The perfect brand name

The perils of chasing a unicorn
Mike Reed
by Mike Reed

Naming a brand is often a tortured process, full of impassioned argument and furrowed brows. Everyone wants to find that silver bullet: the simple, unique name that crystallises everything important about the brand.

Well, stop looking. Because you won’t find it – and you don’t need to. Names matter, but never as much as they seem to when you’re trying to think of one.

Think of Xerox, Ikea, Sony: all made-up words. And how many people know (or care) that IBM once meant “International Business Machines”, or that Esso comes from SO – Standard Oil? The meaning invested in these names comes from what those businesses do and say – not what they’re called.

So are names unimportant? Of course not. A good name can help a lot. Look at Bulb, for example: a simple, friendly, cheerful word that instantly suggests power and bright ideas. Handy for an energy startup.

On the flip side, a mistaken name can do real damage. You might recall the 2001 attempt to rename the Post Office as “Consignia” – a name that managed to feel empty, cold, and pompous all at once. The switch from cosy familiarity to corporate gobbledegook sparked a national outcry, after which the name was quickly – and expensively – scrapped.

Examples like this can create a paralysing pressure on any naming project. And then there’s the added problem of finding names that are still available. Naming has become as much a practical exercise in navigating trademarks as a creative process. So it helps to engage experienced people who won’t freeze when confronted with a blank page. Professionals who know how to keep the inspiration flowing, and can recognise what works – or doesn’t.

Spotting those gems relies at least as much on practical strategy as subjective creativity. You need to define your context and objectives before you start. What are others doing? Do you want to stand out, or fit in? Disrupt, or reassure? Explore potential territories, then focus on the most fruitful. And remember: naming is essentially a process of saying “no”. Don’t be disheartened by how much you discard – that’s how you zero in on the answer.

There are politics here too. If you can keep senior stakeholders involved throughout the journey, they’re much less likely to parachute in at the eleventh hour with a left-field suggestion that risks upending days or weeks of development.

Forget the silver bullet – it doesn’t exist. But if you follow a strategic process, and bring all the important people along with you, you’re far more likely to reach a shortlist of ideas that work – and which everyone can sign up to. Then you can get on with building a brand.

This piece was originally published in City AM in January 2019.

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