Fall 2005
"Smart namers are taking the time to understand their target audience and ensure they're creating names that are both relevant and meaningful."
What's in a Name?
Playing the Name Game for Fun—and Profit

For those in the midst of naming (or renaming) a company or product, the stakes—and risks—are high. A good company name can help secure customer loyalty and provide a competitive edge in a crowded marketplace. (Assuming, of course, that your company's product or service upholds this good name.) A bad name can simply fail to resonate with your customer base, relegating your company or product to obscurity.

The name game, however, is also a spectator sport. The world is watching—and passing judgment. In the late 1990s, for example, Hewlett-Packard hired identity firm Landor Associates to name the spin-off of its instrumentation and measurement division. The name chosen: Agilent. "From a quantitative standpoint, it's a very appealing name," Darius Somary, research director at Landor Associates, states on Salon.com. "On all the scalar measures of distinctiveness and appropriateness, it tested right off the charts."

But others weren't so convinced. According to Salon.com, the president of one naming firm declared it "the most namby-pamby, phonetically weak, light-in-its-shoes name in the history of naming." A professional at another naming firm concurred: "What a crummy name."

Spectators can be a tough audience.

Characteristics of a Good Name
If you are undertaking a naming initiative, what should you keep in mind? First, if you can, forget about the spectators. Focus your efforts on your potential customer base.

"Smart namers are [taking the] time to understand their target audience and ensure they're creating names that are both relevant and meaningful," according to TippingSprung, a branding consultancy. For example, InvesTex, the name of a credit union in Texas, may not pass muster with many name-game spectators. But for customers that live in Texas and want to keep their money there, the name is reassuring.

Other characteristics of good names? They're easy to spell, pronounce, and remember. They're not geographical (because that might hinder company expansion to a new sales or service area)—unless their origin is part of their appeal. (A company called "Maine Lobsters" would most likely rake in more sales than would a company called "Nebraska Lobsters.") They don't limit products or services your company may offer in the future. (What if "Smith's Doors" decides to sell windows?) And they're distinctive enough that they can receive trademark protection. (The name "Quicken," for example, is distinctive. "Johnson's Hardware" is not.)

Types of Names
Typically, there are four categories of names: family names, abstract names, semi-descriptive names, and initials.

Family names tend "to be associated with products or services where the personal touch and continuity over the years are both seen as important. Authenticity is therefore an important attribute that family names help express," brandchannel reports. A family name is almost seen as a personal endorsement, providing customers with reassurance and trust. A point to consider, however, is that some surnames aren't easy to register as trademarks.

Abstract names, such as Yahoo! and Kodak, have little or no meaning with respect to the product or service being offered.  But "they are potentially strong and legal properties," brandchannel states. "They can create powerful differentiation, which, if backed up by products and services of high quality and value for money, can lead to strong and successful brands. Precisely because such names lack any descriptive content, they are relatively easy to register and protect as trademarks." Their shortcoming? Because these names are so abstract, time and investment are required up front to educate the customer on the name, as well as the product or service offered.

Semi-descriptive or "associative" names hint at the product or service the company provides. Think Dunkin' Donuts, Jiffy Lube, and JetBlue. These types of names "are relatively easy to understand, [and] they simplify the task of positioning the product or service concerned," according to brandchannel. But like family names, semi-descriptive names can be difficult to register as trademarks. The name "Blue," with "its simple evocation of clear skies and serenity," was appealing as the name for an airline, Business 2.0 reports. "After trademark lawyers pointed out that it would be impossible to protect the name 'Blue' without a distinctive qualifier, ... JetBlue was born."

Initials are generally used more for company names than for product names. The immediate example that comes to mind, of course, is IBM. As brandchannel notes, "Very few companies or products would choose the initials route if they were new to the market. Initials lack information, differentiation, and personality; they are also notoriously difficult to protect as trademarks."

What Name Will You Choose?
So, what's the right name for your company or product? Naturally, only your organization can decide. But by keeping these naming characteristics and strategies in mind, your new company or product name may well create differentiation, stick in the minds of your targeted audience, and secure customer loyalty.

Sources: Ruth Shalit, "The Name Game," Salon.com, November 30, 1999.
"2005 TippingSprung Survey of Top Brand Names," TippungSprung, Inc.
Tom Blackett, "Choosing a Powerful Brand Name," brandchannel, October 10, 2005.
Alex Frankel, "The New Science of Naming, Business 2.0, December 2004. (Subscription required)

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