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What’s in a Brand Name?

Haagen Dazs and Doritos are made-up words, meant to sound Norwegian and Spanish. Your own name is the sweetest sound you’ve ever heard. But what would have happened had Jeff Bezos given Amazon his preferred name: Cadabra (as in Abracadabra)? What if Starbucks had used its first choice: Cargo House? Names can be a boon or a bust. Laurier Mandin and Andreas Schwabe talk with Bryn Griffiths about brand names, how to do it—and what you must know to nail yours and avoid a branding blunder.

Episode transcript:

Bryn: Hey I’m Bryn Griffiths. This is Product: Knowledge, the podcast about creating and marketing products that improve peoples lives. We live in a product-obsessed world surrounded by brands we build our lives around and follow religiously. In our last episode about obsession branding, we talked about the elements that bring a brand to the top of our collective consciousness. The names those brand go by become part of our lives and part of our culture. Joining us from Graphos Product is the president and principal, Laurier Mandin, and Andreas Schwabe who’s the director of Media Services. Gentlemen how are you doing today?

Andreas: Good how are you?

Bryn: Great, thank you. Okay lets talk about brand names and how important it is to the success of a product. Who wants to take this one on first?

Laurier: It can make a big different because the name is so closely tied to the product’s identity. The logo and the visual branding is shaped by the name. In one or two words, we call to mind the entire brand, and that’s the power of a name. We judge a product and we assess its purpose, its usefulness and even its quality by the name. Sometimes a good name like Photoshop, Google, Kleenex, Xerox, can become a word used universally. Haagen Dazs is a made up word. It’s designed to sound Danish, and Doritos is another made up word designed to sound Spanish.

Andreas: I didn’t know that.

Bryn: I did not know that either.

Andreas: Really?

Bryn: That’s crazy.

Laurier: Those names fit really well to the products they represent and they define their markets including the quality and even the price point.

Bryn: Now we hear stories about this all the time, but what happens … what could go wrong when a brand name doesn’t translate well?

Laurier: There’s a lot of mythology around that. One of the most famous stories isn’t even true. That’s the one abut the Chevy Nova being marketed in Latin America and failing because no-va means it doesn’t go. Well the Nova actually sold quite well in that market especially in Venezuela where it exceeded expectations. And nova actually means the same thing in Spanish as it does in English. If you wanted to say it doesn’t go you would say no yendo. There are a lot of other stories and plenty of urban myths in product naming and one that is true is that Ford messed up when marketing the Pinto in Brazil. Do you know what Pinto meant in Brazilian Portuguese?

Bryn: No.

Laurier: It means tiny male genitals.

Bryn: Okay then, and you know what’s funny? You’re never going to believe this. Actually, my first car was a Pinto.

Laurier: I think that the problem wasn’t that the car’s name meant tiny male genitals but that it blew up when you bumped into it from behind.

Bryn: That is an issue. Small problem.

Andreas: Small problem, just a minor issue.

Bryn: I can’t remember what that was. Was it the gas tank? You just tapped the gas tank and it collapsed and then gas just sprayed out over everything?

Andreas: Too close to the back of the vehicle. There was no real bumper.

Andreas: There’s a German example that I really love too and Clairol launched a curling iron called The Mist Stick in Germany. The only problem with that is the German word mist means crap or manure. So, you would literally say, “Oh, mist.”

Andreas: So Clairol Mist is not a good thing.

Laurier: They missed the mark with that one.

Andreas: They definitely missed it. They definitely missed it.

Bryn: I’m sure there’s more stories about that kind of stuff out there, that’s for sure. Now, what about web domains? Is availability of a dot com still important to people?

Laurier: Domain availability, as long as there’s been domains has been an important consideration. I’ve heard that even with Google that they were going for Googol, meaning one with a thousand zeros after it but that wasn’t available, so they chose If you can imagine Google not being able to get its domain and if you go to, it takes you to Google. So there may be some truth to that or that Google buys everything that sounds like its name, perhaps.

Laurier: But there’s so many options in top level domains now. There’s almost an endless selection of dot whatever you need but dot com is still the gold standard. It tells people you’re the original, if you can get it because almost everything is taken in dot coms. When we’re naming, we work pretty hard to try and find that dot com, knowing that that is going to be the one that’s going to define that client’s website as the real product, the real thing, but very often they’re taken by domain farms or they’re just not —

Bryn: Somebody’s tied them up, right?

Laurier: They’re tied up and they’re tied up in a way that makes it really, really hard to get unless you’ve got a huge pile of money you want to throw at it, then you could buy almost any domain.

Bryn: I’ve always wondered where the ideas come from for this kind of stuff.

Andreas: As much as anything, it’s just trying to express the product for that company. Sometimes it’s actually just a match up and in terms of domains it’s really tough because there’s a lot of temptation. Like if you’re a video company, you want a dot TV domain or dot radio or dot tattoo or something like that but when you’re telling someone the domain, so it’s, what’s going to happen is people are going to go to That’s just going to happen —

Bryn: No, you’re right.

Andreas: Because it’s the front of mind domain. It’s the one that everybody goes to. So sometimes you have to find the pseudo domain or go with the domain that’s not exactly what you’re after and then use a prefix. For example, we have You’ve got those extra add-ons, you can always use that extra extension with a prefix but ultimately, there are ways around not being able to get exactly what you want but ultimately, that forces you to make some really tough decisions because it is such an important decision.

Andreas: And it’s actually less significant than we think it is or that it used to be because you want to use that dot com domain in your marketing and yet when your end user goes looking, very often they’re just going straight to Google anyway and they’re typing in whatever it is they’re looking for. I see it in the query results that very often people still type whatever that brand is dot com, even into the search. So, it has some value there but generally somebody who’s looking for you is going to find you as long as you’re well indexed.

Andreas: Even in the name registries, like when you’re doing a search, so if you’re looking for a new domain, the first domain it shows you as available or not is dot com and then it’ll show you all the other options.

Laurier: It’s because that’s what everybody wants and it’s what customers still expect and if you show them two domains and one is a dot com, they’re going to presume that the one that’s the dot com is the real McCoy.

Bryn: Now the question that I have is, it’s one thing to talk about dot com or dot ca or whatever you want to say, but people rack their brains trying to come up with names for their particular company or whatever their brand is going to be. Wendy’s for example. It’s a great story about Wendy’s, right?

Laurier: Yeah, it’s the founder’s daughter whose name was Wendy, right? Not that that matters at all to any of the customers. That’s who the little girl in I guess the old logo now was, it was a representation. Is she still in there? I think she is. They’ve just got a new cartoon of her, right?

Bryn: I think so. Still red hair though, right?

Andreas: Yeah.

Bryn: You’ve got to see this all the time though. Sometimes people spend so much time trying to come up with their name and it’s right in front of them. Starbucks is another classic example, right? In Seattle.

Andreas: Yeah, it’s Moby Dick.

Laurier: It’s a character in Moby Dick and I remember reading somewhere in Starbucks literature that that character loved coffee. So I looked that up and no, there’s actually no reference to coffee in all of Moby Dick.

Bryn: Have you read Moby Dick?

Laurier: Yeah, it’s not there.

Andreas: But it’s the ubiquity of the name. Everybody, most people or at least Americans, have read Moby Dick because they have to and so when you have a name that’s as ubiquitous as something like Starbucks and it has that sort of West Coast trippiness to it.

Bryn: Must have had another choice because people don’t just go in with one name because what happens if you do the search and you can’t get it?

Laurier: Absolutely. We’ll talk a little bit about that process in a minute. But names can come from just the strangest sources. The name “Bluetooth”, for example, that comes from the tenth century king of Denmark and Norway. I think it was Harold Bluetooth.

Andreas: Harold Bluetooth.

Andreas: And actually, the symbol of the Bluetooth symbol is the runes that is the symbol for his name.

Bryn: Really?

Laurier: And that’s a really odd case for a technology company, right?

Bryn: Yeah.

Andreas: It’s just sort of myth, well history really. Not myth.

Bryn: So anyway, here we are. We’re talking about brand names and we’ve heard all the stories about people. Just they can’t come up with a catchy name for their company or what’s going to stand for their beliefs, that type of thing. I think one of the things that’s pretty obvious is brand names can come from pretty much anything but what about naming something on a trend, like adding Uber to whatever the product is. Is that a bad idea?

Laurier: It’s a terrible idea. It’s uncreative. You’re just being a copycat and yet that’s a request we get quite often-

Bryn: Really?

Andreas: Can you make it sound like this brand?

Andreas: Ask us what we really think, Bryn.

Laurier: Uber’s a good example and so I think the only solution to that is to come up with better ideas that show more uniqueness to the client because very often the want to see that Uber version of their logo in their name and that type of thing.

Laurier: But it’s also really dangerous. It’ll date you to associate yourself with a trend because everybody will think back to the time when everybody had Uber in their company name, if that’s our example, and you might also get a cease and desist order from Uber if whatever you’re doing is too similar because you’re walking onto registered trademark territory.

Laurier: Naming is a long term commitment so I would tell people ignore the brand-naming trends, at least to the extent that whatever you have is something that if this brand takes off and is really successful, which is what we’re trying to do, that in 20 or 30 years people are still going to like saying it and they’re not going to think oh, that harkens back to a time when everybody was using names like that.

Bryn: What other considerations do you look at too?

Laurier: A good name needs to be easy to read, easy to pronounce, in all your target markets. Not just at home where you live but it needs to be those things wherever you’re going to be selling that product. It shouldn’t be mispronounced or sound like an unsavory word. I remember in the ’80s, an old commercial for the brand Sico Paints and in that commercial they had a guy saying, “It’s Sico, not” and then they’d bleep out him saying the two other ways which is sicko or psycho, that you could say that brand.

Laurier: You want to save yourself the trouble of having to do those types of explanations and spend your marketing dollars on that type of stuff over and over again when instead you could be building your brand in a more positive way than just trying to steer away from the negative pronunciations of your name.

Andreas: And it can be really tricky. In Japanese culture, every consonant is followed by vowel. So my name is Andreas. I would be Anadereasu. So any word that you pick in Japanese needs to be consonant, vowel, consonant, vowel. A name would be like Sarah. That would work and that makes it pronounceable to the Japanese. That’s why baseball is [basebalu 00:11:06] because there’s always a vowel after a consonant.

Laurier: That’s one culture. When you’re doing a larger launch, you need to know exactly where your products are going, who’s going to be using them and saying them and that’s where the work starts.

Laurier: You need to know where you might grow into and for some products, their goal is never to go to Japan or we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it and if that’s five or ten years down the road that might not be a bad decision because you might be spending a lot of extra time and money planning and strategizing something that probably will never happen. So you have to know if that’s one of your possibilities, then think about how this is going to play in those target markets or at least have some indication of whether or not you’re going to be doing that.

Laurier: The name also has to be unique enough to the category it’s in that it can be registered as a trademark in all of those markets without violating the existing ones. So beyond the pronunciation, you need to think about what else sounds like that, what else uses that name. With really common words, that’s a really big challenge on top of the fact that you never get a simple dot com domain. If you come up with something that’s easy to say and easy to pronounce and it’s a word that everybody knows, that dot com is probably taken, especially if you’re registering a trademark in the United States, there’s a very good change that there’s three or four or five things already registered, maybe a dozen things with that name, depending on how common it is.

Bryn: I work on a smaller scale with mine and it’s a dot ca as opposed to a dot com. Have I made a mistake?

Laurier: I’d say not and it’s interesting because the dot ca domain’s only available in Canada, so it can be really useful if you’re branding the company to be specifically Canadian and our country has a good reputation, here in Canada there’s good reasons to do that. It’s not really a domain that’s well known outside of Canada, so if you ask most Americans, they’ll say that must be California, right, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing to a lot of brands either.

Laurier: You’ll also find again that when people are looking for your company, if they’re looking outside of Canada, they’ll probably be looking for the dot com first and as long as you’re well optimized online and they’re going to find it doing a search of your company name, the product name, then you’re probably not going to have a big problem with that.

Andreas: A dot ca domain, it’s a bit like putting a maple leaf at the end of your logo. It’s that kind of thing. It’s hey, it’s probably Canadian. Those local or regional domains actually have some utility. The thing to avoid is dot ab dot ca because now it’s just extra stuff and no one knows what an alberta is in Canada. It just becomes a little too … It’s just more extra stuff to make a mistake with.

Laurier: There’s a lot of those old ones out there but in order to buy a dot ca domain, you have to be able to prove that you either live in Canada or you have a company registered in Canada and that gives some exclusivity to it and that also locks out all the other markets and that why there’s a lot more of those domains still available because they can’t just get gobbled up by a domain farm out of the US or another country.

Bryn: It’s one thing to get the right name and it’s one thing to say the right name but if you don’t know how to say the name properly, that’s a bit of a problem too is it not?

Andreas: Okay, let’s look at Jysk. There’s no vowels, J-Y-S-K. The first time I looked at it I’m thinking Danish, Jusk but can you imagine deciding to market that in North America?

Andreas: Where my parents grew up and where we visited as kids to visit family, it’s 50 kilometers south of the Danish border. We know what Jysk is. So you have all those kinds of issues. Everyone just says “Home Depot”. No one says “The Home Depot.” Who cares if you say Nike or Nike.

Andreas: That’s actually a little different because people will lose their minds over Nike.

Laurier: Yeah, Nike fans will get upset with you but I mean a quarter of the population probably says Nike, right?

Andreas: Yeah, exactly.

Andreas: But also there’s a big difference between continents too because over here it’s Adidas and over there it’s Adidas and people will get excited about that too.

Bryn: Absolutely.

Andreas: The other example of not getting the name right, I don’t know, about 10, 15 years ago, I started to notice everyone stopped saying Kentucky Fried Chicken, it just became KFC and now it’s KFC. The brand followed the customers. Everyone stopped calling it Kentucky Fried Chicken so they just went well everyone’s calling it KFC, we’ll do that.

Bryn: Wasn’t that because people were afraid of the fried word?

Laurier: It solve two problems, right? It gave them a nice short name, people were using it and it allowed them to escape from “fried” especially at a time when that was death in the fast food world. That was the word that everybody was trying to get out of Fried.

Andreas: I prefer to avoid acronyms. We haven’t actually talked about this.

Laurier: I’ve always had an aversion to acronyms. I think they’re meaningless in most cases. Consumers have trouble attaching meaning to them and retaining them because your new acronym will not … You’re either going to teach consumers what it stands for which is a big exercise or you’re going to hope they’re going to remember a meaningless string of letters which is even harder.

Laurier: So the ones like UPS that we do know, they stick in our minds because we’ve been hearing those, we see them on trucks and they’re ubiquitous and that tricks people into thinking because KFC and UPS can do it that it might be a good idea for my brand too. Usually it’s not. You’re not going to remember, especially when a business is in start up phase, launching a new product, the last thing you need is to create a battle for yourself which is how are we going to get people to remember this acronym.

Bryn: What about BP?

Andreas: Again, Boston Pizza had to come first, right?

Bryn: Absolutely.

Andreas: That’s actually a good question because when you said BP, I thought British Petroleum.

Bryn: Really?

Andreas: And there’s the really good example, right?

Andreas: I don’t know why but literally, I just thought that yellow and green logo, BP. Okay, we’re talking about BP but we’re in Edmonton.

Andreas: It’s a Canadian thing.

Laurier: It’s an Edmonton thing.

Bryn: Absolutely.

Andreas: It’s a huge success story in terms of franchises but again, that’s the risk of an acronym. There’s two BPs. One is Boston Pizza and one is British Petroleum, so that sort of illustrates the example.

Bryn: Great point.

Andreas: It was totally accidental.

Andreas: So the real name is always better than an acronym. It’s going to give you something that you can stick meaning into and-

Bryn: I’m shocked how many people don’t know what UPS stands for. I’ve asked a few people. They have no clue.

Andreas: Maybe that’s because I don’t think they say United Parcel Service on any of the vehicles or on the guys’ uniform or anywhere like that.

Bryn: I’ve never noticed. It’s just the shield and that’s it.

Laurier: And the color, brown. But we don’t know and that’s a good example of how we don’t pay attention to those little details, right, even with brands that we know really well. I’ve seen examples of people trying to draw the Apple logo and how many people will get that wrong and that is a really simple one. It doesn’t have any words to remember or anything else.

Andreas: Here’s one that’s near and dear to our heart. For Caroline and me, Cochlear. It’s Cochlear but not in the United States or Canada.

Laurier: And I probably say it wrong too.

Andreas: We all say Cochlear because it’s just that brand. Comforting, you know, sounds like a dirty word. Look, I grew up in Regina. My wife has a cochlear implant or a cochlear implant.

Laurier: Exactly, it’s like that kind of thing.

Andreas: It’s like Ikea, right? It’s Ikea but who says it like that outside of Sweden?

Bryn: And let me throw you my hot button one is Jaguar.

Andreas: Oh, Jaguar?

Bryn: I lose my mind when I hear that. It just doesn’t sound right to me.

Andreas: Jaguar. Actually weirdly, on the radio nationally, they had a guy who was always saying “Jaguar” and it was awkward to the Canadian ear. I don’t know.

Bryn: Okay, the other thing I wanted a little bit about is does it help if the name actually means something about the product?

Laurier: Yeah, especially if you’re launching a brand new product because we were saying that in the best cases, a descriptive name can help with your positioning. We developed the name Biacta for a double-action probiotic ingredient. Bi Acta. And a made up name in that case allowed us to get a nice short word, as a dot com domain.

Andreas: There’s another one we did called Upslide and it’s a truck bed raiser, so if you have stuff, boats and bikes and whatever, the back instead of sliding out the way most beds do, it inclines a 45 degree angle toward the cab. So you can stack a ton of stuff on there and then have a ton of stuff on the back stacked underneath. So we called it the Upslide. It describes the thing itself but the bed also slides out, so you can load it then push things up. It’s actually descriptive. In that sense up is positive. It describes it. It’s a real win in terms of descriptive, meaningful names.

Laurier: And slide is a good word because when you say the word slide, it actually sounds like the rolling wheel of the slide.

Andreas: The onomatopoeia of it is part of it. How it appeals to the ear, for sure.

Bryn: For me, the clapper’s always going to be one of the biggest ones. You know, clap on, clap off.

Andreas: Could it be simpler?

Bryn: Seriously though.

Andreas: I know.

Bryn: Okay, iPad. I lost my mind when they named the iPad. I was one of those people who put pictures of a tampon with an apple logo all over my social media. It was so ridiculous and now Bryn is using an iPad and that’s totally normal and natural.

Laurier: In that case, I think the product —

Bryn: It superseded the absurdity of the name.

Laurier: Even Steve Jobs apparently freaked out on that one because he thought that after the launch because of the overall reaction, he thought this one is going to flop. People are not loving it and then it transformed that industry too. I think sometimes you can’t say that’s a great name just because the product succeeded. There’s too many other factors at play.

Andreas: I was thinking about a medical device that we named as well. We called that one Ekobi and that one made sense to its audience because it is detectable by echo with ultrasound which is called by people who work in that industry and it’s E-K-O-B-I and that’s the name of these micro beads.

Andreas: And the beads are actually really small, they’re like 100 nanometers or micrometers and echo and be and the be’s part just sounds like a bead and it’s got that auditory association with echo and bead and so it all sort of comes together.

Laurier: And sometimes you know it just sounds right. Amazon was going to be called Cadabra was one of the Jeff Bezos names that he proposed and he talked to his trademark agent-

Bryn: Didn’t he have a lawyer?

Laurier: I think it was his lawyer and the lawyer thought he said “cadaver” and so that nixed that idea and they ended up going with Amazon and Amazon sounds right. Whether or not you know it’s the longest river in the world or if you see the little smile joining the A to Z because they have everything from A to Z. Amazon sounds right to the market.

Andreas: You just gave the look-

Bryn: I didn’t know that. I did not even see the A and the Z.

Laurier: Because often that stuff doesn’t matter but it helps in the branding. It helps the people behind the brand to understand the message they’re on.

Bryn: A to Zed. I better do that just so we’re not getting letters or emails or whatever. No, that’s amazing stuff, guys.

Andreas: Again, going back to Cochlear, they have a little brand tag that’s here now and always. Here now, period, and always, no punctuation. So the message and everyone with a cochlear implant, the second they see that logo, they’ll all say, “I like that there’s no period there” because you don’t ever stop hearing. And it’s those sorts of messages that for certain audiences can be really profound. They can be very meaningful and it gives your customers something to attach to.

Laurier: Neat that you noticed that being a nerd because I remember pointing that out to you and you said, “People notice that.”

Andreas: They do.

Laurier: I was surprised. I thought no, I notice that. People do.

Andreas: No, the deaf and hard of hearing actually really get it. It’s pretty cool.

Bryn: So we’ve talked about all these things to this point but there’s got to be a process to get there. You obviously have a process to help people get there.

Laurier: A process is really, really important and having one that you’ve used many times and you know is logical and systematic, those are the ways to actually build confidence in the client and to also know that we’re on the right track, rather than just being kind of scattershot with it and that’s very often how people name things if they’re not really focused on naming their product.

Laurier: We always start with strategy and research. We need to know everything we can about the product. We need to understand the product through the people who are going to use it.

Andreas: We’ll come up with a huge list of names and you kind of naturally get your favorites. Like you get some that are just sort of, they tickle your brain a little or whatever and then you’re going through and that already exists in Taiwan or that domain is taken and there’s sort of this natural attrition of ideas. For example, when we were doing Ekobi, we were looking at Japanese words because some Japanese words, they didn’t have a particularly bad connotation but you want to be cautious because it’s going to be a global product. I mean, this is a product literally for the world so you need to be really attentive to every market possible and so you just put in searches in all these language databases and just try to find if it’s a mistake or not.

Laurier: And that part can be really hard because very often we’ll find something that we think is just incredible and we realize that that name is registered as a trademark by some company that really hasn’t used it on the market and it’s a big world we live in with a lot of different places these names can be used and registered, so there’s always a few of those experiences along the way.

Bryn: Do people come in though and they’re closed minded in terms of this or do you have to kind of open the door a little bit and say, “Look, that’s a great name that you’re suggesting, however, let’s go through the process here and see whether or not you still like that at the end of the day.” There’s got to be a few people like that.

Laurier: Yeah, people often have mindsets that we need to at least help them to break out of or to see around and sometimes just by uncovering a legal reason why they can’t use that name is good enough and other times it takes a little bit more thought and selling and if they’re right and there have been times when we’ve done naming products with a client and that name that they had on their list is the one that’s selected, I don’t feel bad about that at all because all we’re doing is validating that we’ve thoroughly examined hundreds of possibilities and darn it, they were not only a good inventor but they also had the right name on the tip of their tongue right from the start.

Andreas: That’s vision. Sometimes it happens and it’s great.

Bryn: Okay, to put a bow on this then, how do we sum this up? Obviously, this is something that has to be really cultivated.

Andreas: It’s a long term commitment and it’s something that, as we said, the name is how people, even more than your logo, it’s how people are going to think of and tell others about your product. So, it’s one of the most important things to do in launching your product-

Bryn: That’s it for this episode of Product: Knowledge. Graphos. You can catch us on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter at Graphos Canada. You can also visit our blog at We’d love to hear from you too. Subscribe, like or leave a review to the podcast or share it with a friend or colleague. Just drop us a line at [email protected].

Bryn: Product: Knowledge is the podcast about creating and marketing products that improve people’s lives. Thanks for listening. I’m Bryn Griffiths.