Naming someone else’s baby.

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Naming a brand. Where do you start?

Choosing a brand name. Where do you start?

How creating an effective brand name is much trickier than naming a child.

It’s a funny thing, naming. Everyone thinks they’re an expert. We’ve all named something at one time or another, even if it’s just the goldfish. But when it  comes to naming a company, product or service, choosing the perfect  name can have many an “expert” flummoxed. Employees, customers, shareholders; how can you inspire everyone in just a word or two? The short answer is, you can’t. Not everyone. But what you can do is have a  very clear idea of your audience and the most important things you want to communicate, and go from there.

To the uninitiated, naming can be a minefield, which probably explains why   so many companies spend months, even years, developing a product only to   discover as the launch date approaches that they’ve yet to agree on a name, let alone secure the trademark.

Cue a last-minute panic and cry for help to the advertising agency, who are often asked to come up with a name as a tiny part of a launch campaign brief, without being given the adequate time or budget to do so.

The agency will often think coming up with a name is a doddle, give the task to a junior copywriter as ‘a nice little job’ and come bounding back with a long list of suggestions, which get knocked out one by one for creative reasons (they’re too obscure), legal reasons (they’re obviously taken) or linguistic ones (sorry, Mist in German means manure – just ask Mercedes). The deadline gets ever closer, but the solution doesn’t.

Luckily for Australia, because of our youth and size, securing a trademark and url for the domestic market is much easier than in Europe or the US, which probably explains why the slap-dash attitude to naming still prevails.

Considering it can take up to two years for a trademark to be registered (although in reality, few companies wait that long), the sooner a name is chosen, the better.

Naming. So where do you start?

Short answer – by knowing what you want to communicate. Defining what your brand is about is where every naming brief should start. Once everyone is looking for a clear expression of the same idea, it makes choosing a name much less subjective.

Can you imagine naming someone else’s child? Creating a name for someone else’s company is just like that. People can get very subjective, especially as everyone has natural associations with certain words. The smaller the company, the higher the personal stakes.

When you name a child, you have no idea what they’re going to be like, yet you have the responsibility to pick a name that will suit them in the future. In theory, creating a brand name should be easy by comparison, as you should know exactly what you want to get across and choose a name that does it.

Thing is, people and brands can often grow into a name, whatever it is. Think of the people in your life, can you imagine them being called anything else now?

The different styles of name; descriptive, associative, abstract.

Whether you’re a company like Unilever launching a new FMCG or a multi-million-dollar enterprise in need of a new name following a merger or acquisition, the first step is to have an idea about what style of name you looking for, something often dictated by geography.

Do you just want a descriptive name that’s very direct and obvious, setting out your stall in a flash, or is it more important to build your brand by creating an associative name rich in personality? More often than not, companies want both.

Names used to be very straight-forward. Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Dick Smith Electronics, National Australia Bank… But as companies became more diverse, expanded internationally and saw an increase in competition, the need to create differentiation became much more apparent. What began as a simple way to tell cattle apart with a hot-iron brand has moved into a world of much more complex identity creation.

A brand’s identity has both visual and verbal elements. Design and tone of voice together bring it to life.  The brand name is often the way into both of these as a means of introduction, usually with a strong idea at the heart. For example ‘Apple’ suggests refreshing simplicity or a (Newton) eureka moment, ‘Wii’ togetherness and ‘Google’ has the clever double association of googol (a number with 100 zeros) and goggle – a wide-eyed look of amazement.

In Australia, it seems many of the biggest brands have very traditional names, often taking those of their founder. The brands now stand for far more than the characteristics of the person that created them, which can make them feel very dated and tied to the past. And if you don’t know of that person, the name is abstract anyway. Harvey Norman means nothing to me…but then I guess, so does Calvin Klein, although at least he has a legacy.

It’s often the young upstarts that tend to have the most engaging names. Launching in a crowded market, it’s a great way to get instant cut-through. Just look at how undies maker AussieBum ripped into Bonds’ market share in just a few years. In the beginning, with a limited budget, the cheeky name really helped them get column inches and punch above their weight.

Why it pays to talk nonsense.

Abstract names are the hardest to warm to. Made-up or unfamiliar words can take a lot of work to build meaning into, but ultimately, they are the most distinctive, the easiest to trademark and tend to travel well as you don’t have to worry if people who speak other languages will understand a name – because at first, no one will.

An abstract name is like a blank canvas you can paint with meaning. When done well, they are incredibly strong brands. Kodak, Sony, Viagra, Optus, they’re all essentially abstract names, but you probably carry plenty of association with them now.

Even abstract names can have association. Xstrata is an interesting name in an industry full of bland ones. (Rio Tinto incidentally, comes from the Spanish rivers washed red from all the iron ore.) Xstrata feels quite techie and progressive. It conjures images of multi-layered rock-strata, along with a hint of ‘X marks the spot’ treasure hunting. Even when your product is already valuable, it never hurts to have a strong brand to help build a premium offering.

There’s a great theory – nominative determinism – that people become the names they are given. It might not actually be true for children, but it often is for brands ­– a brand like Nike was always going to be about victory. But playing against type can work wonders too – like Caterpillar, big, powerful, heavy machinery named after a small squishy insect.

Naming is full of contradictions. The only consistent rule seems to be, there are no rules.

The original version of this post was published in The Australian Financial Review - June 2011.

The original version of this post was published in The Australian Financial Review – June 2011.

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