Coke. Apple. Nike. Great brand names, right? In fact, some are so good they have actually become part of our daily lingo. We no longer “search” for information; we “Google” it. We don’t “edit” pictures; we “Photoshop” them. But how do such brand names become so popular? How do certain words, sometimes seemingly random, take on such powerful affiliations in our hearts, tongues and minds? Is it the way they sound or the meaning behind them? Or do we just get used to hearing them so often that we eventually accept them into our daily vocabulary?
Let’s be clear: a name is arguably the most important part of any brand. It’s the first thing you hear and usually the last thing you remember. That said, however, names are extremely subjective. Whereas it is absolutely necessary for a brand to have a name, it is not always necessary for that name to have any discernable meaning with or connection to the product. ‘Bluetooth’, for example, is a ubiquitous name in tech-talk, but even I.T. junkies seldom know that the technology was named after King Harald Bluetooth, the 10-century King of Denmark, famous for uniting the tribes of Scandinavia (just as the technology unites PCs with cellular devices). The same can be said for many brands such as IKEA, Starbucks, Fanta, Nivea, Samsung, Red Bull, LEGO and so on. We know the names (love them in some cases) but we have no idea why they are called what they are called. More importantly, we don’t even think about asking.
And this brings up an important question: does the brand name really matter?
Method or madness?
Although the success of many popular brand names can be retro- rationalised, there doesn’t seem to be a fixed formula or science to churning out successful names. Some say that names should be short and sweet, but that theory was blown out of the water by breakthrough brands such as ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter’ and ‘Gee, Your Hair Smells Terrific!’, which spawned their own legion of copycats. Even names like ‘Standard Chartered’, ‘Harley Davidson’, and ‘Bang & Olfsen’ are heavy on the syllables, proving that simplicity and brevity are not necessarily requisites for successful names. If that were the case, everyone would be opting for cryptic acronyms such as ‘IBM’, ‘BMW’, or ‘DHL’. Yet many brands prefer their lengthy monikers, opting out of the more condensed abbreviations.
Another school of thought is to come up with names that are suggestive or contain some sort of meaning. ‘Amazon’, for example, connotes the vastness of products, just as ‘Sprint’ suggests speed. Some names use parts or combinations of existing words to exaggerate their meaning with a twist. ‘Intel’ (from “integrated electronics”), ‘Mospel’ (“mosquito” and repellent”), ‘Durex’ (‘durability’, ‘reliability’ and ‘excellence’) to name a few. But then, how do these compare with abstract brand names like ‘Apple’, ‘Lays’, or ‘Yahoo!’ which have nothing to do with their products, or with nonsensical names like ‘Google’, ‘Kodak’, or ‘Häagen Dazs’, all of which have no actual meaning? Even stranger, some names are counterproductive. Take ‘Foodpanda’ for example. Who would want their food delivered by a lazy, slow-moving vegetarian? Wouldn’t ‘Food Cheetah’ have been so much more appropriate?
Fake it until you make it:
The disparate and muddled matrix of successful brand names is proof that there is no clear logic or principles or criteria to define successful brand names from unsuccessful ones. The only thing that does matter is how one invests in building that name into a success. Figuratively speaking, it’s not so much about what your name is, but rather how you dress, behave and interact with others that defines you as a person. Your name is just the first opportunity to make an impression. It’s the same for a brand. Yes, people may snicker at an unusual name at first, but that is usually soon forgotten if the brand delivers on its promise. Just as with people, brand attributes (positive or negative) will always matter far more than the name, which explains why most people don’t get hung up on brand names, no matter how ridiculous or nonsensical they are. Interestingly enough, if a brand consistently delivers a crappy experience, people tend to disfigure the brand name in an attempt to make it match their perception (I think we have all done this ourselves too).
So, for all of you thinking of naming a new brand, remember that there is no silver bullet. In fact, there is no way to even predict if a name will do well or not. It’s a leap of faith that will have to be built over time to register in people’s hearts and minds. Avoid over-rationalising. Go with your gut. If the brand succeeds, no one will think twice about the name.
For those of you who are curious…
• Nike: named after the Greek goddess of victory
• Samsung: Korean for ‘Three Star’
• Nivea: from ‘Niveus’, Latin for ‘Snow White’
• Volkswagen: German for ‘People’s Car’
• Lego: a contraction from the Danish phrase ‘leg godt’, meaning ‘play well’ (coincidently in Latin for ‘I put together)
• ADIDAS: a portmanteau of the founder’s name Adolf (Adi) Dassler
• Virgin: selected by an employee because they were all ‘new’ to the business
• Skype: derived from ‘Sky-Peer-to-Peer’
• Adobe: named after the ‘Adobe Creek’ located behind the cofounder’s home
• 7 Eleven: a reflection of their working hours (7a.m. to 11p.m.)
• Canon: originally ‘Kwanon’, Japanese for the Buddhist Bodhisattva of Mercy
• IKEA: a composite of the first letters of the Swedish founder’s name and native village (Ingvar Kamprad and Elmtaryd Agunnaryd)
• Pepsi: named after the digestive enzyme ‘pepsin’
• Sony: from ‘Sonus’, the Latin word for sound
• Starbucks: named after a character in the novel Moby-Dick
• Vodafone: a combination of ‘Voice’, ‘Data’, and ‘Phone’
• Wendy’s: named after founder Dave Thomas’ daughter
Taimur Tajik is Creative Director, Manhattan International.