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Start with the Right Brand Name

By Scott Shrake

The name is the first public act of branding, internally and externally, according to Julie Cottineau, naming director at Interbrand, a New York–based branding consultancy. "By choosing a name, you're not just saying something to the outside world about who you want to be, but also to your own people," Cottineau says.

With the explosion of new products and services over the past 10 years, all 6,000 "real" (not coined) words in the English language have already been trademarked, she says. This is where creativity and patience are needed—from a starting list of 100 names, various screens usually leave only two viable contenders. But it's worth the effort and frustration, Cottineau says, because a new name is key to establishing an aspirational target market, which facilitates the development of a full brand. It's also worth it on the bottom line: "Intangible" assets of successful brands have real monetary value.

Who Do You Want to Be?

Going through the naming process helps companies determine more solidly what they want their brand to stand for. This goes by the name "destination branding": planning for growth by keeping the name elastic. (Yahoo! is an example Cottineau cites.)

Ted Leonhardt, founder and principal at brand messaging and design firm The Leonhardt Group in Seattle, actually sees Yahoo! as a great benefit statement. Yet he offers this counter-example to the value of "elastic" names: "Seattle's Best Coffee is a great one: It's very specific, so the person who encounters the name knows your claim." 

For offline enterprises establishing an e-commerce presence, search engines dictate clarity in names. "What we do in every Internet naming project is pay special attention to spelling, pronunciation and length," Cottineau says. 

Leonhardt cites Microsoft as an example of a rather poor name that has been belied by amazing performance. The name, he says, is very 1976, when there were a million "micros," and is restrictive. "But what's the power of their brand? All those people working hard to build that company," he points out.

Cottineau's firm came up with the household product name Prozac, coined from "pro" for professional and proactive, and "zac" for the ability of the medication to target ex-zac-tly the area needing treatment.

"The beauty of emotional-benefit branding is that the names are often more readily available from a trademark standpoint because they break out of the expected category language," Cottineau attests. "It helps brands fill the role of lifestyle destinations vs. mere one-off products."

A proper name allows you to put a face on the brand, standing behind a brand's promise, adding authenticity. Cottineau says, "Martha [Stewart], Oprah: They're very big non-fabricated brands. When you have that [authenticity], it's terrific to use personal names—assuming people can pronounce them and they don't mean 'your mother wears army boots' in a foreign language. Interbrand does linguistic checks on potential names to avoid these type of costly international embarrassments.

A Name and Also an Omen

Noosh, a provider of online print-buying and -selling communications, came from the founder and chairman Ofer Ben-Shachar's nickname for his sister-in-law. Noosh is a term of affection in Hebrew. And it gets attention because of its uniqueness in the brand landscape.

Nomen atque omen is a Latin phrase meaning "a name and also an omen." If Cottineau is right, you may start seeing more brand names from ancient languages.

In lieu of the emphasis on speed and convenience prevalent in the past decade, Cottineau says, "Prefixes communicating personalization like 'my' and 'I' will become widely used." She says the e- and i-fatigue have set in and will only get worse. "Longer term ... conducting business on the Internet will become such a commonplace occurrence that we might just need an abbreviation to indicate those increasingly rare businesses that insist on remaining unwired," she says.

Other trends: Nostalgic names (e.g. Front Porch Lemonade) over punchy, abbreviated ones; names that speak to a younger, more diverse population; celestial, mythological and even explorer names; and longish phrases as brand names. "Remember the shampoo Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific? Get ready for more of those," warns Cottineau.

Leonhardt marks a a key split: "When naming a company, think about who and what the organization is (heritage, personality, industry placement). When naming a product, you want to communicate functional and emotional benefits." What about when the company name and the product are synonymous? "Then make sure the company in fact lives up to the associations you have with the product."

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