By Annemarie Mannion
When William Shakespeare coined the phrase about a rose smelling just as sweet by any other name, he clearly wasn’t thinking about the importance of a brand name. Apple wouldn’t seem quite the same if its company name was Orange—and certainly not if it was Lemon. Nor would the Jungles of Borneo convey quite the same meaning if it replaced Amazon as that company’s moniker.
Position and personality
A multitude of issues must be considered for a brand name. “It really needs to line up with their brand position and personality,” says Jean-Pierre Lacroix, president of design firm SLD.
He notes that Apple’s name might have seemed strange when it was first introduced, but was well-suited to the company’s goals. “Apple wanted to demonstrate that they were different,” he says. “They wanted to disrupt their industry. An apple isn’t linked to tech. It’s the opposite of tech. At the same time, if you think of Newton’s Apple and gravity, it still has a link to technology.”
Lacroix also cites Amazon as a great brand name. The word has connotations of being large and all-encompassing, and “when you think of Amazon, you think it’s going to bring the world to you,” he says.
Bill Chidley, a partner with design firm ChangeUp, says businesses pondering rebrands or names for new ventures should ask such questions as:
- Does the brand need to stand out in a crowded market?
- Does it need to label something entirely new?
- Does a current name need to evolve due to a new strategy or market challenge?
Chidley cautions against lengthy brand names. “Shorter is better. Resist the temptation to expect the name to do all the work of telling your story,” he says. “It should be the shortest expression of what you are about. And of course, avoid names that are diffi cult to pronounce. These types of names can cause anxiety when people share them with others. They wonder, ‘Did I pronounce that right? Am I stupid or not cool enough to know how to say it?’”
Short brand names are also a sign of the times, according to Lacroix. “It’s the Twitter factor,” he says. “People have short attention spans. And it can be a way to overcome some negativity.”
Several well-known brands have truncated their names recently—from Dunkin’ Donuts to Dunkin,’ Kentucky Fried Chicken to KFC, Weight Watchers to WW, Restoration Hardware to RH.
Despite the rash of name reductions, such rebrands are not so much a trend as simply those companies’ strategic brand decisions, Chidley explains. Names that once sounded great for older brands can fall out of favor as meanings and connotations change over time. In the case of KFC, for instance, it made sense to remove the word “fried” from the name in order to appeal to today’s health-conscious consumers.
“Names are outgrown as new products or services are introduced or when they contain negative trigger words that may turn off new potential customers,” Chidley says.
Sometimes a brand name becomes abbreviated by the consumers who patronize the business. “It is human nature to seek the shortest, most convenient way to say something,” says Adam Armstrong, account director for Jump Branding & Design. “If a name can be shortened and still be understood by your regular customers, it will happen.”
He cites a restaurant his company worked with called I Dream of Falafel in Chicago. Customers started abbreviating the name to IDOF, so the restaurant starting using IDOF as its name, too.
Having consumers shorten a company’s name until it becomes commonly used vernacular may be a testament to the success of a brand, but new businesses should avoid acronyms, experts note.
“For brands just starting out, a name that can be easily shortened or reduced to an acronym is not generally recommended,” Armstrong says. “It makes it more generic and less memorable. As a brand, the abbreviation of your name is an honor you have to earn with your customer base before it becomes a positive.”
Armstrong says a common branding mistake is to select a name that’s too specific to allow for the company’s growth and evolution. The name “Totally Nuts” might be ideal for a nut manufacturer until the company decides to expand into another area such as dried fruits.
In that case, “your name might be a limiting factor,” Armstrong says. “Although you cannot predict exactly what the future holds for your business, it is important to select a brand name that is broad enough to allow for growth and does not paint you into a corner.”
It’s also crucial to research how a name will sound phonetically and how it will be pronounced or what meanings it has in other countries or cultures.
Experts also advise against becoming too attached to a name early in the selection process.
“You need to be prepared that the name you think is ideal may already be taken,” Chidley says. “Being openminded vs. getting emotionally invested in a name early on is a necessity. Consider that there are over 50 million active trademarks, and over 300 million registered domain names, and thousands more are added every week.”
Finding and owning your brand name can be a long process. Lacroix notes that trademark registration can take a year. “It would be a mistake to start a naming process without making sure you can register and own it,” he says.
The best advice: work with pros throughout the branding (or rebranding) process.
“Seek council from a creative agency with the processes and talent to get to an effective, ownable name,” Chidley says. “Knowing how to go about the discipline of naming, vetting alternatives through consumer research, and conducting a trademark search is valuable.”
Annemarie Mannion is a freelance writer based in the Chicago area.