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A brand, by any other name…

Guess the brands - answer at the bottom of the article.

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.

acronyms brand names

 

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.

 

brand name evolution

 

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.

 

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WABBA (Will All Brands Become Acronyms)

Today, we are surrounded by acronyms and meaningless letters. Every business and industry has its acronyms and initials. We all need a decoder ring to make sense of all the abbreviations and acronyms. Actually, there is a website Acronym Finder dedicated to decoding acronyms and abbreviations with more than 4 million definitions. We don’t even notice how many initials and acronyms we use in a day like, 24/7, WWW, LOL, TBD, ASAP, FYI, ROI, FAQ, SAP, SOL, KPI, ETA, SEO, SWOT and OMG, to name a few.

After Y2K, the DotCom bubble and 9/11, there have been an explosion of companies moving towards acronyms and initials to reinvent themselves, such as: The Hudson Bay Company to HBC, The Royal Bank of Canada to RBC, Kentucky Fried Chicken to KFC, British Petroleum to BP, Lucky Goldstar to LG, YMCA to The Y and Bank of Montreal to BMO.

 

LOL – WTF

Wisconsin Tourism Federation changed its name to The Tourism Federation of Wisconsin, retiring its unfortunate WTF (also known as What The F&*K) logo in favor of the innocent TFW. While Wisconsin Tourism changed its name to stop the humiliation, many companies are doing this to expand into new non English markets or to remove words that made the company too regional and old.

There have also been brands that have had a long life as initials such as: GE, IBM, HP, BMW, UPS, SAP, AT&T, H&M, MSN and VW. Most people today couldn’t tell you the words that these initials originally represent.

 IKEA

So Much Meaning In So Few Letters

As it gets more and more difficult to come up with unique brand names that can be trademarked (see Building a Brand Identity Isn’t Getting Easier) developing distinctive acronyms is another solution. IKEA is an interesting acronym that was made up from the founder’s initials “I.K.” (Ingvar Kamprad). The “E” came from the farm where he grew up (Elmtaryd), and the “A” from his home county (Agunnaryd in Sweden). The world’s #2 search engine and web directory Yahoo was derived from the acronym for “Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle”.

Simplicity Or Survival

The charm of initials and acronyms are their simplicity. There is no need to memorize several words, especially if they are long and difficult to pronounce (like German companies such as Bayerische Motoren Werke, BMW or Systeme, Anwendungen und Produkte in der Datenverarbeitung, SAP). Acronyms and initials can easily be communicated in many languages, cultures and countries. Graphically, they can create a strong design mark that can also convey emotional dynamics and more importantly can be legally protected.

The main problem is acronyms mean nothing upfront. Remember your first day in a new company – all those nonsensical abbreviations – all just a scramble of letters. Over time, you had to load each with meaning and build a mind library of what each letter represented if you couldn’t actually remember the literal words. Acronyms and initials are inherently not descriptive of the business and possess no imagery or benefit-oriented language in and of themselves. Ideally you want a brand name that communicates something about the category, or a benefit, or both.

 

Name = Benefit

In the car insurance industry, GEICO competes with companies like Nationwide, SafeAuto, and Esurance. Right away, the three GEICO competitors’ names all tell you something about who they are:

  • Nationwide – extensive network of service and coverage.
  • SafeAuto – keeps you and your car safe.
  • Esurance – provides access to insurance online.

What does GEICO tell you? The first thing that comes to mind is the little green gecko. GEICO built their brand recognition by extensive advertising. In 2013, GEICO spent $935 million on advertising, almost three times the average spent by the rest of the 10 biggest insurance companies. No surprise their brand is well recognized.

Small and medium size companies can’t afford the time and money to build a brand from initials and acronyms, unless the initial or acronym is very exclusive and memorable.

 

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However, there is a way to cheat by using the initials/acronym as a design mark with the full words that represent the initials. Consulting firms like law, advertising, architectural, where the people are the differentiating factor tend to use the founders and partners names as the brand. To be customer friendly, they must abbreviate the brand name to simple letters or acronyms to help the customer. Just make sure the final initials/acronym does not spell words you couldn’t say in front of your mother like WTF. However, there are still those companies who try to push the limit like the popular FCUK which stands for “French Connection UK” a trendy clothing store.

 

Professor treating acronyms like formulae.

 Shorthand

The Internet, texting, tweeting and social media have forced everyone into new abbreviated, shorthand to fit, save time and work with a mini keyboard of two-inch by two-inch. Many companies have also abbreviated their company names to have more memorable URL addresses.

Acronyms and initials are here to stay and will continue to become more prolific as more brands become more global and more digital. But there are other trends that could influence the evolution of brand names becoming acronym such as smart home devices (Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod, Google Home) and the increasing use of audio dictation and Apple’s Siri. Artificial intelligence (AI), digital assistants and logarithms are changing how we communicate every day. How this will effect abbreviating brand names is still unknown. The most important brand goal is to ensure its customers remember their name – acronym, initials or not.

 

 

Footnote: The term acronym is initial abbreviations that can be pronounced as a word, such as NASA or IKEA, whereas, the term initials are just initials that are pronounced individually, such as FBI or BMW.