The Myths That Stop Companies From Creating Remarkable Brand Names
A brand name is a fundamental instrument of communication. When developed strategically, an effective name can transform a product into an experience and move the marketplace. These are the five myths that stop the development of brand names.
Myth # 1: It’s all about semantics.
Fact: Not one but three key factors affect a name’s performance: semantics, structure, and sound symbolism. Ignoring any one of these will decrease the chances of developing a truly effective name.
Case Studies: Dasani, BlackBerry
To observe how structure and sound symbolism communicate, it’s useful to look at an invented name that doesn’t resemble any existing word. In this case a name’s “meaning” will rest solely on whatever meaning can be inferred from its structure and from sound symbolism. A highly visible example is Dasani, which has an elegant look and a relaxing sound, without much resemblance to any real English word.
The structure of the name is highly distinctive. The repeating consonant-vowel sequence is the simplest, most natural syllable structure across languages. Still, this pattern is quite unusual in English— so much so that no other word in this article of over 2,000 words has the structure CVCVCV. The structure is natural and common world-wide yet has an exotic aspect for English speakers. Subtly, the name also suggests that Dasani the water has these same properties: natural, found everywhere, yet somehow exotic.
At first glance, BlackBerry may seem an incongruous name for a portable email device. Yet the name succeeded famously at setting this unique, ground-breaking product apart from other handhelds, and is a perfect example of how sound symbolism and structure help to communicate meaning.
From a purely semantic viewpoint, any common fruit could have communicated user-friendliness and the enjoyment of owning the product. But could the BlackBerry have been called the Pineapple or the Orange? That would have missed several other semantic factors. For one thing, the handheld’s black keys suggested a blackberry’s external surface. Finally, the BlackBerry’s small size and light weight make it hard to envision as an orange or a pineapple.
But semantics is only part of BlackBerry’s success as a name. Its sound qualities also set it apart from other fruit names. The two [b]’s alliterate, an effect that is strengthened visually by capitalizing both. The consonants [b], [l], and [r] have a richness and fullness that help us imagine a feature-packed device just as well as a juicy fruit. Meanwhile, the three vowels of the name are among the thinnest, lightest sounding vowels of English, appropriate for a device that fits so well in the hand and is easy to carry around.
Myth # 2: Coined names take a lot of money to build into brands. Descriptive names are cheaper and more effective.
Fact: In today’s cluttered and competitive marketplace, coined solutions that represent original ideas and innovation, are often the most effective.
Case Study: Lexus
In the late 1980s two new luxury automotive brands, Lexus and Infiniti, were introduced in the United States. Initial reaction and historical sales performance leave no doubt that Lexus won that battle in a big way.
Infiniti is, of course, derived from the real-word infinity. By definition, infinity means ‘something without limits.’ The word conjures up limitless space, something that is so large that it can’t be counted, which is an interesting, but perhaps a questionable claim for a new vehicle without an established track record. Because the word is four syllables long, it rambles by comparison to most automotive brand names and certainly compared to the quick, two-syllable Lexus. In the automotive category, names suggesting speed and performance are often aligned with overall quality.
Lexus represented a real risk for Toyota. It was a coined name attached to a new and unproven vehicle. Traditional wisdom suggested that Infiniti was a better and far safer choice. The situation was so intriguing that it led us to conduct some research of our own in the UK, where neither brand had as yet been introduced.
Our interviews with consumers began out of the automotive context. When we asked respondents what they thought a product called Lexus might be, the data proved that Lexus was most often associated with high priced luxury goods, such as an expensive men’s cologne. When we shifted emphasis to automobiles and asked what kind of a car they thought Lexus might be, there was overwhelming sentiment for a high priced luxury car.
Sound symbolism, the meaning attributed to sound alone, and the findings from two major Lexicon studies into the physical and emotional impact of sound on a brand name, allow us to know more about what made Lexus so successful. Semantically, the l and x can be easily related to the word luxury, serving as a validation for a wannabe consumer to select the brand. While one might be surprised by the sharp, scratchy sounds of [ks] for the letter x and the final [s], our research reveals that these actually add speed and performance expectations not present to nearly that degree in the word luxury.
Myth # 3: Customers need to “like” my brand name.
Fact: The intrinsic values and expansiveness of the name, coupled with its ability to believably support the product attributes in a marketplace context, far outweigh whether or not consumers “like” the name.
Case Study: Intel Pentium
When the Pentium brand was introduced by Intel, the computing world was primed for the i586, the logical successor to its predecessor the i486. Getting approval for a coined solution was challenging. As an engineering company, i586 or Prochip was preferred.
However, Andy Grove, Intel’s former CEO, knew the company couldn’t get trademark protection for numbers and was aware that their most important competitors were regularly mimicking both Intel’s technology and its branding. So, Intel commissioned Lexicon to create a trademark that would both support the technology offered by this next-generation microprocessor, and that could be protected in nearly 50 important countries.
Pentium gave Intel a word loaded with semantic, sound symbolic and structural value. It quickly became a very distinctive marketing asset. Research conducted both in the United States and Europe revealed that the word Pentium fired the imagination of consumers. No matter what context the brand was put into, whether it be snow skis, a mountain bike or a next-generation microprocessor, the name was consistent with advanced performance and speed.
Originally conceived as a one-generation name, Pentium has become a franchise for multiple generations of Intel chips and one of the best known and regarded technology brands in the world.
Pentium raised the importance of the microprocessor to a new level. Prior to Pentium, most customers focused mainly on the computer brand itself in making a purchase decision. Post-Pentium’s launch, the Pentium microprocessor became an essential ingredient to trigger purchase. If the brand name decision had relied on research that posed the question, “Which name do you like better?” Pentium would have lost.
Myth # 4: A brand name is an empty vessel that can be filled with meaning.
Fact: No name is a completely empty vessel. Any name, even one coined from scratch, has sound and structure, and these automatically provide some meaning.
Case Study: Kodak
Kodak, perhaps one of the first coined brand name, is not an empty vessel. The rareness of the letter [k], its repetition at the beginning and end of the name, the fullness of the vowel [o], and the simplicity of the name’s syllable structure suggested a device that was simple yet scientifically advanced. The very fact that the name was made up provided meaning. The device of coining a name from scratch at a time when this was not done suggested a totally new kind of technology. George Eastman, the founder of Eastman-Kodak, particularly liked that the name mirrored the “kuh-dak” sound of a clicking camera shutter.
Myth # 5: If a company has a strong corporate name, like Sony or Oracle, the company doesn’t need any other brands.
Fact: Companies miss many opportunities to create strong corporate assets when they rely on a narrow corporate brand policy.
Case Study: 3M – Scotchgard, Scotch Tape, Post-It notes
Developing and launching a new brand is about corporate renewal. A new brand, done well, can add tremendous energy, excitement and commitment to an organization. The prolific 3M is a great example of a company that leverages its corporate identity to enforce new brands, while using the strength of long-established brands, such as Scotchgard and Scotch Tape, to reinforce the 3M corporate promise.
“I know that other companies have tried to consolidate and have one corporate brand,” said Dean Adams, former Director of Corporate Branding at 3M, “but we have a different view.”
“The corporate brand takes on the role of authority and credibility, but consumers want to look underneath the brand,” explained Adams.
For example, Scotchgard makes a special promise about making things look new longer, and the brand’s strength works as tangible evidence, proving 3M brand’s corporate promise.
Interestingly, one of 3M’s most recognized and successful brands, Post-it notes, began life with a number of names plastered on its packaging. When the product was launched 25 years ago, it carried trademarks for Scotch, 3M, Post-it, Plaid and a few others.
Once 3M saw what it had, the other brands were dropped quickly, and the ubiquitous Post-it was born.