Sacramento Bee

December 5, 2007

What's in a name?

Memorable monikers help products succeed

Sacramento Bee product names graphicCan Kindle stoke your love for reading?

Is Wii more powerful than I?

Will Zune make you hum a tune?

If you answered yes to these questions, naming experts have done their jobs.

During the holiday season, when shoppers are bombarded by competing messages, a good name can go a long way in establishing a brand in consumer's minds and save untold advertising dollars, naming experts say.

To be sure, no company or product will rise and fall on its name alone, said Jason Cieslak, managing director of Los Angeles naming firm Siegel + Gale.

"But a compelling name will often help a company break through the clutter," he said. introduced Kindle, an electronic book reader, late last month. The giant online book seller said the name suggests the device's ability "to ignite a passion for reading."

If it does indeed convey that message, it would be a boon for Amazon.

"Companies spend millions of dollars on advertising to get people to remember a name," said Steve Manning, managing director of Igor International, a San Francisco-based naming firm. "If the name is memorable on its own, that's zero cost."

Manning pointed to Virgin Atlantic Airways as a prime example. "If they had named themselves Trans Atlantic Air or something like that, they would have had to spend lots of money on ads to get people to remember them," Manning said.

"As soon as you paint 'Virgin' on the plane, that eliminates the need for so many advertising or PR dollars."

Manning said unusual names often pay off, even if they connote something negative. Critics might say that Virgin implies inexperienced pilots. Banana Republic could evoke the image of a South American dictatorship. And The Gap? Doesn't that imply that something's lacking or broken?

Even Manning's own company, Igor, conjures up the image of a drooling manservant to a mad scientist.

Implications aside, the names stick in people's minds, he said, outweighing the possible negatives.

Still, some might be seen as a real albatross. The Gap's short-lived line of clothing for older women was called Fourth & Towne (check the acronym).

That might not have been enough to sink the business, but it surely didn't help.

Other names just naturally resonate. Take the Motorola Razr, one of the hottest-selling cell phones in history. While the product was attractive in its own right, the name suggested a device that is clean, sleek and cool, Cieslak said.

An earlier Motorola phone, the StarTAC, was also a big seller, and not so subtly evoked the image of a "Star Trek" communicator.

But even unfamiliar words can have an impact. The head of Folsom-based Jadoo Power Systems, which makes hydrogen power supplies, said that his company was named after a Hindi word for magic. That's meant to suggest that using hydrogen gas to produce electricity is almost magical.

"We found the name resonated with a lot of people who were used to hearing companies with names like Fuel Cell Corp.," said Lee Arikara, Jadoo's chief executive officer.

"Everyone we've met says, 'You have a very interesting name. What does it mean?' It's a very good opening with most people," he said.

The dot-com era has taken names in a new and sometimes ridiculous direction.

For Google, Yahoo and every other household name created, there's an obscure one like movie download site Vongo, which may have trouble catching people's imagination.

"When you see that name, you have no idea what it means," Cieslak said.

That could have been the same for the Wii, Nintendo's wildly popular game console. But subliminal influences seem to have made it a winner.

Not only does it evoke a sense of delight (whee!), the name (when spelled "we") signifies togetherness. "Nintendo figured out a clever way to convey that," Cieslak said. "It's an elegant, fanciful kind of name that communicates the core idea behind the product: that gaming isn't supposed to be a solitary activity for 17-year-old boys."

But Microsoft's Zune music player, they say, hasn't been so successful. Replacing the T in "tune" with a Z may have made for a zippier name but doesn't imbue the product with hipness, Manning said. "One of the hardest things to sell is Microsoft plus cool."

One major roadblock for product names is that most Web site names that fit with the product already have been taken.

Cieslak said he recently was involved in a naming project in which more than 800 possibilities were whittled down to 10. Of those 10, six Web sites with those names already had been claimed. And it required a six-figure "inducement" to get the name that Cieslak's client wanted most.

Back to Kindle, what did naming experts think of the device's moniker? Not much.

Manning said a good name should evoke numerous images. Apple, for instance, evokes familiarity, nourishment and even Johnny Appleseed. "Kindle has only one image, and that's of starting a fire," Manning said.

Cieslak said that for a relatively unfamiliar product, the name needs to be more descriptive. "The Kindle could be a grocery product or a toy. ... You don't get a sense of what the product is," he said.

"Having an evocative name like Kindle isn't necessarily a bad thing. It just means you need to market the heck out of it so consumers will understand."


Here are the answers to the puzzle above, plus some more examples from each of the four categories of types of product or company names.

Functional: JetBlue, QuickBooks,

Invented: TiVo, Parkay, Snapple, Google, Wii, Vongo

Experiential: Sunkist, Aquafresh, Fidelity, Banana Republic, Wii, Razr

Evocative: Ocean Spray, Pearl Drops, Gap, Yahoo, Virgin, Kindle, Wii

Source: Igor International