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What’s In A Name? A Lot, It Turns Out

Back in August, I wrote a post on the re-branding of Washington Mutual as WaMu. I didn’t like the way the new name sounded and still don’t. More recently, there has been a blast of ads from the pharmaceutical industry for new medications whose names sound just awful. And last week, Ad Age columnist Jonah Bloom wrote an interesting and I think on-target column about efforts at naming products and companies.

Lately, naming has stunk. No more are we hearing graceful, even beautiful sounding brand names like Omnicom, Aeron or Zithromax. Today it’s Google (and a slew of “oo” imitators), Aflac or Byetta (it’s a drug even though it sounds more like a small town in the deep south).

According to Dean Crutchfield of London branding agency Wolff-Olins, it’s important to name carefully. Says Crutchfield, “The best names communicate who, what, why or an attitude. They’re critical, a cornerstone of a brand.” He goes on to say that finding just the right name is more difficult than ever and because people don’t want to pay much or have the process take too long. Fees of $2 million used to be common for naming, which gives us an idea of the importance with which it was viewed.

A bad name for a company or product can derail its chances for success. One that comes to mind is Orudis, an over-the-counter version of a prescription pain medication. When I first heard the name, I told the powers-that-be that it was a bad choice for a name and would hurt the launch. Despite proven efficacy, tons of money and some very good advertising, it never became the hoped for competitor with market leaders Tylenol, Advil and Aleve – good names all. In fact, this was a case where the generic pharmaceutical name, ketaprofen, was actually better than the brand name.

According to the NameLab, a San Francisco name development firm, a name should have the qualities Dean Crutchfield mentioned above and also be linguistically and phonetically transparent, which means spoken-as-spelled and easily pronounced. To me, that translates as appealing, attractive and gets the synapses firing. It should roll off the tongue. People should like saying it.

I know I’m going to get pounded again by comments admonishing me to be open-minded about brands that sound too “kid-ish” and consider that we live in a “global village” so not to be glued to my U.S. English ear for sound. There is merit to these arguments, and such commentators should rest assured that I do come at this with an open mind, but as Arthur Hays Sulzberger (former publisher of New York Times) once said, not so open that my brains fall out.

Taking care to name your product or service well is not easy to do. No pain, no gain.

What names do you like or dislike and why?

Copyright 2007 Ruth Sherman.  All Rights Reserved.

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