July 5, 2018
Through brand names, companies can distill entire corporate visions down to a single word or phrase. While in the past, brand names were meant to reel us in, they are now expected to make us think, feel, understand, and share in a common belief system. To achieve this, companies have been spending millions of dollars on naming experts to select a brand name that will not only reach us but hold a mirror to us. If we read between the phonemes, we can see ourselves in them. Let’s break down how brands are choosing names that reflect the delicate psychology around consumer decision-making.
Play by the Rules
While naming brands may seem elusive, there are rules. There is a science. Names should be clear, simple, easily uttered, and easily spelled. They should be able to travel well, weaving in and out of different languages, cultures, and regions. Names like Fage, Kinerase, and Ipipi are, unsurprisingly, drifting into oblivion. As naming expert Adam Lang wrote in his Rewind & Capture blog, if Alexa or Siri can’t spell it, consumers might struggle as well. Lang also asserts that names should pass the bar test: Tell your neighboring bar mates at a noisy pub your brand name. If they can’t pronounce it, find a new name.
For product names, Hayes Roth, of the branding firm Landor, told The Atlantic that consistency is vital. Consumers are drawn to patterns and logic. Product names should, therefore, share a common thread. Apple’s mobile products, of course, all begin with a lowercase i — iPad, iPod, iPhone — while Ikea’s carpets have all been christened with names of Danish or Swedish cities or towns — Adum, Stockholm, Sikebord. In keeping with their twee sensibility, all Modcloth products have cutesy monikers, many of which feature punny play-on-proverbs — A Way with Woods, Worth the Wink, Any Day Meow. Consistency allows brands to diversify without straying too far from who they are.
Companies should choose names that can evolve with them. Alexandra Watkins, author of the popular brand-naming book “Hello, My Name is Awesome,” warns against names that are too restrictive. “If Amazon had been called Book Barn, there wouldn’t be room for it to expand,” Watkins says. The 99 Cent Store encountered this problem when it eschewed its name to offer dollar-plus products, as did Burlington Coat Factory when it started selling more than just coats. Often, expanding past a brand name can mean breaking a customer promise.
Stay on Trend
While brand names should have longevity, they should still reflect the tastes and mores of the times. An on-trend brand name can anchor a brand in the moment, providing consumers with what they’re truly looking for, not a product or service but an affirmation, a feeling: that they are young, fresh, cool, and relevant.
But where is the name tide turning? Steven Manning, founder of the branding firm Igor International says companies have veered away from cold, corporate constructions of Greek and Latin morphemes (Scient, Vient, Lucent and Agilent) to names that are more primal and foundational. Names like Ring, Nest, Square and Away capture the essence of their brands in stark, simple terms.
Other brands are opting for similarly sparse names, but with a twist. Blogger Goran Bogunovic suggested on the Domain.me blog using a compound word, which combines two simple words (SweetGreens, HomeGrown) or its cousin, a portmanteau, which slices and blends, rather than merely combines, two words (Pinterest). He touched on other naming trends: adding a prefix or suffix to common words (videofy.me) or, intentionally misspelling or abbreviating words (Tumblr, Flickr).
Watkins, however, staunchly opposes this word-trimming trend, as she worries it sparks confusion. She also rejects the newish fad of haphazardly tossing an ampersand into a name (&pizza), much for the same reason. “Just because it is different doesn’t mean it’s a good idea,” she says.
Know the Science
Many naming consultants are turning to neuroscience to learn how names trigger feelings. According to research by psychologist Possidonia Gontijo of UCLA, brand names are tied more strongly to emotions then other nouns. This is because, thanks to flashy advertising, we process brand names in a consistent, visual way, with the same colors, fonts, and cases.
While most language is processed in the left brain — our more logical, conscious brain — brand names also connect with our emotional right brain. This means brand names should focus on appealing to our emotions, rather than reason or logic. Market researchers at Executive Solutions found that emotions related to acceptance, competence and responsibility are most strongly tied to purchasing decisions.
The lingual connection to emotions can be broken down even further. Computational linguist Chi Luu wrote in Jstore about how various sounds can convey symbolic meaning, a concept known as phonetic symbolism. Sounds and letters can relate to size, shape, speed, joy, and disgust, among other associations. Research shows, for instance, that people interpret the made-up word “mil” as “smaller” than its counterpart “mal.” Words starting with “gl” (gleam, glitter, glow) are, in many languages, visual — which is good news for beauty brands like Glossier and GloMineral. What’s more, reduplication, or the repetition of a major element of a word (chit chat) is found in baby talk across all languages. Clearly, OshKosh B’Gosh has been taking note.
Unsurprisingly, our lingual preferences can also reflect our own narcissism. Luu writes that we are more drawn to brands that start with the same letter as our first name. As a lifelong Rachel, perhaps this could explain my confusing cravings for (sigh) Red Lobster.