with Laurier Mandin, Andreas Schwabe and Jeremy Miller
Product naming is harder than it’s ever been. If you’ve struggled with developing a brand name you can trademark, register as a .com and grow into new markets, you’ll love this episode.
Naming a product is more complicated than naming a baby. There’s more family involvement, and uniqueness is essential. Is the product for men, women, seniors; is it for a particular activity or sport that has its own jargon and vocabulary? What country is the product going to be sold in—now and down the road? What are the social mores of that market, and what cultural taboos do we need to avoid; which buttons are we able to push without offending? It’s like learning a new language. At Graphos Product we do it all the time, and everyone in marketing has said, “Someone needs to write a book about this.”
Jeremy Miller, the author of “Sticky Branding” has written a brand new book called “Brand New Name: A Proven Step-by-Step Process to Create an Unforgettable Brand Name”.
The book codifies the brand naming process and guides you on ways to think about a name. There are abstract names, concrete names, acronyms, and more. Jeremy Miller’s approach to naming a brand has a lot in common with how we think about it and develop and execute product naming strategy for our own clients, so it was a pleasure to just drop the list of questions and talk shop about this really critical first step for a new product.
Andreas: Welcome to Product: Knowledge, the podcast about branding and marketing innovative products that improve people’s lives. I’m Andreas Schwabe, media services director at Graphos Product. When I was a kid, Andreas wasn’t exactly a common name. I remember hearing it described as “exotic” one time. The only thing that really ever bothered me wasn’t that people would say my name wrong, it was just so rare to hear it pronounced naturally the way it was at home. Now, my parents get bonus points for having German accents to really make it sing, but it wasn’t a mislabel, it was just slightly misfit for the culture at the time.
Andreas: Naming a product is more complicated than naming a baby. It just is. There’s more family involvement. Is the product for everyone—children, men, women? Is it for a particular activity, or a sport that has its own jargon or vocabulary? What country is the product going to be sold in? What are the social mores of that country, what cultural taboos do we need to avoid, and which buttons are we able to push without offending? It’s like learning a new language.
Andreas: Now, we do it all the time, but everyone in marketing has said, “Someone needs to write a book about this.” Jeremy Miller has written a brand new book called “Brand New Name: A Proven, Step-by-Step Process to Create an Unforgettable Brand Name.” The book codifies the brand naming process and guides you on ways to think about a name. There are abstract names, concrete names, acronyms, and more. Jeremy Miller’s approach to naming a brand has a lot in common with how we think about and develop and execute naming strategies for our own clients at Graphos Product. So it was a pleasure to just drop the list of questions, and talk shop about a really critical first step for a new business or product.
Andreas: Graphos CEO Laurier Mandin and I spoke with Jeremy Miller from Toronto. He was on Skype. I started the conversation by saying, “Okay, so we’re talking about brand and product names. Why are they important?”
Jeremy: Well, I think a brand name is the most important marketing or brand asset inside any organization, and the reason for that is twofold. Number one, it’s the longest living artifact inside any organization. You think of it, our website, they have a shelf life of maybe three to four years. Logos, a little bit longer, but we change them, and we’re changing them quite frequently.
Jeremy: But your company name, your product names, they don’t change, and that’s also partially by design, because you know a brand by its name and that thing becomes the way we communicate our knowledge. It’s that vessel that contains all the information, knowledge, features, products, services, everything that is wrapped around your brand, whether it’s your company brand or your product brand, is wrapped up in that name. So your names are fundamentally the most important marketing assets inside your entire organization.
Laurier: I agree with that, Jeremy. And changing a name has become difficult too, because once you have that name in the right places on the internet, and in people’s minds and on social media, it’s more difficult than ever to take a name and to change it into something different, and to tell people to call it something else, and to retrain your entire market. So I think naming is more critical and more deeply embedded in your marketing world than it ever has been.
Jeremy: And it’s never been harder, is the other side of this, is that changing a company name or even a person’s name has never been easy. You’ve got to take all the content and all the meaning that’s in one vessel and pour it into another. So it’s never been an easy task, but it’s definitely a very doable task. A brand, if a name doesn’t work for you, then absolutely change it.
Jeremy: But the other dynamic is, and you hit on this, Andreas, is that we have names all over the place from apps, to websites, and so not only is it hard to change a name, it’s hard to find a name, and the reason for that is it’s not really hard coming up with great names, the challenge is finding available names and once you go through the pain of that a couple times, you really don’t want to change a company name after that.
Andreas: We’ve actually been through that pain a couple of times. One was literally within a day of a name that we picked being registered somewhere else. Everyone is racing for the thing that grabs people’s attention. Clearly we found it, because someone else found it too. It’s so frustrating.
Jeremy: It is, and that’s the thing I see constantly working with clients on brand naming projects, is oftentimes, we’re starting a naming project with one that they already love. In the last year, we have gone through multiple naming projects where the client has a name that truly love, but they can’t use it because they registered it here in Canada first, and then they looked at going to the US and realized it’s already trademarked there, and they have this, “Oh crap,” moment going, “We can’t grow using the name that we love.” And that’s really the heartbreaking part of things, is that you might find the perfect name that you just can’t have. And sometimes we actually have a little a funeral for the names they love, and have this little mock ceremony and have a gravestone, so that we can actually put this name to rest so that we can move on.
Andreas: That’s awesome. I really love that, because it makes it real for them, because I mean, we do get attached to names. Before we get too much further and we get into the mechanics and things, let’s use a couple of illustrations. So can you give us an example of a name that made a product brand and one that absolutely was a fail?
Jeremy: The fails are always a hard one to hit on, but let’s talk around names that make brands. So the one thing to point out first and foremost, is a successful business creates a successful brand, and never the other way around. When you look at the companies and the brands that you admire, they are always connected to great products and services, and a great, well-run organization. The only reason that we admire Apple and the all of their branding and marketing, is that they are one of the most successful companies in history, and the same could be said of Uber, or Slack, or Tesla. If these companies had failed, we wouldn’t be admiring their brand and their brand names.
Jeremy: So what comes first is the name or the company, and I’ll say it every single time, it’s the company, but you can also see that the companies that are going to be the most successful, are also the ones that care about brand, and they take the time to make and choose names that represent what they’re trying to create. It’s not simply [inaudible 00:06:52] throwaway exercise.
Jeremy: So to answer the question, what is a name that helps to make the brand, there’s two that really stand out for me. The first one is Twitter. Twitter was such a powerful evocative name, especially when you consider at the time, they were competing with social networks like Facebook and MySpace that were much more descriptive, and they created an evocative name that suggested what the platform was going to be like, and that name has shaped the brand positioning from the very start.
Jeremy: The other one, it’s on a similar vein, is the social media sharing platform called Buffer, and Buffer is a great suggestive name of what the tool, the social media sharing tool is going to do for you. It’s going to buffer your content and roll it out when you want it. And so, these organizations actually had really clear positioning statements from the start and chose brand names to support it, and I think that’s really one of the differentiators in organizations that grow a strong brand, is they think about the key questions of where do they play, how do they win, how do they want to be known, and then they build the brand and marketing assets to support that.
Andreas: It’s so important to have every available tool and nudge to just give you that edge, that if your name actually reflects you more, it’s that much more understandable to the audience and they can relate to it better.
Laurier: That’s right. And even with the name Apple, you mentioned that it’s not an ideal name for a hardware and computer company. And actually, in Apple’s origin story, they started out as the Apple Computer Company, and they made an arrangement and a deal with Apple Records in the UK that they would never go into the music space. And not only did they go into the music space, they became the single biggest player in the music space, and that created a huge amount of conflict and tension, even in terms of them not being able to license The Beatles’ music, which was on the Apple Records label until many, many years later, towards the end of Steve Jobs’ life.
Laurier: But that’s where having even this name that we all think is an amazing name and it’s the perfect fit with the brand, it was actually a major problem for that organization, that it took them decades to battle through and to come to resolution on. So maybe it wasn’t the best name for them strategically, and it could’ve saved them millions of dollars and all kinds of stress to have picked a different name that we would probably all love just as much, because we love other parts of that brand, right?
Jeremy: Yeah, and you’re hitting on a very interesting situation. So the iTunes and iPod were born almost 20 years, or actually, a little bit over 20 years from the original founding of the business. So could Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak ever foresee a day in the late 70s when they would be competing with The Beatles? No, never. And so, the brand and the business stretched, and that’s a big part of what happens, is your business is going to evolve, and what happens is, your name starts to take in all that meaning, all of that history, both good and bad. Every customer experience gets contained within the brand name.
Jeremy: And that’s why, it goes back to the start of this, is that the reason why brand names are so valuable, is that they’re the longest living artifact of any company, and they contain all that meaning. And the reality is the meaning that you start with, is not likely the meaning that it will contain 10 years from now. And if you are really successful, your vision is going to change, your operations are going to change, your people are going to change, and that name is going to just keep taking on more and more value and meaning, and probably at some point or another, you’re going to hit a crisis. You’re going to enter a new market, you’re going to enter a new challenge, and you’re going to have to decide strategically how you handle it, and hopefully, you’re like Apple and you can buy your way through it.
Andreas: You’re listening to Product: Knowledge, the podcast about branding and marketing innovative products that improve people’s lives.
Laurier: I love the way you’ve approached this book with breaking your process into three basic steps, because process to us as a branding agency, is so important, and that process, in your case, it always starts with building a naming strategy. So let’s talk about those three basic steps. The first one is building a naming strategy, the second one is sprint, and the third one is select and test. Can you guide us briefly through each of those, starting with the naming strategy, and tell us what they’re comprised of?
Jeremy: Sure. So my view of Brand New Name, the book and the and the process, is a proven step-by-step process to create an unforgettable brand name, ideally in three to five weeks, and as you said, it’s broken down into three stages. So we typically look at this in weeks. So in week one, you want to form a naming strategy, and what that really entails, is to clearly articulate what is this name going to do, what is it going to represent, what is the competitive landscape, and what are your criteria for success? And what this is going to do for you, is really two parts. Number one, it’s going to frame your ideas so that when you are generating ideas for your brand, you’re using your strategy to help inform your creativity. So rather than just making up random words and inventing words that have no meaning or context, if you know what it’s going to take to create a successful name, you can guide your creativity.
Jeremy: The second part of this is, after a sprint, you could generate a lot of names, and so, if you’ve got a thousand or 2000 potential names, then you need to have structure and guidelines to support you on the selection process. So the first step is map out what it’s going to take to create a successful name for your company, product, service, or campaign, whatever you are naming. The second stage is the sprint stage, and what I advocate for is that get as many people involved in this as possible. Ideally, get your employees involved in this. What I believe is inside every organization is immense creative potential, and that most of that creative potential goes unlocked, because people are just too busy doing their jobs, or they’ve never been asked to participate. But if you were to take everyone inside of your organization and give them an exercise and a challenge every single day for five days, you could generate a lot of ideas, and that’s exactly what Brand New Name does.
Jeremy: So to give a quick example, I’m working with an organization in Ottawa right now that wants to create a new company name. They have 45 employees, and the week before Christmas, they went through the naming sprint, and we gamified it. So if an employee submitted five names in a day, they would get a $5 Timmies gift card. And at the end of that week, they generated 1,048 names. So they’re starting this week now, and what will go into in the next stage of the selection phase, with 1,048 options that were created entirely by their employees, and they have brilliant ideas there. And so, after you get through all this ideation, you generate a ton of ideas and there’s a process to that, and the book shows you exactly how to do it.
Jeremy: The third stage is selection, and this is where most naming projects fall down. It’s one thing to generate lots of ideas, but how do you know you’ve got the right one? And so, I take you through a set of exercises to reduce your shortlist, eliminate the non-starters, so we eliminate any name that might have a domain trademark or competitive issue, and then evaluate it using a name score or an analytical tool, so that you can compare it to your strategy and market test it. And this gives you data and insights so that you can look at all those names you were looking at, reduce it down to one to five potential names, have common language to talk about it with your team, and at the end of it all, be able to make a decision based on having good quality options and good quality insights, to find a name that will support your strategy.
Laurier: That’s awesome. In the book, you break down the types of possible names too. You break them down to descriptive names, which tell what the product is, like AirPods, or Instant Pot. Suggestive names that give a hint of what the product is like. For example, Peloton, which is French for a group of bicycle racers. Abstract names, which can be an empty vessel for the product to define, like Oreo, or Nintendo. And I like that you say that it’s a spectrum more than three distinct categories, because there’s some overlap between those different things. When you’re naming, do you have a preference for one of these types or a type that seems to win out the most often in your naming project?
Jeremy: So no, I absolutely encourage my clients to go the other way, which is try to create names in all three categories. So create descriptive names, create suggestive names, create abstract names, try to create them in multiple different formats. What you want to do is create as many options as you can, because this is really how we deal with the naming drought, that if we’re walking into a naming project, we have to recognize that the probability is every .com you would ever want is already acquired, and you’re going to have to buy it from someone else. And then that’s also exacerbated by the issues we’re facing with trademark, especially as we go into the United States, and Europe, and other markets, and if you have global ambitions, then it gets exponentially more complex.
Jeremy: So the way to overcome this is generate lots of ideas across all of them, and then evaluate all of your options against the strategy. Generally speaking, we see most brand names are suggestive. They give you an indication of what the company will be like, and they tend to be the most popular, but there are brilliant brand name examples in every category, and so why constrain yourself if you don’t have to?
Laurier: Yeah, and there’s a further breakdown into the way that these names are constructed, right? For example, real words in English or another language, like the North Face, or constructed words that are real words that are mashed together, like Instagram, and then you can have invented words that are completely made up, like Kodak. And from there, you go into acronyms which are my least favorite of the different naming types, but those are typically made up with letters that stand for a longer name like AFLAC, which is actually American Family Life Assurance Company, or IBM. And then finally, there’s misspelled words, which are created by dropping a vowel, adding or changing a consonant, like Fiverr, or Flickr. Again, in our sprints, we find that we most often use all of those except for I think we usually rule out acronyms, just because they tend to be more difficult and less meaningful in the end to the audience.
Jeremy: Well, why don’t you like acronyms? Because I love acronyms.
Laurier: There are very few acronyms that I like and seem to work really well. If you can come up with acronyms that mean something to your audience, but the name itself, the acronym itself is very meaningful, that’s really important, right? Because you can’t expect people to buy into a name because they know what the acronym stands for. And I think that’s where, if you have AFLAC, for example, they have to use a duck to get people to remember the name, and without that really good idea, actually, it’s kind of a terrible name because it’s hard to spell. You don’t know if the “kuh” is a C or a K, and it doesn’t really mean insurance.
Laurier: So unless you have an acronym that happens to be meaningful by the word it’s creating, and it doesn’t end up being a really common word that… IBM’s a good example. If you’re doing that, or if you were the first to do that, the originality of it, and because it’s not pronounceable, it has to be an acronym that kind of gives it more likelihood that you’re going to be able to register that in all your markets. But I’m interested that you actually like acronyms, because I think most people in naming who do it professionally and aren’t just… very often clients think acronyms are great, but when you go and try and market them, that’s when it can be more challenging, especially if they don’t fit the strategy. Tell me a little bit about your opposing philosophy on acronyms.
Jeremy: The benefit, I think, of an acronym is it actually blends the ideals around an abstract word with a story. And as you articulated, some of the best acronyms are ones you say out loud, like AFLAC, or NATO, or NAFTA, SCUBA. The way those words sound have very interesting rhythmic qualities, and they are basically empty vessels with a story, and I think that’s where a well-constructed acronym could really support a naming strategy.
Laurier: And I can’t overemphasize the importance of doing those other steps. Checking in and seeing… doing the memory testing and seeing what names are most memorable to people, and how they remember it, and running through the market testing and ensuring that the name is going to be successful beyond the walls of the people who are doing the initial research. And in “Brand New Name,” you’ve pointed out some really good resources for building names, for choosing domain names, as well as trademarks and social media handles. And there’s even a tool in there that I hadn’t seen before that helps you avoid words that have offensive meanings in other languages, and we’ve seen that… we get some good laughs about those things when they do happen, but we also recognize just what a terrible thing it can be when the dream name you’ve come up with means something terrible in a language.
Jeremy: The one cautionary note I throw to the inappropriate thing, is it really becomes an issue if you are moving into other languages or countries. If you are a local business, chances are all you need to worry about is the domain name and trademark for your local markets. If you are a Canadian that’s never going to sell outside of Canada, then just focus on what you focus on. If you have… what many organizations face, is they name for their local market and then they go to the US, or they go to Europe, they go to Australia, and that’s where they hit the problem. So spend the time and effort to take the trademarking process seriously, because that’s where… you can’t use a name that somebody else has, and so, have the foresight to say, “Where are we going to go?”
Laurier: Physical products can often end up selling further away than you think they will. You can end up being much farther afield than you think your local product is going to end up, and when you end up going into other markets, having to change the name and call it something else in a new market can be really costly, and it can actually create a barrier to you entering that market, or to your success when you get there. So doing that research upfront is super important, because I’ve worked on a lot of brand naming projects over the last quarter century, and it’s one of the toughest things we do, because there’s just so many things that you have to get right, and there are so many ways that you can miss the mark, especially when sometimes it’s easy and you nail it right off the hop, and we’ve had clients come to us where they have a name that’s in their mind that feels just right for them, and we know it when we hear it, that it’s just perfect.
Laurier: And on the other side of that, we have clients that come to us and they’ve got a name that we know is going to be a nightmare to market, because it’s structured wrong, it’s confusing, it’s too much like other things. So naming and branding in general is just, it’s some of the toughest work we do, but it’s also the highest impact, and the most valuable, and the most exciting and fun work we do too. So it’s all of those things, it’s the full gamut from joy to nightmare, and you never know for sure which one.
Jeremy: What you do brilliantly, is by being able to guide a client through a structure process to realize and visualize and name their brand, is not just pushing pictures, it’s not going to go to Fiverr to get a bunch of logos that represent you. Brand work is strategic, and it requires process and experts, and it’s not cheap. And so, having strong partners like yourselves, I think are just a godsend to any organization that is working to grow their brand having the challenges that you’re articulating, if you don’t have the right partners, are exponentially larger.
Andreas: That’s it for this episode of Product Knowledge, and our conversation with Jeremy Miller, author of “Brand New Name: A Proven, Step-by-Step Process to Create an Unforgettable Brand Name.” You can get it on Amazon or on Jeremy’s website, stickybranding.com, and you can find links in the episode notes. Visit graphosproduct.com, where you can find out more about Graphos, our services, our ideas, more podcasts, and our blog. All our podcasts are transcribed for the deaf and hard of hearing, or if you just prefer to read. Reach out on twitter at graphosproduct, or email us through the form on graphosproduct.com. Thanks for listening. I’m Andreas Schwabe.