Myths of Branding Pt. 2: Coined Names Aren’t Worth the Investment
Over the last 30 years, we’ve developed brand names that innovate and inspire for products ranging from cars to corporations. For the next two months, we’ll be releasing weekly posts dealing with branding myths we’ve frequently heard, in an effort to debunk and demystify much of the mystery that surrounds both the process and the strategies of branding.
Myth # 2: Coined names aren’t worth the investment it takes to build them into brands. Descriptive names are cheaper and more effective.
In the late 1980’s two new luxury automotive brands, Infiniti and Lexus, were introduced in the United States – one a known word with known meaning, the other a new-to-the-world idea. Both initial reactions and historical sales performance leave no doubt that Lexus won that battle decidedly. For a moment, let’s leave design considerations aside and focus on the two brand names and how they factored into the performance of these two automotive franchises.
Infiniti is of course derived from the real-word infinity. By definition infinity means “something without bounds.” The word conjures up limitless space, something that is so large that it can’t be counted. This is conceptually interesting, but perhaps a questionable claim for a new vehicle without an established track record. Said another way, when the call to action asks for you to imagine everything, where’s the anchor?
Beyond semantic concerns, the construction of the name is unwieldy for the category. At four syllables long, Infiniti rambles by comparison to most automotive brand names and certainly compared to the quick, two-syllable Lexus. Its cumbersome nature belies the speed and sleekness it can deliver on.
Lexus, on the other hand, seemed to represent a real risk for Toyota. It was a coined name attached to a new and unproven vehicle. Like Infiniti, Lexus asked a lot of the imagination of the consumer, being a word with no inherent meaning. Traditional wisdom suggested that Infiniti was a better and far safer choice. To be honest, we at Lexicon thought so at the time, although we had nothing to do with the creation of either name. The situation was so intriguing, however, that it led us to conduct some basic research of our own in the UK where both brands were yet to be introduced.
Our interviews with consumers began out of the automotive context to really parse out the intrinsic qualities of a coined name like Lexus. We asked respondents what they thought a product called Lexus might be. According to the data, Lexus was most often associated with high-priced luxury goods such as an expensive men’s cologne – much more than Infiniti was. This trend continued into the automotive space. When we asked what kind of a car they thought a Lexus might be, there was overwhelming sentiment for a high-priced luxury car. Leather and wood were consistently part of the expectation for the interior.
This research experience provoked our interest in sound symbolism, the meaning attributed to sound alone. It led to the fielding of two major studies over the next several years into the physical and emotional impact of sound on a brand name. Now we know more about what made Lexus so successful. Semantically, the l and x can be easily related to the word luxury, linking Lexus in that premium space. While one might be surprised by the sharp, scratchy sounds of [ks] for the letter x and the final [s], our research revealed these actually added speed and performance expectations that don’t come through the actual word luxury.
Infiniti, by virtue of its length and relative quietness as a word, sounds slow by comparison. Unfortunately for the Infiniti brand, this was originally compounded by a rather stodgy vehicle design. In the automotive category, names suggesting speed and performance are often aligned with overall quality. Perhaps the worst automotive brand name was Lumina, which was so soft sounding that it betrayed good product quality.
Interestingly, positive values were intrinsic to the name Lexus before a dollar was spent on its marketing – despite what conventional wisdom might dictate around a made-up word. The fact is: any new product requires resources to build meaning into its brand. Even non-coined names like Infiniti rely heavily on the imagination when they are first introduced, especially when the real word doesn’t tie in closely to the category (what does limitlessness truly have to do with a luxury automobile?). Because coined names are different, they can easily reflect the innovative spirit of a product. Said another way, by virtue of being coined, you are already signaling innovation out of the gate. Furthermore, though it takes money to bake meaning into them, coined names each come with strategic, inherent values based on their sounds and constructions.
Fact: In today’s cluttered and competitive marketplace, coined solutions that signal change and innovation are the most effective.