertise directly from their people. It’s logical that their brand names are the actual people behind the brand.
Additionally, many companies have successfully built empire on a family name—think Disney, Johnson & Johnson, Johnnie Walker, Maytag, McDonald’s, Hugo Boss, Porsche, Procter & Gamble, Wal-Mart and Toyota, to name a few. If you want to see a complete list, check out Wikipedia’s Companies Named After People. They have almost 1,000 family brand names.
2. Use descriptive words to explain what the brand is
This is where the left-brain entrepreneurs live. The descriptive brand name clearly communicates, in a straightforward manner, what service or product they are selling. Whether its tires, donuts, airlines, hotels, banks, restaurants, or pizzas, there are no surprises of what to expect from these brands.
The problem lies when they want to expand beyond their core product. Dunkin’ Donuts, for example, opened a store this year with only the brand name “Dunkin’” so they could expand beyond the donut and compete directly against Starbucks. Tim Hortons had the same problem when they first started as Tim Donut Limited. Today, they are known as Tim Hortons and offer much more than just the sugar-glazed donut. Midas Mufflers started as a specialty shop servicing vehicle mufflers but, as time evolved, they added brakes, shocks, tires and more. Simple solution—they dropped “Mufflers” from their name.
As long as a company sticks to their description they are golden, but once they want to branch out their name becomes a detriment. If you’re thinking of getting that granular with your own brand name, make sure to consider the future and stick to a name that is broad enough to encompass future plans.
3. Develop an image or experience that the brand projects
We shift now to the right-brain thinking. This is where we can use analogical reasoning with metaphors and tap into mythology and foreign words. These types become visionary brands with multidimensional imagery that can evolve and create a strong brand story. In some cases, the brand is much bigger than the product or service and actually becomes the underlying theme or promise. Nike, Patagonia, Verizon, Amazon, Expedia and Virgin are all great examples of creating a brand story that is bigger than any one product.
The $100 billion Nike brand actually started as Blue Ribbon Sports in 1964, but they had to come up with a new brand name once they started producing their own runners (see what happens when you get too descriptive?). They came up with two options, Falcon or Dimension Six, but no one liked either one! Jeff Johnson, Blue Ribbon’s first employee, came up with the name Nike— and it was just a name that came to him in a dream. Nike is the Greek Goddess of Victory. In 1971, graphic design student Carolyn Davidson designed the Nike logo swoosh for $35. The swoosh was designed to represent the wings of the goddess Nike. There was no research or focus group testing—they just did it!
4. Develop a new word as a brand name
Still in right-brain territory, this is the last chance if you have been unsuccessful in finding the perfect word to describe your brand. Start mashing up existing words by deleting or changing letters, creating new words, compounding words, or abbreviating words. The world’s most famous mashup brand name is IKEA. The first two letters in IKEA’s name are the initials of its Swedish founder Ingvar Kanprad. The last two are the first letters of the name of the property and village where he grew up: Elmtaryd Agunnaryd. Remember, you need at least one vowel to make it roll off the tongue. Some other successful mashup brands include Instagram, Tumblr, Fcuk, Pinterest, Facebook, FedEx, Acura, and Flickr.
5. Take a known word and reposition it as a brand name
I would have loved to be in the room when the agency pitched the brand name “Gap.” I can see the account manager reading the Oxford Dictionary definition: “Gap – a break or hole in an object or between two objects.” In the end, though, it was brilliant. Take an obscure word and load it with a new meaning. If you can tie the word to the brand story or promise, you’ll create a stronger connection to the brand name. Fruit seems to be a popular repurpose muse—we all know Apple, Blackberry, Tangerine, Orange, and Peach. I believe Lemon and Gooseberry are still available!
You’re Halfway There
Once you have the perfect brand name you need to protect it. The trademark process is a complete article in itself, and one I will never write. Securing viable trademarks is becoming increasingly difficult, but definitely not impossible. As a general guideline, descriptive words are generally too common to protect. For example, Hotel.com can’t be protected so, if you own the web domain name, that is as good as you will get.
Which leads me into the digital properties. If you can’t secure the domain name or social handles for your brand name, don’t sweat it. Joel Gascoigne, co-founder of Buffer says “the name itself matters much more than having the same domain name. Pick a great name, go with a tweaked domain name.” You might want to also buy misspelled variations of your name before others do. Google owns gooogle.com, gogle.com, gogole.com, goolge.com and googel.com. Trust me I have typed all of these variations, at some point.
Also remember that people must be able to easily pronounce your brand name and have it recognized by audio assistants like Siri, Google, and Alexa. If your brand will go beyond the world of English, make sure you understand any linguistic challenges with translations, idioms, slang, cultural associations, and connotations.
You will notice there was no mention of acronyms or initialism as a brand names. You have to start with the long, boring, and descriptive brand name first, make it known, and then shorten it down to its initials. KFC, RBC, IBM, AFLAC and BMW all started with their full names to gain recognition before they could shorten them. Check out my previous article WABBA – Will All Brands Become Acronyms.
A Brand Name is Only the Beginning
The brand is more than just a name. It’s a good start but it’s only part of your brand identity.
Beyond the name, a brand must define its voice, messaging, and content strategy—and make sure those representing the brand embody all of those things. The brand personality will influence all decisions like advertising campaigns, job postings, packaging and store design, sponsorships, customer service, and digital experiences.
If at First You Don’t Succeed…
Many famous brands didn’t get their brand name right the first time, and many continue to tweak their names to broaden their markets beyond borders and product lines today. If you start with a name that doesn’t fit, don’t be afraid to go back to the drawing board.
Lexicon Branding, one of the leading brand name agencies in the world, says a great name can make a big financial difference. And they should know—they have created $15 billion in brand names, including Blackberry, Danani, Febreze, OnStar and Pentium. The most iconic brands today aren’t mind-blowing works of art, either. They are simple words that have evolved into powerful brands: Nike, Google, Facebook, Walmart, Apple and Amazon. A simple name with a powerful strategy can (and will) make all the difference.