The Naming Game

Coming up with a name for a company or product is the biggest creative dare Schifino Lee is challenged with. It’s hard work because in just one, two or three words you have to say a hundred things that will resonate for decades.

Before I show a client new brand name suggestions I ask them, “What are the most popular children’s names today?” Up comes a PowerPoint slide with two cute cartoon toddlers named Rival and Usurper. “These are most popular girls’ and boys’ names in the US,” I say. “You probably know them better as Emily and Jacob.”

The lesson is: a name is what you make it. A name has intrinsic meaning—Emily stands for rival and IBM stands for International Business Machines. They also have meaning that gets applied. To many people Emily means poetry or good manners, and IBM means mainframes and advanced technology.

When coining a new brand name you need a word or words that:

  1. Says what it is—bank, camera or apple sauce
  2. Communicates brand attributes—speed, quality, comfort
  3. Stands apart from competitors, is unique and memorable
  4. Represents a distinct user experience.

Just think of the three leading brands of charge cards. MasterCard, formerly Master Charge, says best of all credit cards and also the only card you really need. VISA means permission to enter and entry to unique opportunities. The name American Express, which long predates invention of the charge card, has nothing that intrinsically says credit or purchasing power. Over the years the brand has grown up around the two words so that now they stand for exclusivity and purchasing power even though you don’t need to be special to get an AmEx card, and it isn’t accepted in as many places as its rivals. Discover, I contend, would have been a lot more successful if the name had something to do with the rebates that card pioneered.

Discover had to lean on a tag line to communicate its unique proposition. “Discover the card that pays you back.” Most brand names do get an assist. The first thing that happens to a new brand name is it becomes a logo that will say with color and design what the letters can’t fully express by themselves. A few clarifying words may help as well. For instance W Hotels and Resorts differentiates the exclusive, high design hostelries from W the exclusive, high design fashion magazine or W the business-suited and cowboy-booted 43rd president of the US.

So that, in a fat nutshell, is our Schifino Lee theory of naming. In another blog entry we’ll talk about how we turn it into practice.

Schifino Lee

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