Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Top 10 Tips to Do Brand Naming Right

Anyone can come up with a name. But successfully naming a company, brand, product or service is a strategic art. And a value-creating business. If it’s not your business, what do you do?

Common answers include…Brainstorming names with your team. Asking your best customers for a few thoughts. Employing web-based naming tools—hey, they’re free. Trusting your gut that, “this is cool.” Going social and crowdsourcing it. Calling in your advertising agency. Hiring a branding consultant.

The right answer for you, of course, depends on your needs, your budget and your timing. And for some, whether or not they’re feeling lucky.

Whatever direction you choose, luck should have nothing to do with developing a distinctive and memorable name and identity. You wouldn’t trust your business or your product engineering to luck, would you? Then why trust the brand naming process to luck? It’s that important.

What’s in a name?

Perhaps your very success.

Words and images matter. They separate the ordinary from the run-of-the-mill. They define and create brand value that drives right to the bottom line.

This is not just a basketball shoe, it’s the Nike Zoom Kobe IV – Black Mamba. Put this shoe on and “strike again” like Kobe.

The best way to ensure branding and naming success is to organize your efforts around a strategic approach.

1. Start with the customer

If you know me, or you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know how adamant I am that marketing—indeed all business—begins with the customer. All too often, businesses begin with a technology or engineering advantage and then belatedly back into the real consumer connections after the product development is nearly complete.

Don’t be that marketer.

Your job is to create an emotional bond. So, know your customer inside and out. Not just demographics. Know what makes them tick. Get inside their behaviors so well you can predict how they’ll act. Get inside their heads and identify with their psychographic makeup and lifestyle. Go where they go. Do what they do. Would you buy a hang glider from someone who had only read about it? I thought not.

Forget what you know and “ride the truck” to learn your brand experience from your target audience perspective. Go home, take your product instructions out of the box and see how long it takes your significant other, or better yet your neighbor, to put the thing together.

Break your customers into actionable segments: Who has the potential to bring you the highest sales, most profits, repeat business. Who are your influencers. Followers. See my earlier posting, “Find Your Segmentation Strategy Personality Type” for more.

2. Know your competition, know yourself

Certainly you already know who your competitors are, you also need to know how they compare to you and your products and services. Think of it this way, your business strategy ought to inform your branding strategy. Ask…

  • What your competition stands for and what your company and brands stand for, as well.
  • Compare mission/vision and corporate objectives
  • What area of the market space does the competition own and what’s missing in the market.
  • Your competitors’ Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats. And yours.
  • Deconstruct the competition’s brand architecture and examine what their names convey, the positioning, the brand essence and promise, the structure, where they can go from where they are.

3. Communicate a compelling new idea

Now that you know your customer inside and out, and you know exactly where the competition stands, you’re ready to think about naming. Start by asking this simple, but singularly important, question.

What do I need my name to say?

The most powerful and most memorable names communicate a unique idea. They instantly tell your customer about you, how your brand is different, what benefits they’ll enjoy and create emotional connections that energize brand relationships.

Often, this is not an easy exercise. You first have to agree on how you’re positioning your product and what you want the name to say before you can create a framework for generating on-target names. Do it right, however, and you can lead the category.

4. Dare to be different

Safe is no place to carve out a new brand space. How many more “Ameri” companies do we need? Ameri-Force, AmeriGas, Ameri-Cure, Ameri-Floors, Ameri-PAC…enough already.

While being original, your new name needs an element of familiarity that instantly makes your audience at ease. Speaking of which, it should be easy to pronounce and spell as well.

5. Brand architecture is foundational

Does your name have to fit within a corporate hierarchy of other brands and products? How will your corporate brand and product brands relate and how will your product brands deliver on the corporate brand promise? Considering brand architecture upfront is the smart move and could save your business an unnecessary and expensive rebranding effort.

Generally, marketers use one of three major brand architecture approaches:

  • Monolithic, where the corporate name is used on all products and services the company offers. Think of “branded houses” like Virgin, composed of more than 200 companies—brands as disparate as Virgin America (airline), Virgin Galactic (space flight), Virgin Mobile (mobile phone service), Virgin Active (health), Virgin Wines (online oenology), Virgin Vacations (travel agency), Virgin Megastore (shopping) and Virgin Earth (environmental).

  • Endorsed, in which all sub-brands are linked to the corporate brand by means of a verbal or visual endorsement. Branding powerhouse, Apple, is a perfect example of the “house blend” approach where the Apple brand halo adds credibility to Apple Macintosh, Apple iPod, Apple iTunes and Apple iPhone.

  • Freestanding, where the corporate brand is essentially a holding company and each product line or service is branded separately for its target market. The “house of brands” parent gets little or no prominence over the sub-brands. Clorox is a “house of brands” company with many well-known product lines under its corporate umbrella, including: Brita (water filters), Burt’s Bees (natural products), Glad (storage bags), Hidden Valley Ranch (salad dressings), Kingsford (charcoal), S.O.S. (cleaning products), Liquid Plumber (drain opener), Scoop Away (cat litter) and, of course, Clorox (bleach).

6. Today local…tomorrow the world.

Even if your small business has no intention of growing outside your home town, don’t constrain yourself with small town thinking. Make sure your name can grow as your business grows in the future to regional, national and even international distribution.

A small, high-quality food delivery service based in Austin, TX could have called itself Austin Food Delivery. Instead the business owners identified a consumer niche, developed a novel business plan and branded themselves Casserole Queens. Their business idea can grow as far and wide as they want to take it. And the name instantly communicates what sets them apart.

While you’re thinking globally, avoid creating an international incident with you new name. Make sure it successfully crosses cultural, religious, linguistic and language boundaries as well.

According to Coca-Cola when bringing its brand to China, the closest phonetic characters translated as “K'o K'ou K'o LĂȘ,” meaning “bite the wax tadpole.” Later a more preferable definition was found, “to permit mouth to be able to rejoice.” Know before you go.

7. Be expansive.

Plan for product line extensions today. Right now. Before your first brand is even out the door. Swiffer now covers a host of cleaning solutions from sweeping to dusting to mopping—both wet and dry—all under the same brand architecture.

8. Own it or regret it.

Making a comprehensive legal search of the rights to your name should be part of your plan from the start. Sure it’s possible to use a name without trademarking it. You risk all the value you invest in your brand if another company can lay claim to it.

Brand naming agencies often supply legal search services or they can connect you with partners who specialize in the area. Sometimes your own lawyers can help. Your legal team should make a definitive search to asses whether a name is both available and whether it’s protectable (distinctive enough that you can “own” it).

Availability and protectability are not binary issues.

Sometimes an availability search will find no relevant hits. Other times it will disclose relevant hits and be unclear about the prospects of availability. It can also save you big trouble by identifying conflicting marks where extreme risk may be involved.

Some names may be unique enough that your attorneys will judge them strongly or likely protectable. Other times a name may be weakly or borderline unprotectable. Some may be likely unprotectable. The earlier you know, the better.

You can make a quick check can on Google. Add more depth by searching the United States Patent and Trademark Office database at But get professional legal help on this.

Make sure the domain is clear or available in the aftermarket before you fall in love with a name. Some places to check.

9. Test it.

See how your names connect and resonate with your key audiences. Budget may decide the level of research and statistical sophistication you apply. But avoid staying in-house. You’re too close. And be skeptical of focus groups where the dynamics may identify weak names yet are no guarantee of finding strong, original names.

10. Integrate it.

All your marketing efforts should speak with one voice. Integrate your branding by developing brand guidelines and make sure anyone who needs them has them.

Be prepared to spend behind the launch of your brand. Brand name associations are not built in a day. They take time and repetition, regardless of the media you employ.

Bring everyone aboard. Employees. Sales force. The board room. Partners and vendors. And, of course, your customers. Everyone should know what you and your brand stand for and how the name and identity deliver.

Don’t trust your brand name success to luck

Great names don’t just pop up—and your brand is too important to trust success to luck.

Many marketers, once they realize what’s involved in creating successful names, find that the professional help of an experience integrated brand marketing agency is well worth the investment.

However you approach your naming assignment, put these 10 tips to work and think strategically about your naming process to ensure a great foundation for business success.



Here are a few web-based resources you may find helpful.

All images and trademarks are copyright by their respective owners, including: Nike, Virgin, Casserole Queens, and Swiffer.

Blog content: ©2009 Paul J. Hydzik. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.


Paul Hydzik grows brand value. As a brand marketer and award-winning creative leader, Paul has more than 15 years of experience driving business success from start-ups to blue chips. His strategic resume covers all aspects of B2B and B2C branding from go-to-market to consumer insight to identity development and all forms of marketing communication.

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