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Names reinforce brand positioning

By on Apr 5, 2012 in Brand and Identity Design

Series Note: This is second post in a series of articles exploring corporate and product naming theory and processes. 

The naming process can be a lot to bite off at one time, so we’re hoping this series of articles will provide different frameworks and lenses to evaluate names. The previous article in this series discussed how names work within brand architecture and how the relationship of a company to its products impacts the naming conversation. In this article, we focus on how a name can reinforce and support company and product positioning and answer the critical question: what can a name accomplish for your company?

Different types of words

Before jumping into different names and how they accomplish different things, it’s helpful to understand the landscape and have some context.

There are a few basic categories that can be helpful when discussing names (and we’ll look back at these):

  • real words
  • composite words or portmanteaus (Accenture, made from “accent on the future”)
  • alpha-numeric words (model numbers, for example)
  • non-english words (Tora Trading)
  • words with Roman/Greek roots (Agilent, Aquent)
  • words that use onomatopoeia to suggest meaning (Snapple)
  • poetic names that imply other words (Roomba, dancing around a room)

In addition to being useful descriptors, these different styles can influence the feeling one gets from a name, and the name can help reflect the company’s culture. For example, a financial services company would be more likely to focus on a “serious” name with Greek or Roman roots, than a poetic or onomatopoeic name.

Different purposes for names

A critical part of understanding different types of names is understanding their purpose — what information they communicate to your market, and how they communicate it. At the heart of this is your company’s positioning. A name can offer a range of support for a company’s positioning, but with greater support comes greater risk.

Functional or descriptive names are the most obvious and least risky. These names may be an individual’s name (usually the founder or partners), be descriptive of what the company or product does, or be a pre- or suffixed reference to the product’s function. Descriptive names are less memorable than other names and don’t directly contribute to brand equity, though they are able to carry brand equity when they are supported with plenty of marketing.

Functional names are best used  for products when a company wants to build direct brand equity to the parent brand, for example:

  • BMW 325
  • Oracle Database 11g

Descriptive names for companies include:

  • American Airlines
  • General Motors
  • McKinsey & Company

Experiential or metaphoric names try to capture the experience of using the product or working with the company. They’re great because they immediately make sense, are more memorable than descriptive names, and are effective for early entrants into new markets. They can present problems, however, because they’re harder to trademark and tend to be common, even within industries.

Some examples include:

  • JetBlue
  • Explorer (Internet Explorer or Ford Explorer)
  • Safari
  • Crystal Reports

Coined names are made-up or foreign words (see our list above). These names can overlap with the other types, but are distinctive in how much marketing effort is needed to imbue them with meaning. Snapple, for example, is a made up name, but alludes to the experience of drinking it (experiential). Names with Greek or Roman roots often command a sense of gravitas. Coined names are easily trademarked, can sound serious (Greek/Latin based), and can be emotionally engaging (poetic, onomatopoeidic). Because they don’t have natural meaning, however, they can require a high degree of marketing effort to imbue with meaning (I still have no idea what Aquent means).

Examples of coined names include:

  • Quantas
  • Aquent
  • Agilent
  • Snapple
  • Oreo
  • Xyratex

Evocative names evoke the positioning of the product or company, rather than the goods or services themselves. They are removed from the direct experience, but still relevant. When these names work, they can be awesome — they’re multidimensional and evocative. But since they are based on positioning, they can be troublesome when they’re out of sync, or if positioning isn’t very clearly defined. It can be hard to get corporate approval for coined names because they’re seen as risky and different.

Not surprisingly, some of today’s most well-known companies use evocative names:

  • Virgin
  • Apple
  • Caterpillar
  • Amazon

So, what type of name is right for your company or product?

As usual, there’s not a one-size fits all answer. The right name is the one that reinforces your company or product’s position the best, and the one that fits your organization and budget the best. An evocative name can be risky, but with a huge payoff if it works. A descriptive name can be easy to get approved, but risks being bland and non-distinctive in the market. An invented name sales through the trademark and approval processes, but often needs a big marketing budget behind it to work out.

Understanding the different types of names, and their advantages and disadvantages can help maximize the efficiency of your brainstorming process, allowing you  to focus on those names that will work best for your company’s situation.


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