What’s in a Name: Five Questions to Ask Before You Approve Your Next Brand Name

By David Placek, CEO and Founder, Lexicon Branding

Nothing will be used more often or for longer. It’s the cornerstone of your relationship with customers. It’s the one thing your competitors can’t take away from you.

Can you guess what it is? It’s your company’s brand name and one of the most crucial components of your marketing toolkit — surprisingly one whose importance is often overlooked by marketers. A brand name is the cornerstone that immediately makes an impact on consumers and in today’s digital and global economy, can mean the difference between a brand that is immediately remembered or completely forgotten.

In my 40-year experience helping to create some of the most iconic brand names like Swiffer, BlackBerry, Pentium and Dasani, I’ve learned that names are much more than simple labels and clever descriptors. They can serve as powerful marketing tools for creating or changing consumer perceptions. They can be the first step in constructing an entirely new market. In software and other digital products, the brand name is usually the first thing a potential customer either sees or hears.

When we partner with brands to develop new names, we use an internal checklist to ask if our recommendations pass the test. Here are five questions we ask ourselves to make sure our names are memorable, distinctive, and stand out from the crowd.

1. Does the name generate interest with an original idea?

Don’t be fooled by the adage that a good brand name tells your story. That’s impossible! Brand names are the foundation upon which your brand’s story is built. Do you want to build on a foundation of rock or sand?

The reality around a rock-solid brand name is that it’s quite hard to break through the clutter. We’re exposed to 6,000 to 10,000 ads each day, every one promoting a brand. Chances are that your public will only take an interest in new or novel ideas. Everything else is routine.

Dasani is a noteworthy example of an original idea in the bottled water market. The name Dasani is invented but with the Latin word for “health” (San) in the middle. In a world of Crystal Springs and Aquafinas, Dasani says, “I’m different.”

2. Does the name convey imagery or make the audience think?

The best names free your audience to imagine. Brand names should be created to first generate interest and then to suggest a story. When we created Swiffer for P&G, we tested the name with busy moms and dads. In both cases, they imagined an easier, more joyful cleaning experience before we told them anything about the product’s features or benefits. Consider this: If the name had been ProMop, would it have suggested a more powerful joyful cleaning experience? When you make it easy to imagine, you make it easy to purchase.

Beyond picturing what the product may be from its name, ask yourself if the name makes your audience think. Effective names focus on being remarkably distinctive and noteworthy. They give power to new ideas and boldly lead your audience to the conclusion that your new product has a new story and can help your audience rethink expectations about the category itself.

Gatorade is a brand name that requires you to think about what is in the bottle that inspires a reference to gators. By contrast, Powerade makes a 100% predictable claim and one that’s impossible for either the consumer or the manufacturer to substantiate. More than 30 years after its launch, Gatorade is still the market leader.

3. Is your name unforgettable?

 If your brand name is forgettable you will lose. To influence a consumer’s choice, you must influence what they remember. One way to be unforgettable is to break the traditional rules. Last year more than 50,000 names were registered in North America. With all these trademarks, simply fitting in won’t work. Make sure that your new name looks different, sounds different, and acts different.

Take the example of Google. In a sea of mundane search engine brands like Infoseek and Web Crawler, Google appeared distinctive, playful, and unforgettable. Memorable names make it easier for consumers to buy your product. How valuable is that?

4. Is the name the most popular with your team?

If it is, try again. The most popular names are usually the most comfortable (aka boring) and there is no power in comfort. Oscar Wilde once said that “an idea that isn’t dangerous is hardly worth calling an idea at all.” In branding, this follows suit — the best names involve some amount of risk. Impossible Foods is a great example of this. It’s patently false since the product proves that it is in fact possible. It openly admits that the consumer will be skeptical (“this can’t possibly taste like meat!”). With this novel approach, the name has generated unsurpassed interest in a disruptive category.

5. Will it make your competitors grimace?

Since a registered brand name is the one thing your competitors cannot take away from you, it needs to make your competitors wince every time they see it. If you think they’ll just shrug it off or create something better, take the name off the list. Be unique, be disruptive, and be calculated when taking risks with your name.

For instance, Microsoft’s Azure® Cloud brand helped to position the company’s new cloud service as the next-generation offering to gain significant ground against Amazon’s very generic AWS.

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