Want To Create A Breakout Brand Name? Don’t Be A Literalist.

 

This is the most overlooked, counterintuitive truth in naming – the difference between the way an internal naming committee will evaluate a potential brand name and the way a target audience will receive it. 

Every viral/disruptive/breakout name is a provocation: Slack, Virgin, lululemon, Target, Yahoo, Caterpillar, Hotwire, Bluetooth, Google,  Oracle. To qualify as a provocation, a name must contain what most people would call “negative messages” for the goods and services the name is to represent.

Why? The most powerful words, those that we humans are drawn to, gather both positive and negative uses over time because we love to use them. “Mother” is associated with everything from the revered and nurturing propagator of life to mother fucker and everything in between; one tough mother, mother ship, mother lode, mother earth, mother tongue, mother of invention, mother-of-pearl, mother board, mother of 12 bastards, et al.

Fortunately, consumers process any of these negative messages positively. As long as one of the name’s usages maps to one of the positioning points of the brand, consumers never take its meaning literally, and the negative aspects of the name just give it greater depth.

A viral name must contain negative qualities.

Nothing is more powerful than taking a word with a strong, specific connotation, grabbing a slice of it, mapping that slice to a portion of your positioning, and therefore redefining it. This naming strategy is without question the most powerful one of all.

Potential names must be judged on how well they map to positioning, memorability, stopping power, emotional impact, connections to the collective consciousness, distinction from competitors – the sum of which answers the most important naming question, “Is this name interesting?“.

Instead, on a naming committee, the literalist will negatively critique names based on dictionary definitions or a singular association, reliably in the form of an objection. Their claim will be that a word’s negative meaning or association(correlation) means that the value of the word as a name will also be negative(causation). The evidence they cite in their efforts to kill a name is irrefutable fact, yet irrelevant and counterproductive.  

Here are the types of objections a literalist will use to kill great name, attacking the very essence of what makes these names powerful – the tension created by positive and negative forces:

Slack

-In business, Slack means “characterized by a lack of work or activity; quiet.

-A Slacker is someone who works as little as possible. A terrible message for our target audience

– Slack means slow, sluggish, or indolent, not active or busy; dull; not brisk. Moving very slowly, as the tide, wind, or water.

 

lululemon

-We are an upscale brand for women, lululemon sounds like a character from a 3-year olds’ picture book: “lululemon and her best friends annabanana and sallystrawberry were climbing Gumdrop Hill, when suddenly from behind a rainbow the queen of the unicorns appeared…”

 

Virgin Air

-Says “we’re new at this!”.

-Public wants airlines to be experienced, safe and professional.

-Investors won’t take us seriously-Religious people will be offended.

 

Hotwire

-It has one meaning, “to steal a car!”

-Crime is the last thing we need to be associated with.

 

Yahoo!

-Yahoo!! It’s Mountain Dew!

-Yoohoo! It’s a chocolate drink in a can!

-Nobody will take stock quotes and world news seriously from a bunch of “Yahoos”.

 

Oracle 

-Unscientific.

-Unreliable.

-Only foretold death and destruction.

-Only fools put their faith in an Oracle.

-Sounds like “orifice” – people will make fun of us.

 

Caterpillar

-Tiny, creepy-crawly bug

-Not macho enough – easy to squash

-Why not “bull” or “workhorse”?

-Destroys trees, crops, responsible for famine

 

Banana Republic

-Derogatory cultural slur

-You’ll be picketed by people from small, hot countries

 

Target

-Target of an investigation

-To have a Target on your back

-A Target gets shot; killed; slaughtered.

-The Target of a manhunt

This is a family show, so you’ll have to create your own misguided, literalist list of reasons that In-N-Out, Dick’s, BJ’s , Cornhole and LoveSac should fail as brand names.

No sane person cares about any of these literal negatives, because people process these ‘negative’ connotations either positively or not at all. As long as the name maps to one of the positioning points of the brand, consumers never take its meaning literally, and the negative aspects of the name just make it more memorable and engaging.

These literal, negative objections are not reasons to abandon a name, rather they have demonstrably positive effects on a target audience. They’re what make a name engaging, differentiating & unforgettable.  Consumers don’t process names literally, they process them emotionally. Getting your committee to acknowledge this difference and to interact as the public does with names, rather than the way the dictionary does, is essential.

If you encounter a literalist, keep your distance, maintain eye contact, and take the threat seriously. Do not run in any direction. Don’t bend over, crouch down or go fetal. Wave your arms in an alpha manner. Throw any toxic item you can find – Keurig pods, inspirational posters, focus group data, etc. If attacked, fight back. If this doesn’t work, your last chance for survival is to enlighten the literalist:

 

Slack

-Positioning: DISRUPTIVE, naming the problem we solve!

-Qualities:  Interesting! Confident, different, focused on solving the target’s problem.

 

Hotwire

-Positioning: DISRUPTIVE, a travel hack, exciting, fun.

– Hotwiring a car is a hack, Hotwire.com is a travel hack. That’s why this name works.

-Qualities: Interesting! Exciting, different, memorable, viral.

 

Virgin

-Positioning: DISRUPTIVE, different, confident, exciting, alive, human, provocative, fun. The innovative name forces people to create a separate box in their head to put it in.

-Qualities: Interesting! Self-propelling, connects emotionally, deep well.

 

Oracle

-Positioning: DISRUPTIVE, different, confident, superhuman, evocative, powerful, forward thinking.

-Qualities: Interesting! Self-propelling, connects emotionally, deep well.

 

The common wisdom that naming in large groups will discourage a literalist attack is nothing more than urban legend. In fact, the larger the committee, the more likely an attack will be.

 

 

 

 

Beware The Happy Idiot

 The Happy Idiot, as it’s known in professional naming circles, is a process used by naming agencies who view your naming project as a consensus-building exercise only, and not a quest for a powerful name that consensus is then built around.

It’s called The Happy Idiot because an agency deliberately delivers a name that’s a liability to a smiling client who’s happy with the result. It was designed to be the fastest, smoothest route to client buy-in on a name, with the least amount of effort by the agency.

When a Happy Idiot practitioner presents a  name candidate that isn’t immediately met with applause by every member of a client team, they’ll smooth down the edges until there is nothing interesting or effective left in the names they’re presenting. Going forward they’ll only present names of the vanilla variety, because getting buy-in on breakout brand names requires commitment and hard work. It requires the ability to give a client the confidence to make the most powerful choice.

The first step to protecting yourself is learning to spot The Happy Idiot.

To illustrate each, we’ll use actual names and case studies created by a single naming agency.

The Happy Idiot 

In this classic version the agency invents a word with no resemblance to any existing word. Because the name neither means nor implies anything, there are no objections from the client. It’s been sanitized for their protection. But in order to sell the name the agency needs to convince the client that the invented word has positive, relevant meaning. The agency breaks the name down into morphemes (a morpheme is the smallest meaningful unit of a language) and assigns positive meaning to each. They have someone with a master’s degree in linguistics from Berkeley or Stanford certify the meanings – in languages neither the client nor their target audience speaks – to give it weight and to assure the client that this meaningless construction is  not only full of meaning, it’s perfect for them.

When an agency rolls out morphemic rationale, you’re being played:

 

 Mirvie

 

“Mirvie is a rich coining that draws on several Romance languages: Mira means “objective” in Italian, “purpose” or “look!” in Spanish, and the feminine form of “wonderful” in Latin. Vie is “life” in French and “means” or “paths” in Italian. Mirvie suggests the wonder of pregnancy, a means to your objective, and lifesaving, targeted insights”

Is it possible the naming agency believes, “Mirvie suggests the wonder of pregnancy, a means to your objective, and lifesaving, targeted insights”? Depends on what they’re smoking. What matters is the client believes it. Nobody objects, a positive meaning was established by an expert no one feels qualified to argue with, job done! Client is happy.

When agencies rely heavily on this strategy, it’s referred to as morpheme addiction.

Invented words have their place in naming, but their rationale cannot be morphemic pretzel logic based on multiple languages foreign to the audience. An invented name has to work on its own, without explanation, in the context of the company or product it represents. Neoverse is a solid example. The only exceptions are names of pharmaceuticals and chemicals, where global regulations prohibit rational names.

The Happy Idiot with a Passport

Same basics as the original, but this variation uses real words from foreign languages that neither the client nor the client’s target audience speaks. The Happy Idiot with a Passport produces names the client can’t object to because they don’t mean anything to the client. Foreign language names function as invented names, but the positive meanings the agency claims the name has are based on their meaning in an obscure language.

When an agency tries to sell you on a meaning in a language unfamiliar to your customers, you’re being played:

 

Ikena

 

“Ikena, a Hawaiian word meaning “vista, perspective, knowledge.” The name also recalls “I ken” (an older English word for “know”) and “I can” 

The Happy Idiot and Happy Idiot with a Passport both reveal an essential naming truth: Having a meaning doesn’t make a name meaningful. Ikena has a meaning but is meaningless unless you speak Hawaiian. Mirvie’s morphemes may have meaning, but Mirvie is meaningless to everyone. Which is why in our opinion, both naming approaches are scams.  They’re nothing more than a sales pitch to a client to end a project.

Foreign language names can make reasonable brand names, but they have to work based on their look, sound and personality. Their “meaning” is irrelevant to anyone who doesn’t speak the language.

The Happy Idiot with a Wallflower

The Wallflower version employs the one thousand most common words used by brand names, words like Active, Arc, Atlas, Blue, Bridge, Care, Clear, Complete, Core, Curve, Edge, Engage, Ever, Expert, Flex, Fly, Force, Front, Fusion, Future, Gain, Go, Green, Hill, Hub, Key, Lead, Light, Line, On, Next, Now, Path, Plus, Point, Power, Pro, Pulse, River, Sense, Scape, Shift, Sky, Span, Splash, Star, Stream, Sun, Up, Via, Vista, Wave, Wise and Zip. A single word Wallflower is rarely presented. They are overwhelmingly “Compound Wallflowers,” as a combination of two excruciatingly common words is much easier to trademark than one. These words are so meek they don’t draw any objection from the client, and each contains a slight, one-dimensional positive attribute. And are so generic that their effect on an audience is that of white noise. They’re Wallflowers, forgotten in a heartbeat.

When an agency takes the path of least resistance by presenting pairings of white noise words, you’re being sold a Wallflower.

Combining these wallflower words has gifted six different clients of this one agency with these six names:

 

Bridgescape

Bridgespan

Everbridge

Flybridge

Gainbridge

PSI Bridge

 

 

 

 

Takeaways

–  When an agency rolls out morphemic rationale, you’re being played.

– When an agency tries to sell you on a meaning in a language unfamiliar to your customers, you’re being played.

–  When an agency takes the path of least resistance by presenting pairings of white noise words, you’re being sold a Wallflower.

 

Preventing a H.I. Jacking

If you’re looking for a branding or naming agency to create a brand name, have a quick look at their naming portfolio. Agencies who’ve somehow found a way to ethically rationalize The Happy Idiot don’t just dabble, they’re all in. The vast majority of their portfolio will be chockfull of Compound Wallflowers, Invented Words and Foreign Language names.

They’re all mindless brand zombies, neither interesting, differentiating nor memorable, and create a marketing money pit that you may never climb out of. If you can spot a Happy Idiot, avoiding the trap is straightforward.

 

 

 

 

Choosing a new brand name ? Do an A.S.S. count.

ASSOCIATIONS + SLOGANS SCORE

Let’s say you’ve got two metaphorical names under consideration for your new computer company, Apple and Strawberry. Both names meet your baseline brand positioning criteria:

Simple, warm, human, approachable, organic, disruptive.

Half your team champions Apple and the other half love the name Strawberry. It’s pointed out that the names couldn’t be more similar – they are both red fruits. So why not flip a coin and move on?  The Chief Obfuscation Officer calls for a month of testing, reliably in the unreliable form of crowdsourcing or focus groups.

At which point you become the hero by jumping up and shouting, “I demand an A.S.S. test!”

A test that takes minutes to complete.

When leading name contenders are locked in a battle, tallying up the number of associations each have in our collective consciousness – in stories, legends, idioms, songs, culture, history, mythology, etc, tells you how emotionally connected people are to them. The more the better.

And it reveals what each brings to the table for marketing, branding and advertising campaigns.

 

Apple

  • Garden of Eden (apple w/ bite logo)

  • Issac Newton (product name)

  • William Tell

  • Snow White

  • The Tree of Life

  • McIntosh (product names McIntosh, eMac, iMac, Power Mac, MacBook, Mac Mini)

  • One smart apple

  • A bad apple

  • Easy as apple pie

  • An apple a day

  • Apple of my eye

  • Apple polisher

  • Big Apple

  • Apples and oranges

  • How ’bout them apples?

  • Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree

  • Upset the applecart

 

 Strawberry

  • Strawberry Fields

  • Strawberry shortcake

  • Strawberry blonde

 

Sometimes the positioning of the name your looking for is simply a single big idea – an iconic, definitive name that captures the imagination.

This was the case for a B2B software startup we named, so the first and winning tactic was to find a name that had the most cultural connections that were really big ideas. The clear winner was Seven:

 

 Seven

  • Seven wonders of the world.

  • Seven musical notes.

  • Seven seas.

  • Seven days a week.

  • Seven continents.

  • Seven deadly sins.

  • Seven virtues.

  • Seven colors of the rainbow.

  • Seven chakras.

  • Seven years of bad luck.

  • Seven visible planets.

  • Seven heavens.

  • Seven dwarfs.

  • Seven samurai.

  • On the seventh day god rested.

  • Lucky number seven.

 

Of course there are many more, but you get the idea. Before we presented Seven to our client, we needed to determine if Seven could possibly be trademarked around the world, given the 700,000+ trademarked software names globally. We came up with a strategy, and Seven is trademarked worldwide. The ability to legally finesse a name like Seven is critical, because naming is not simply about finding the best name for the job, it’s about finding the best name for the job that you can legally use.

Apple vs. Strawberry isn’t a fair fight. But it’s not always so lopsided. If the A.S. portion of the test doesn’t produce a winner, move on to Slogans. Put two names side by side and see which inspires the most taglines that play off the name.

Of course none of the taglines anyone can remember actually play off the company name, they’re too expected and make the name one dimensional. Imagine, “Virgin, A Brand New Experience” or “Apple, Easy as Pie”.  Deadly.

But the exercise does reveal the power, connectivity and relevance of an unexpected name.

In this example, let’s say we’re naming a creative agency and a leading name contender is:

 

 Igor

  • Igor. Bringing Your Vision To Life.

  • Igor. Get Over The Hump.

  • Igor. A Few Spare Parts and a Good Storm.

  • Igor. Throw The Switch.

  • Igor. A Moveable Beast.

  • Igor. Own Your Shadow.

  • Igor. No Job Too Horrifying.

  • Igor. The Other White Meat.

  • Igor. Never Say Die.

  • Igor. A Good Brain Is Hard To Find.

  • Igor. Alive!

  • Igor. Better Living Through Science.

  • Igor. Building The Perfect Beast.

 

BOTTOMLINEThe number of ASSOCIATIONS or SLOGANS that potential metaphorical brand names generate tells you how emotionally connective each name is and how much branding, marketing & advertising ammunition they contain.

 

More on the existential hell of a naming agency naming itself.