How Important is a Good Brand Name?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
–Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare

In theory, Juliet is right. However, perceptions and associations create a filter through which we experience a name. For instance, Hewlett-Packard (HP) as a name would not rank high on anyone’s list of creative company names, but the company brand is so strong that the name is evocative of quality, performance and innovation. The same could be said for IBM. But, if you don’t have experience with a brand, the name might take on more importance. Would you want to have your computer repaired by the SpaceCadets (which connotes being absent-minded, and is a company name I just invented) or The Geek Squad (which connotes organized tech nerds, and is an actual brand service name of Best Buy).

Brand Names that Connote What They Do

I like the name Invisalign because in the context of orthodontics, it instantly connotes a technology that helps to straighten or align your teeth in an invisible manner. In the early 1980’s, I helped to position and launch the company, Maxtor, which sounded like maximum storage—exactly what the company was doing in hard disk drives.

Intuit, which is a leader in personal and small business financial software, has a name that instantly lets you know that their products are easy-to-use with an intuitive interface. Their flagship product names do an excellent job of evoking their category or benefits: Quicken, QuickBooks and TurboTax.

Genentech is the granddaddy brand in genetic engineering, but now there are myriad genetic engineering companies with names like Amgen, Biogen, Genzyme and Xoma. In the end, however, the performance of the company and their products will determine whether users, partners or investors equate the brand name with something positive and meaningful.

Brand Names that Evoke the Company Personality
During the hey day of the dot com era, having a dot com-sounding name seemed very important to emerging companies and their investors. We saw the rise (or fall) of Yahoo!, Google, Inktomi, eBay,,,, GoDaddy and many others. Since companies were trying to appeal to consumers with a unique personality and experience, it didn’t seem to matter if the name sounded unprofessional and verged on goofy. The result of exposure to so many dot com names is that the world is much more tolerant of non-business-sounding names, and seems to equate innovation with name originality.

Brand Names that Don’t Help the Cause

I recently ran into the company name Achaogen on the Internet, and my first reaction, was “How do you pronounce this thing?” and my second question was “What on earth do they do?” They make genetically engineered products that help to prevent drug resistance. The name definition, which they provide on their home page, states that “A” stands for “against” and “chao” stands for randomness or chaos, therefore, their name means against randomness or genetic diversity. What if you don’t have a website or a person to explain what this company does? You fend for yourself. In this case, I thought the name evoked an idea of chaos, which is not necessarily a positive in my book. Without explanation, I would say that the name Achaogen doesn’t leave a great first impression.

What Happens During a Merger or Acquisition?

In April 2004, FedEx unveiled the brand for its acquisition of Kinko’s copy centers as FedExKinko’s, including a new multi-colored icon known as the beacon. Now, four years later, the company has retained the beacon symbol but jettisoned the Kinko’s name; FedExKinko’s is now known as FedEx Office, not a stimulating name but it doesn’t need to be with the strength of the FedEx brand. That FedEx retained the Kinko’s brand name for four years is testament to the strength of the brand that Kinko’s had built over the years with its customers.

An old but interesting example of when not to ditch the acquiree’s name is NCR, formerly the National Cash Register Company. In the 1990s, AT&T became the parent of NCR and changed NCR’s name to AT&T Global Information Solutions (GIS). In one fell swoop, the history and associations of 110 years was whisked away and in its stead was a non-descript name that got confused with Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Although NCR had its share of problems, its reputation for competence as a computing company was a lot stronger than AT&T’s. AT&T should have left NCR’s name alone. To make a long story short, NCR is now an independent, publicly traded company, that is somewhat going back to its roots through innovations in the area of retail self-service. [Postscript: Although AT&T ceased as a company, SBC/Cingular relaunched their company under a new AT&T brand in 2005, a smart move given that AT&T is one of the most recognized global brands.]

What Makes a Good Brand Name?

We’ve seen a number of examples of what works and what doesn’t work in a brand name. But, if you are faced with naming or renaming a company or a product, what should be the key considerations? Granted, there are brand considerations beyond just the desired attributes that I will be listing below. For instance, FedExKinko’s was an awkward, slapped-together name, but it made sense at the time because it was important to leverage the equity of two strong brands.
With that caveat, here is my list of six attributes for a good brand name:

1) DISTINCT. The best brand names are made up words that are stand out from the crowd in a positive way.
2) CONCISE. A one- or two-syllable name is easier to remember than a multi-syllabic name.
3) LOOKS AND SOUNDS GOOD. Remember my example of Achaogen? It doesn’t look or sound good. Besides that, who can remember how to spell it?
4) STARTS THE POSITIONING PROCESS. Intuit certainly sets you on the path thinking that the product is simple and intuitive.
5) NO NEGATIVE MEANINGS. The classic name fiasco was the launch of the Chevrolet Nova in Spanish-speaking countries, where the name of the car meant “doesn’t work” in Spanish.
6) INTERNET DOMAIN NAME AVAILABLE. In our web-saturated culture, we expect good companies to own their own Internet domain. I look askance at companies that have a .net (if they are not a network-related business) or .biz after their domain because it has a second-tier connotation that they weren’t creative enough to come up with an original .com name or they are not Internet-savvy enough to know that it is important.

In the end, a name is only one part of your brand. The list of companies that have overcome less-than-ideal brand names is long (IBM, Smuckers, Harley-Davidson, Allis Chalmers, AFLAC, to name but a few). The most important way to ensure a strong brand is to deliver on your brand promise. In short, a great brand experience that makes customers keep coming back is more important than an ideal brand name. Basically, that’s what Shakespeare meant when he wrote: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But if you can have both, you’re just that much ahead of the game. So happy naming!


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