Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

Brand Names: Offense

My clients often ask me to help them name things. They’re hoping that we can develop a name that plays equally well to logic and emotion and that states a compelling benefit in 15 letters or less. A lot of brains have been damaged this way.

Great brand names often trigger emotional responses. But we often get the cause and effect backward. The name doesn’t put the emotion in us. We put the emotion in the name.

I worked in college and scraped together enough money to buy a beat-up Pontiac Tempest. The original Pontiac was a great Indian leader in the midwestern United States. The town of Pontiac, Michigan was named after him. General Motors opened a factory there and named the car after the town. Originally, the name Pontiac didn’t mean anything more to me than, say, the name Cotopaxi. It’s just a name. Then I bought the car and enjoyed driving it. Now Pontiac has a special meaning to me, some sentimental value. The name didn’t do anything to me. I did something to the name. That’s why naming is so difficult. The name doesn’t trigger anything until customers add emotion to it.

As Kevin Lane Keller and many other branding experts have pointed out, you can play offense or defense with a name — but it’s hard to do both. Consider three variables for offense:

  • Memorability — anything you can do to make your name memorable will help build your brand. This may mean playing off a well-known word — as in Lincoln cars or Winston cigarettes. Be sure to link to something that has positive connotations. Repetition also builds memorability which is why marketers repeat themselves so often.
  • Meaningfulness — a good name may identify a product category, or some key product features, or a major product benefit. Be aware that changes in perception may require you to change your name. When fried food came to be viewed as unhealthful, Kentucky Fried Chicken decided to change its name to KFC.
  • Likability — it’s hard to know what makes a name likable. You may pick a popular person’s name. Animals often provide better names than people do. It’s hard to hate an animal whereas it’s not so hard to dislike some people. The more abstract a product or service is, the more important it is to focus on a likable name.
It’s exceedingly hard to pick a name that has all three criteria. The trick is to not worry too much about it. Remember that a great name doesn’t create a great product. A great product creates a great name. Tomorrow we’ll talk about how to defend a great name.
(This article is based largely on Kevin Lane Keller’s book, Strategic Brand Management).


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