Shakespeare was right to ask what’s in a name. Names matter. September is the most popular birth month by far in England and Wales. A study by Mumsnet.com in the UK earlier this year found that 18% of new parents regret their choice of name for their child. And it’s about right now, six weeks later, that about a third of them start to experience remorse — and this is after nine months of extensive research!
Every time we hear a name, we make a number of assumptions about that person or company or brand. A name identifies you, but it does so much more. It’s your public face. It tells customers who you are, what you do, and a little about how you do it.
We are obsessed with names. We label everything. Why? Partly due to curiosity, but primarily out of a need to know how everything fits into our world. We need to know how we are supposed to interact with it, how it can help us or how it can harm us. We look to a name to indicate these characteristics. Our brain anthropomorphises anything it can.
When it comes to people, when we see a name we draw conclusions about a variety of characteristics – their age, class and race. In the UK, I have a girl’s name which is good because I’m a girl, but in virtually every other country in the world it’s a boy’s name. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve caused confusion when I’ve rocked up and not been the person expected! In my case, it’s no big deal and often amusing, but the effect of name-signalling can have more far-reaching consequences.
Numerous research studies have been conducted on this very subject. In one, researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research sent out nearly 5,000 resumes in response to job ads in Boston and Chicago. Some CVs were given a ‘white-sounding’ first name, others were given a ‘black-sounding’ name. CVs with a white-sounding name prompted 50% more callbacks from potential employers.
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In another study, a team of researchers from the US, Austria and Belgium demonstrated that people with easier-to-pronounce names tend to be evaluated more positively than people with harder-to-pronounce names. Furthermore, another study after evaluating 700 stocks between 1990 and 2004 found that those with easier to pronounce names outperformed those with more difficult names by 33% over the course of a year! This is backed up by other research which established that we assume if something is easy then it’s true. The more effort we need to put into understanding something, then the less likely we are to believe it.
All words have a psychological effect. They are composed of shapes and sounds that trigger an emotional response. We associate words with ‘sharp sound’ letters such as c, g, k, t, z as harsh and angular, and ‘soft sound’ letters such as l, m, n, s as gentle. In experiments, over 90% of people refer to the left image above as a takete and the right as a maluma! We then make all kinds of assumptions about the word based on its composition. An experiment in 1990 found a direct correlation between the number of ‘sharp sound’ letters in a fictional brand of toilet paper and the likelihood of people describing the product as harsh or rough. It’s also one of the reasons why Kodak is widely regarded as one of the best brand names ever.
We’re born with a blank slate. We know no words. By the time we’re 10 we know, on average, 10,000 words. This rises to a working vocabulary of 20,000 by the time we’re adults, unless you’re highly educated and well-read. But, when we are children and we learn a word we don’t just learn how it’s spelt or how it sounds; we also learn both positive and negative associations which become subconsciously ingrained in our minds. If I say cat or dog to you, then depending on childhood experiences you either have positive or negative associations and emotions. This is the whole premise around implicit-association tests.
A company or brand name is no different. Its name immediately conjures up a picture in the mind, together with a number of positive and/or negative associations. It’s these associations that affect our decisions, perceptions and feelings towards that brand. If your brand name is associated with positive emotions then you’ve potentially earned a life-long customer. A brand name can persuade us to engage emotionally with a company despite us knowing little about the product itself.
Our mind works like a thesaurus, and remembers the meaning rather than the individual words per se. A name without an emotional, non-verbal association will not be retained. A symbiotic relationship is necessary to embed it.
A good example is Apple. Apples are associated with fruit, fruitfulness, freshness, good health and sweetness. All positive attributes for a fresh computer brand as it was at launch seeking to deliver a healthy operating system.
But, what about brand names that contain words customers don’t understand or recognise? Unless these words are total fabrications, words or part of words will always have emotional associations based on past experiences and imagery. If people don’t know what something is they will fall back on pre-existing meanings and associations. You just need to know what these are and adapt accordingly.
Research has established that brand names are neurologically processed in a different way to common nouns. The right brain, associated with processing items of personal importance and emotional significance, is used more extensively, supporting the idea that we form emotional links with brands in a large part to their names.
A rose may well smell as sweet if it was called something else such as a thorny flowering bush, but the fact is that it wouldn’t necessarily sell as well or get the same emotional response.
What’s in a brand name? Perhaps everything, or at the very least a brand’s identity – its personality, values, recognition and reputation. It differentiates you from your competitors and gets customers interested or at least curious. The name is not the brand, but a shortcut to the brand promise. Sometimes, the brand name is so apt and describes what it does so well that customers call all similar products by the same name. Google is the universal term for internet searches, Saran Wrap in the US for all plastic cling film and Hoover in the UK for all vacuum cleaners, and as a verb to describe the process.
What do you do if you need to rename your brand, or create a brand from scratch? Choosing a name is a hard but important step as it represents what your brand stands for. It’s like naming a child, as it should stick for life. Pick the wrong one and you might as well shut up shop.
Many now-famous brands started out life under a different guise. Whether the name change precipitated their infamy, who knows. Can you identify who these companies eventually became? Answers below!
Changing a company name is a big step and cost no matter your size. But, sometimes there are good reasons to do so. Your current name limits you as it lacks stretch, e.g. Snapchat to Snap, or Home Delivery Network to Yodel. You buy, or are bought or merge with another company e.g. Abbey National and Bradford & Bingley to Santander, and Bell Atlantic and GTE to Verizon.
You lose a trademark dispute and are forced to or you enter a country where your current name is not available. Your name isn’t ownable or unique or your business has fundamentally changed e.g. Haloid to Xerox. Your name becomes associated to something toxic which has nothing to do with you e.g. ISIS Chocolate in Belgian changed to Libeert and UK ISIS Equity Partners rebrands to Living Bridge. Your name becomes associated to something toxic of your own making e.g. RBS in the UK and AIG to Chartis. Finally, for less immediate reasons, you decide your name is too long e.g. General Electric to GE or International Business Machine to IBM.
There are chiefly five types of brand names with varying degrees of difficulty in trademarking.
- Functional names that state the function and purpose of a product such as Facebook or LinkedIn.
- Descriptive names that say something about the purpose but, use imagery to forge a functional link such as Twitter or Whirlpool.
- Connotative names that suggest an aspect of what the product does typically a benefit such as Red Bull or Amazon.
- Imaginary or made-up names that say little or nothing about the product but evoke an emotional image such as Häagen-Dazs and Etsy.
- Names of the founders with the focus on the personalities who created the company, used commonly by consultants, solicitors and communication agencies.
What makes a good brand name? What should you consider when naming your brand?
- Does it capture what your brand stands for in a positive way?
- Is it appropriate, appealing and relevant to your target audience?
- Does it link, imply or identify in some way to what you actually do?
- Is it flexible, can it last if you expand over time, or will it age quickly?
- Does it sound like anyone else? Does it differentiate you from your peers?
- Is it memorable? Have you anchored it on an emotional memory or a physical sensation?
- Does it fit your overall company portfolio?
- Is it legally available and defensible in all relevant geographies?
- Is the domain name available?
- Is it culturally appropriate in meaning in all major languages?
If you’re still not sure then apply these 5 tests to check your brand out.
- Is it short and easy to understand, remember, pronounce and spell?
- Does it use figurative language that creates the imagery you want?
- Does it resonate with your target?
- Does it stand out, or can it be confused with other brands?
- Can it shortened or abbreviated in an acceptable way?
Customers build brands, not companies. They give brands value by developing perceptions and expectations for those brands. Your brand name is short cut to these associations. A brand name should be easily remembered, catchy, explain what your product does as well as communicate the message you want to send. What does your name say about you?
Answers: Pepsi Cola, Google, Accenture, Nintendo, Nike, Starbucks, Playboy, AOL, L’Oreal, EBay