What's In a Name?

Last Updated Oct 14, 2008 5:50 PM EDT

According to Shakespeare's Juliet, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." That may be true, but would you name your kid Skunk?

I didn't think so.

That's because we associate things with names - thoughts, emotions, even the memory of how a skunk smells.
For better or worse, language is the primary form of human communication. When we shop for things, we don't point at them and grunt. We search by name.

I know what you're thinking. Naming is a waste of money. Customers and investors could care less. Sometimes that's true, but believe it or not, oftentimes there's actually strategy involved, branding strategy.

Decisions, Decisions
There are brands and sub-brands, corporate brands and product brands; how do you know how much weight to put behind which arrows?coke_logo_small.jpg

  • Unless you're Proctor & Gamble or Johnson & Johnson - a loose association of powerful product brands - fewer brands is a more efficient use of marketing dollars, less confusing, too.
  • Coca-Cola.
  • Richard Branson uses the Virgin name for all his companies.
  • McDonald's use of Mac in Big Mac and the Mc prefix in McRib and McChicken sandwiches is a unique strategy that boosts customer recognition by having product and corporate brands that reinforce each other.
  • Similarly, Apple's product names reinforce each other: iMac, iPod, iTunes, iPhone.
Market Segmentation
Market or brand segmentation is used two ways: 1) to position similar products in different market segments, usually by price, and 2) to distinguish one company's products from another's or from an entire category.
  • Toyota created Lexus because Americans would have balked at luxury cars from Toyota - an economy brand at the time.
  • Intel created the Celeron brand to compete with low-cost processors while maintaining high margins on its flagship Pentium processors.
  • Apple avoided the PC (personal computer) label to distinguish its Mac products from IBM in the 80s, PC clones in the 90s, and now from Microsoft.
Small World
As the world shrinks, so to speak, geographic distinctions are disappearing in favor of global brands.apple-logo1.jpg Life and Death
Brands aren't just created; they also die.
  • In mergers, simplicity and efficiency often wins over brand equity. JPMorgan Chase now includes Hambrecht & Quist, Bear Stearns, and Washington Mutual. The H&Q name has disappeared and the others will likely follow.
  • When a brand's reputation is tarnished in a crisis, most companies - Exxon and Perrier, for example - stick with the brand. But Philip Morris changed its name to Altria. No surprise there.
  • When a product name defines a category, like Kleenex, Xerox, Vaseline, Tivo and iPod, that's branding Nirvana. How do you suppose that happens?
Last Word
I've often observed that those who protest the loudest about naming being a waste of time and money are also the most opinionated about specific names. As for me, I'm not big on names, per se, but I am big on naming strategy. Big difference.