What’s in a Name?

An interesting thing happened when Apple introduced its newest iPhone last week: it stumbled on an issue of pure communications. 

This from the company that others look up to for setting the bar for such issues.

The stumble was over the naming of the “killer” software feature, called Siri, incorporated with the new phone.  

It turns out that the word “siri” is very similar to “shiri” which is the Japanese word for “buttocks” and its associated synonymns.

On one hand, Apple can be excused because the product already went by Siri, as named by its creator, SRI , the well-regarded international R&D firm. On the other hand, letting a product naming Snafu get by them like that seems pretty remarkable for such an image-conscious company as Apple.

But naming is difficult and nearly always overlooked for the time, complexity, and cost associated with acquiring a great name.  I got my first exposure to the naming process nearly 20 years ago, when I was at a company that had a penchant for creating new products and services.

We had just kicked of the process of seriously considering the commercialization of a framework the company had developed.  I was on point for figuring out the key communications issues. 

Pretty quickly, a particular firm’s name popped up multiple times as the authority for naming: NameLab, Inc. you’ll recognize some of their clients.  From conversations with them, here are some of the things, I learned: 

#1: Never forget: EVERYTHING Communicates!

Naming is a key ingredient of the communications strategy, which frames the overall positioning of a company or product.

The goal of positioning is to create a space inside a target customer’s head called “best buy for this type of situation” and to attain sole, undisputed occupancy of that space.

Positioning is one of the most discussed and least well understood components of marketing.  There are 4 key principles:

  1. Positioning, first and foremost, is a noun not a verb. That is, it is best understood as an attribute associated with a company or a product, not as the marketing contortions that people go through to set up the association.
  2. Positioning is the single largest influence on the buying decision. It serves as a kind of buyer’s shorthand, shaping not only their final choice but even the way they evaluate alternatives leading up to the choice
  3. Positioning exists in people’s heads, not in your words. If you want to talk intelligently about positioning, you must frame a position in words that are likely to actually exist in other people’s heads, and not in words that come straight out of hot advertising copy.
  4. People are highly conservative about entertaining changes in positioning. In other words, people do not like you messing with the stuff that is inside their heads. In general, the most effective positioning strategies are the ones that demand the least amount of change.

There are 4 fundamental stages to developing a positioning:

  1. Name it and frame it. Potential customers cannot buy what they cannot name, nor can they seek out the product unless they know what category to look under.
  2. Who for and what for. Customers will not buy something until they know who is going to use it and for what purpose.
  3. Competition and differentiation. Customers cannot know what to expect or what to pay for a product until they can place it in some sort of comparative context.
  4. Financials and futures. Customers cannot be completely secure in buying a product until they know it comes from a vendor with staying power.

The name should be an integral reinforcer of the product concept, not a casual afterthought. Among the desirable qualities for a brand name are the following:

  • It should suggestsomething about the product’s benefits. Examples: Coldspot, Beautyrest, Craftsman, Accutron
  • It should suggest product qualities, such as action or color. Examples: Duz, Sunkist, Spic and Span, Firebird
  • It should be easy to pronounce, recognize, and remember. Short names help. Examples: Tide, Crest, Puffs
  • It should be distinctive. Examples: Mustang, Kodak, Exxon

Some name tests to assist in getting to the right name:

  • Association (What comes to mind?)
  • Learning (How easily is the name pronounced?)
  • Memory (How well is the name remembered?)
  • Preference (Which names are preferred?)

Summary of process:

  1. Create ranked list of key messages
  2. Create a continuum of value (like cosmetic-to-antiseptic for hand soaps or safe-to-potent for analgesics)
  3. Establish milestone products/services (Dove-Ivory-Zest or Bufferin-Anacin-Excedrin) that are existing brands
  4. Assess legitimacy (an effective brand name must be perceived to be “a soap” or “an analgesic” without argument)
  5. Consider eliminating dilutive words, morphemes (like “net”, or “inter”)
  6. Test functionality, legality and check availability

That’s all there is to it!

By the way: My company never actually engaged NameLab.  We did it on our own.

I have no doubt NameLab’s services are worth every penny for those that can afford them; my company couldn’t at the time.  But, I was grateful for the time they spent with me, years ago, and to this day I highly recommend their blog.