what’s in a name?

British Airways in a proposed merger with Iberia is to list on the London Stock Exchange as International Airlines Group. Boring! When I communicate with power utility E.on, the name always gives pause for thought (am I writing it/saying it correctly? what does it mean?).  The two airline companies will continue to trade publicly under their existing well-established brands (volcanic ash permitting) and E.on is probably considered a ‘successful’ brand, but new brand names now seem to come in just two flavours: underwhelming or overwrought. When was the last time a big brand name was launched to anything other than universal derision?  What’s up with brand names?

Naming strategies have evolved from simple ownership (Campbell’s), to acronym (BBC), description (Slimfast) and evocation (Breeze).  Now ‘no-names’ like Muji (tr.:‘no-label’) and neologisms (or ‘stupid made up names’ as they are more commonly known) like Wii represent newer strategies that are a harder sell and demand a little more – sometimes too much – of the consumer.

So why is it harder to make a brand name work?  Some possible answers:

Resistance For a nation famous for creativity and tolerance of eccentricity, the UK has a strong tradition of resistance to change. The attempted Royal Mail renaming of 2001/2 was a recent high water mark.  Amid controversy over government intentions toward this poorly-performing institution, Dragon Brands proposed Consignia as the new name for the holding company.  As with BA’s ‘flags of many nations’ visual identity a few years earlier, an epic firestorm of public reaction caused Consignia’s ‘unlaunch’ within 15 months.  ‘Consignia’ was a logical proposal, but the Royal Mail brand had very deep roots in the national consciousness and many could not cope with the idea of it changing.  Even without such cultural baggage, resistance to change is a barrier to any re-naming exercise.

Availability Depending on how you define it, there are over a million words in the English language and new words/meanings appear constantly.  Enough raw material you might think, but (since the 1980s dotcom boom in particular) it would appear that the entire language is already owned and protected as actual/potential brand names for use in most territories of the globe.  This leads increasingly to linguistic experiments that without huge support would be doomed to failure.  Diageo, Accenture, Centrica, Corus, Elementis, MoreThan, Thus, Xansa… the list of forgettable names is a long one.  Registerable they may be but effectiveness is another matter…

Commitment One thing you must have to establish a new brand name is unwavering management commitment, most of all at launch (weak management resolve was a contributing factor in the failure of Consignia).  A decade or two back I was involved in the creation of a new name for a European media company.  After agreement on Aegis, there was consternation when it was discovered that a Dutch condom manufacturer also traded under that name (the word implies ‘protection’ as well as a suggestion of ‘leadership’).  Fevered speculation as to possible media headlines if the company underperformed ensued…  Fortunately management fortitude prevailed.  Aegis plc recently posted an interim profit of £114m.

Legal Cost A relaxing of copyright law in the late 1980s made designs, inventions and brand names more protectable.  This led to an expansion of specialist law firms dealing with this expanded niche and a significant rise in the cost of protecting a brand.  Even for small to medium sized businesses, this is costly.  Protecting the name of my own consultancy Alembic was a significant cost despite being limited to relatively narrow territory and only the most relevant classes of business.  For global consumer brands, the cost of legal registration and complete protection can be very substantial.

All names begin life virtually meaningless (OK, some more than others).  Reinforced by consistent visual expression and legal protection, a name representing a product/service with positive attributes will become credible if everyone holds their nerve (we’re all tired of the Wii jokes by now).  Sooner or later consumer experience of the product forms an indelible link with the name until it is the product/service (who thinks of the beach at a Shell filling station?) – but the more relevant and memorable the name the quicker and easier that process is.

Globally registerable descriptive/meaningful names are in very short supply, so ‘wacky’ brand names are increasingly the only viable solution. These are likely to require greater investment in PR, advertising, marketing – and design.  Despite Ms. Capulet’s assertion that ‘a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’ there is plenty in a name, and an increasing amount of effort is now be required to make it ‘stick’…

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