What’s Really In a Name


It was one of the biggest—and at the time, one of the most head-scratching—brand re-naming events ever. In 1993, rock star Prince declared that he was changing his name… to an unpronounceable love symbol. Faced with having to mime a combination of gender ideograms whenever anyone wanted to talk about the man behind Purple Rain and Sign O The Times, people soon started calling him “the artist formerly known as Prince.”

As a way of generating buzz, it wasn’t the best launch of a new brand name.

But Prince’s market repositioning wasn’t just unusual in creating a name that no one could say. It was also exceptional for having the goal of attempting to sell fewer products. The singer had felt restricted by a recording contract that wouldn’t allow him to release as many records as he wanted. By rebranding, he was hoping to recoup some of his artistic freedom. Warner Bros might have owned his musical brand but he could name himself any way he wanted.

Prince, though, was lucky. Not only was he able to take his name back as soon as his contract expired, but he never had to think about what to call his brand. His real name was Prince Rogers Nelson. He had been born with a brand name with all the proven appeal of Queen or the Gypsy Kings.

Most brands just aren’t that fortunate. Instead of being created with an identity ready for the Big Time, they have to draw up lists of names then try to estimate the effect that each of them will have on a market. Will it be memorable? Can people pronounce it? Will they know what the name stands for and associate it with the brand’s values and benefits? Or will it become as much a figure of fun as iHop’s switch to iHob and Netflix’s move to DVD service Qwikster had become?

What goes into a name and what does the market get out of it?

New Name, New Product

One characteristic that people see in a new product name is novelty.

Each year, the main mobile phone manufacturers release new models of their leading devices. And each year, they’re forced to make a choice. Should they give the model an entirely new name or should they simply add a number to the series?

Usually, they opt to add to the number. The latest Samsung flagship is the Galaxy S21. The newest iPhone is the iPhone 12. Each new phone provides small upgrades to the previous iteration: a slightly better camera; a slightly faster processor; a slightly shinier screen. Researchers call this approach “brand-name continuation.” It works when the product is trusted and the changes are small. Customers expect to see some improvements but they also assume that the new version will work at least as well as the old one. It’s a low risk strategy for both buyers and sellers. Customers know what they’re getting and, as long as competitors aren’t breaking out anything new, manufacturers know how much of the market they can expect to retain.

Sometimes, though, the market changes dramatically. When Samsung brought out a foldable version of its flagship, it named the product Galaxy Z Flip. The unique name combined the brand recognition of the flagship line but drew attention to the new device’s outstanding characteristic.

It’s a riskier approach, one that mirrored Nintendo’s move from GameCube to Wii and from Wii to Switch. Each new name told customers that they should expect something entirely new. That approach works when the product contains a valuable novelty: the Switch takes a different approach to gaming than the Wii did. It works less well when the novelty is less innovative than it sounds. Samsung’s line of Note phones are almost indistinguishable from its S series and appears to be on its way out.

According to some analysts then, because a new brand name suggests an entirely new product, the decision about whether or not to give a new model a new name should take into account the market’s appetite for risk. Microsoft still calls its operating system “Windows” 35 years after its launch because its users don’t want to have to deal with new software. They want upgrades to the way their computers run, not innovation that will force them to learn a new way of working, and which they might not master. When reliability trumps novelty, the new version should keep the old name.

But if the market has become stagnant and customers are eager for something innovative, then creating a new brand name will tell them that they’re buying the new experience they crave. Each new brand name, regardless of the name itself, contains a promise of novelty. Companies have to decide whether they want to make that promise or continue delivering what they’ve offered in the past.

Names for Girl Products and Boy Products

They also have to decide whether their product is masculine or feminine because that gender characteristic will be embedded in the brand’s name too.

An article in the Academic Times describes a paper that explored the effects of a brand name’s gender association. Ruth Pogacar, a professor of marketing at the University of Calgary, together with her colleagues, listed the top 100 brand names from 2000 to 2019, then analyzed them using a linguistic gender technique. The technique assumes that feminine names tend to end in a vowel, are longer than men’s names, and are less likely to stress the first syllable. Ford, they note, is a masculine name. Nestlé is a girl’s name.

Does it matter? It might.

Pogacar found that each year 55 percent of the 100 top brands had feminine names and only 36 percent had masculine names. The rest were gender neutral. To find out whether the gender of a brand affected consumers, the researchers conducted an experiment.

They created a feminine brand name called “Nimilia” and a masculine brand named “Nimeld.” They then asked volunteers to choose which of each brand’s YouTube channel they wanted to watch. Only 32 percent chose Nimeld, while 43 percent went for the feminine Nimilia. When they asked 150 university students to choose between a gift of 50 cents, a Nimilia-branded hand sanitizer or a Nimeld-branded hand sanitizer, they found again that the feminine brand won out—this time by 49 percent to 14 percent. (The remaining 36 percent chose half a buck.)

Pogacar and her colleagues repeated the experiment using both “utilitarian” and “hedonistic” products, and with apparently gendered names including “Tilna” and Telric,” and “Nemri” and “Nelmin.” Each time, they found the association with a gender did affect consumers’ perception of the brand: in general, people preferred feminine names.

That preference can give companies considering names a good place to begin. If customers generally prefer feminine-sounding products, keep the name short, the stress away from the first syllable, and try to end with a vowel.

It’s worth bearing in mind, though, that some products, will benefit from association with a more masculine name. Body sprays aimed at men have names like Axe and Drakkar Noir. Similar products aimed at women are called Nykaa Wanderlust and Pacifica Island.

And it’s also worth remembering that while the gender of a name, even if the association is subconscious, will have an effect, the semantics of the name matter too. Ford adds to its masculine-sounding company brand by giving its vehicles names that associate the model with their use. Mustangs and Broncos all suggest limitless exploration, an association the company continues with its Expedition, Ranger, Escape, and Explorer trucks and SUVs. They’re names that are very different to Honda’s Jazz, Civic, and Accord brand names.

Sankar Sen, a professor of marketing at Baruch College, conducted a study to understand how and why a brand name’s suggestiveness interacts with consumers’ decisions. He showed a group of volunteers different attributes relating to brands of CD player, and without telling the volunteers the brand names, asked them to rate them on a scale of 1 to 7 for quality and likelihood to buy. He then showed the volunteers one of two sets of three calculator brands and asked them to provide ratings. One set of calculators had names that suggested their main characteristic: Statistech suggested statistical capabilities; Financor related to financial capabilities; Graphix emphasized the calculator’s graphic interface. The other set of calculators had more general names: Equinox, Excellor, and Innova.

Finally, Sen told the volunteers that the calculator manufacturers were thinking of entering the CD market and associated each brand of calculator with one of the CD player descriptions they had read earlier. Again, the volunteers rated the CD player on its apparent quality and their likelihood to buy.

What Sen was testing with this experiment was the effect of the name on brand extension. How did the impression the name made on the volunteers affect their willingness to buy another product associated with that brand? What he found was that a brand name’s suggestiveness affects in predictable ways individuals’  knowledge structures about new brands. “Specifically, participants in the different goal and name conditions recall different types of brand information and vary in their evaluations of proposed brand extensions,” he said.

Or to put it another way, if Ford brings out a new electric car, customers will first see it and judge it as a Ford. Whether they call that new car Pioneer to fit with the rest of the company’s line, or Bianca to suggest a new kind of path for the company, the brand name will still interact with the effect of previous names.

All of which suggests that naming a brand a brand is horribly complicated and doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Names for new models can simply extend the series of older models. They can be masculine or feminine, and while buyers appear to generally prefer feminine names, that doesn’t apply across all products. And whatever the impression that the name you give a new product will create will be influenced by other names associated with the same brand.

It’s no surprise then that branding agencies attempt to simplify the process with steps that can guide a brand to an effective name. Tungsten Branding, for example, recommends that companies first determine their brand’s “true purpose” then select its criteria, the key benefits it delivers to customers, then generate name options using choices that might be metaphorical, invented, disruptive or descriptive of either benefits or aspiration.

Having prepared a list of options, add a tagline, narrow down the options, and start testing the final choices with audiences. It’s not a short process or an easy one, and if you decide to opt for a branding company, it’s unlikely to be a cheap one. But few companies are as lucky in their brand name as Prince—and fewer go out of their way to create a name that no one can pronounce.

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