Throughout my career in branding, I continue to be amazed at how few marketers actively seek outside expertise when it comes to their most critical piece of trademarked intellectual property.
I’m talking, of course, about naming.
Even those who truly value the strategic significance of a brand name often end up asking themselves the same question: Do we really need to hire someone to do this? I mean, how hard can it be?
And you know what? They’re right.
Organizing a naming brainstorm session, complete with pizza, beer, and a group of your company’s most creative and talented team members isn’t hard at all. Nor is coming up with a list of possible contenders.
And yet, time and again, we at CBX find ourselves receiving the call for help with naming – a few months after that pizza party when it’s discovered the internal attempt went south for one reason or another.
Why is this such a common scenario? I believe my colleague and very talented verbal strategist, Rachel Bernard, put it best…
“Naming isn’t hard. It’s just soooo easy to screw up.”
The value of proprietary processes in other aspects of branding are often overblown – designed to serve the agency’s brand more than their clients. Clients and colleagues are wise to this and rightly skeptical of their worth. However, it really is quite different when it comes to naming.
An effective naming process isn’t so much about a magic formula as it is about a necessary discipline to guide you through the many pitfalls and landmines that await your team along the journey. Its job is to ensure you end up with a selection of names that are strategically sound, memorable and, importantly, legally ownable – often on very aggressive timelines after a merger or for a new brand launch when the stakes are particularly high.
No one wants to spend money on things they don’t believe they need. But investing to ensure you and your team nail it on the first go is a fraction of the money, time, and momentum wasted as a result of an uniformed attempt.
So, other than indigestion from too much pizza and beer, what are the most common causes for naming initiatives to veer off course?
Let us count the ways:
1. Fighting The Law
Naming is a numbers game. Awww, and you thought it was all about language! Well, you’re right. It actually is about language. But the math of language isn’t doing you any favors. There are approximately 27 million active global trademarks and roughly 250 thousand words in the English dictionary. The odds are stacked against you. Words are the stock and trade of the naming expert because they know the sheer volume of names they will have to generate in order to create a list of strategically sound, legally viable options. Too often we hear from clients who fell in love with some of the first names that came to mind only to find out that those names were already trademarked.
A good naming process should come complete with trademark IP lawyers who have a clear understanding of the risks associated with any particular name and trademark class. This ensures that you never see names that don’t have a reasonable shot at being legally available, while showing you several options that do.
2. Linguistic Disasters
I’m not talking about debunked mythology of the Chevy Nova sort (“no va” literally translates to “doesn’t go” in Spanish). The model actually did fine in Spanish speaking markets. And while these types of disasters are still a concern, the potential for lost in translation moments has increased exponentially in our digitally connected, culturally diverse world. For example, a very popular Japanese brand of milk based beverages is named Calpis (did you say cow piss?). Fortunately the brand made the move to launch as Calpico in the U.S. Suffice to say, unintended disasters await for those not paying attention.
Even if you’re confident your brand will never go international, international meaning and perceptions will make their way to your brand. According to the 2017 Census, 21.6 percent of the U.S. population spoke a language other than English at home with approximately 40. 5 million people listed as speaking Spanish as their first language at home. Your brand will be evaluated through an international lens whether you like or not. Best to ensure your naming process includes not only vetting from IP lawyers but also linguists for culture meaning.
3. Not Having A Job
In order to ultimately align on a viable name, it’s critical to first align on what you need that name to do. Does it need to intuitively communicate what the product is or what the company does? Is its job primarily to differentiate your brand from competition by breaking category convention? Focus and effort around name development can shift dramatically depending on the job of the name. And remember: time and math are working against you. It’s critical to have a naming process that can focus your efforts and resources in the directions that will deliver the most impact. Without the clear criteria for what the name needs to communicate, naming development becomes diluted and scattershot (leaving you with limited options across too many directions) and decision making becomes too subjective.
4. Having Too Many Jobs
While it’s critical to define what you need the name to do, it’s equally important to remember that a name can only do one thing really well. A name is not a silver bullet capable of expressing every aspect of your brand. Want your name to break category conventions to stand apart from the pack? Great. Just know that it won’t also be able to communicate the core functional benefits of the category. Want a name that immediately signals what your company does? Great. Just know that you may not also be able to express what’s so unique and differentiated about your brand.
But not to worry. While the name can only do one thing really well, your brand has many other levers at its disposal. By clarifying and committing to a focused naming strategy, you are also providing clarity for what design and other communications (messaging, tagline, etc.) will need to convey about your brand.
5. Herding Cats
Naming, like all creative endeavors, is subjective. You are always going to have varying opinions about what people like and/or believe is an effective brand name. This is to be expected. Each of us has our own tastes and preferences. If we didn’t, we would all name our kids the same thing. A good naming process allows for team members to bring their personal sensibilities to the table while also leveraging tools designed to remove as much subjectivity as possible in the evaluation and decision-making process. The objective is not to get every team member to agree on one favorite, but rather align on a number of names that effectively meet the established criteria.
A name is your brand’s first point of connection. It should be great. However, getting to great isn’t a product of super creative brainstorming sessions or some secret sauce. It’s a product of a disciplined process that can effectively focus creativity, allow it to flourish, and safeguard the team from the many, oh-so-easy ways to screw the whole thing up.
Dustin is a purpose-driven strategy and marketing leader with extensive experience building high-performance teams, driving growth, and creating brand value. In his role at CBX, He is dedicated to helping clients maximize the cultural and commercial impact of their brands.