Developing an enduring identity is critical for any brand – and a large part of a brand's identity lies in the associations that come from its name. However, naming a new product or service has never been more challenging.
It’s not necessarily for lack of inspiration or creativity – but for finding a name that you can own. One that does not already exist or would be subject to trademark infringements. And then, of course, a name that transcends negative historical meanings, global misinterpretations or negative associations that go well beyond the dictionary definition.
However, when you get it right, its power to influence its position globally and connect with your audience is priceless. Airbnb, Netflix, Glossier, Innocent and Tesla are great examples of brand names that not only defined their unique offer but inspired a brand culture and identity.
But let’s ponder some famous brands that might have never seen fame – because of a poorly considered name. Can you imagine Backrubbing instead of Googling? Backrub being Google’s initial name.
And would Backrubbing be embraced as the verb we now use daily, hourly? Or how about popping on a pair of Dimension Six?
Nah, I’ll stick with my Nikes, thanks. Fancy a healthy swig of Fast Tractor?
Yuck. Innocent smoothie makes for a much more pleasant mouthful. And there are established brands that have had to alter their meaning over time. Weight Watchers became an unwelcomed reminder of an outdated and damaging mindset until it renamed itself to WW to reflect the importance of Wellness, not weight.
For many famous brands, naming probably just happened – without much deep thinking attached. Their founders inspired their brand names; Guinness, Cadbury, Coors, or their place of origin; Canada Dry, Air New Zealand, British Gas or complete arbitrary beginnings that just felt right. Steve Job’s visit to an apple orchard inspired Apple – later post rationalised with a techy association in the apple 'byte' mnemonic. An infamous character in the story of Moby Dick gave Starbucks its moniker. Its relevance to the product? According to Starbucks, the name evokes the romance of the high seas and the seafaring tradition of the early coffee traders. Nice. Abstract. But nice.
Regardless of the origins of these long-standing brand names, their recognition and legacy are invaluable, even if we’ve long forgotten the original associations or meaning. The challenge for many legacy brands’ is capitalising on their brand’s equity and meaning as the business expands or evolves, which can help expedite recognition and trust in new categories with new consumers. The road to success lies in relevance vs ownership. And the key questions to ask are: Can this brand permissibly operate in this space? Is this proprietary to us? Does it elevate us?
A good, bad example is Colgate. Long associated with oral hygiene, Colgate launched into healthy ready meals with Colgate Kitchen Entrees in the ’80s. And whilst there is a ‘healthy’ red thread, it’s a brand known solely for its minty fresh oral hygiene. Not food. Ever. Does Colgate have permission to play in healthy meals? No. Is the idea of healthy meals ownable to Colgate? No. Does it elevate the Colgate brand? No. And Harley Davidson’s foray into pink pillows (among other travesties) demonstrates a brand seeking to source more revenue but sacrificing its purpose and misunderstanding its core audience in the process.
What is crucial is that the parameters, the guardrails, of a brand are defined to keep them on the right track. A robust strategy and well-defined portfolio architecture is essential. These determine the role of the parent brand across its subsidiaries – when it should take centre stage and when it should remain the subsidiary brand's silent partner.
A business that does this exceptionally well is Mars. It’s the name of the parent company brand and a delicious chocolate bar brand. Yet, financially its most successful brand, Pedigree, is nutrition for dogs – a long way from its confectionary origins – an excellent job since chocolate is poisonous for dogs.
Equally, and in summary, one of the world’s most successful electronic companies, Samsung, was first known for producing noodles. Even today, the breadth of its subsidiaries include an amusement park and luxury hotels. Still, the Samsung name has never stretched into these disparate spaces. Their amusement park brand is Everland. Their hotels brand is Shilla. No doubt they are both powered by Samsung products, yet they can express themselves in a way that avoids confusion. No misunderstanding. No dilution of equity.