The New Science of Naming
Forget made-up words and quirky nonsense. When choosing an identity for a company or a product, simple and straightforward are back in style.
It took a half-day brainstorm session, followed by six weeks of conference calls, to work through the list of names. The client, a financial software startup called Aucent, was in the market for a name change. Founder Mike Rohan had coined the name Aucent in 2002, but two years later Rohan was still CEO and his company's name had become a problem.
For one thing, the word had no intuitive meaning. And it was hard to spell. Plus, the pronunciation was difficult: Awkent? Ossent? Auchent?
The confusion meant that clients were unlikely to pass the name on to colleagues or track it down online. So Rohan hired a San Francisco naming firm, Igor International, to come up with something better. Eventually, it appeared -- a simple name that expressed exactly what the company wanted to be, in just five letters: Rivet.
Someone at Igor pointed out that the word is easy to remember. Another said it's reminiscent of the sound a frog makes: Ribbet! Never mind that financial software has nothing to do with amphibious reptiles -- the new name was greeted with enthusiasm. "It's a real word with multiple meanings and associations, from Rosie the Riveter forward," explains Igor managing director Steve Manning. The client liked it too. "You talk about a website being sticky -- we wanted our name to be sticky," says Rob Blake, Rivet Software's VP for product marketing.
But the issue of stickiness turns out to be kind of, well, sticky. Every company wants a name that stands out from the crowd, a catchy handle that will remain fresh and memorable over time. Yet such names are hard to find, especially because naming trends change -- often decade by decade. While the giddy 1990s were all about quirky names (Yahoo, Google, Fogdog) or trademark-proof monikers concocted from scratch (Novartis, Aventis, Lycos), tastes have shifted amid the uncertainties of the new millennium.
Today's style is to build corporate identity around words that have real meaning. Aucent's transition to Rivet is a typical effort to eliminate the obfuscation of the Internet era; the preference now is to name things in the spirit of what they actually are. The new names are all about purity, clarity, and organicism. Rivet helps companies tag financial data, for example, so the name functions as an effective metaphor for what the firm actually does. Similarly, Silk (soy milk), Method (home products), Blackboard (school software), and Smartwater (beverages) are new names that are simple and make intuitive sense.
"There's a trend toward meaning in words. When it comes down to evocative words vs. straightforward names, straightforward will win in testing every time," says Jeff Lapatine, group director of naming and brand architecture at New York branding firm Siegel & Gale. That hardly comes as a surprise, of course. But why has it taken so long for this idea to catch on?
Throwing Out the Empty Vase
In part, the ascendancy of meaningless names during the 1990s can be traced to a spike in trademark applications filed at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Trademarks are granted by the government to establish legal ownership of a name or logo. The same name may be registered as a trademark for more than one company, product, or service, so long as the products or services don't overlap. That's why, for example, Sonata has been trademarked by Hyundai as a name for a passenger car and by King Pharmaceuticals as a name for a sleeping pill.
As the pool of registered trademarks has grown, so has the challenge associated with finding an available name. In 1985, 64,677 applications were filed. Ten years later that number had almost tripled, before peaking at 375,428 in 2000. In that context, choosing a whimsical or made-up name was a simple way to sidestep the crowd.
There was a method to this madness, which branding guru David Aaker calls the empty-vase or blank-canvas approach: By owning a new and different word, a company can supply whatever associations it chooses and expand into any business it wants. On occasion, that flexibility comes in handy; it explains why a French water company called Générale des Eaux became Vivendi before expanding into music and television (much to the eventual dismay of its shareholders). But the problem with all these meaningless names became clear as the number of companies adopting them grew. As more and more Accentures and Covisints dotted the landscape, it became harder for consumers to keep track of the differences between them.
Change came after the economic boom went bust. The number of trademark applications declined, leveling off at 267,218 in 2003. Coming up with names unique enough to warrant trademark protection is still difficult, but as the landgrab mentality has subsided, so has the pressure to come up with something -- anything -- that a company can call its own.
The namers at Igor International, the firm that concocted Rivet, have become known for their almost militant embrace of real words over fake ones -- in recent months they've created names like Vanilla (an accounting firm) and Tickle (a social networking website). Tickle was previously called Emode, a change that reflects the fact that some Internet-era companies are not only dropping the ".com" from their names but changing identities completely to adapt to the slower business environment of the postbubble era.
There's nothing particularly novel about embracing natural-sounding words, of course. Apple Computer did it when it launched in 1976, as did Simple Shoes in 1991. So where did JetBlue come from?
I'm Egg -- Fly Me
Traditionally, airlines have borne names that either refer to the carrier's geographic roots (American, Northwest, Southwest, etc.) or evoke the idea of global reach (United, or the erstwhile Pan American and Trans World Airlines). But as a new airline with plans to offer budget travelers a stylish and unique way to fly, JetBlue decided to take a different approach. "We didn't want to jump on the made-up-word bandwagon," recalls Gareth Edmondson-Jones, JetBlue's VP for corporate communications. "We wanted to use a real word, but we didn't want it to sound like an airline."
Working first with New York ad agency Merkley & Partners and then with the San Francisco office of branding consultancy Landor Associates, the airline came up with early naming candidates such as Fresh Air, Taxi, Egg, and It. But the name Blue -- with its simple evocation of clear skies and serenity -- emerged a finalist. After trademark lawyers pointed out that it would be impossible to protect the name Blue without a distinctive qualifier, TrueBlue emerged. But that name was already held by a car-rental agency. Eventually, JetBlue was born.
The name worked, and when JetBlue inaugurated service in 2000, so did the business model. The new airline's success spawned a naming trend among other discount carriers, including Delta's Song and United's Ted.
Song and Ted? Simple and easy to remember. But what do those words have to do with the airline industry? Nothing -- and that's partly the point. "It's effective to use ordinary words out of context," says Laura Ries, coauthor of The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding. It also works to use names "that are suggestive of the category. These are names like Blockbuster, Curves, Amazon, Palm, and Subway. Assuming the words are simple, your brand name will be easy to say, spell, and remember."
Likewise, instead of assuming a built-in need to educate people through traditional marketing, firms are also waking up to the idea that some organic names are fun to say -- and that makes them easier to spread by word of mouth. In an age where everything can be found by way of Google, simple names do double duty as easy-to-remember keywords.
That's what happened to Aliph, a startup that in September launched its first product -- a device built from military-grade technology that allows people talking on cell phones to be heard over background noise. No one can remember Aliph, of course. But the product's name, Jawbone, refers to both the idiomatic expression for talking and the fact that the device works by actually monitoring jawbone and cheek vibrations. "We knew we would have to be different in every way -- from the design of the device to our name," says Didier Diaz, Aliph VP for product development.
The name turned out to be a handy way for customers to find the product. Aliph was able to buy the jawbone.com domain, and now when people type "jawbone" -- a common noun -- into Google, the company's site comes up second in the results. Indeed, the search engine might be the best indicator of how sticky a name really is -- the test that shows whether a name is truly memorable. By that measure alone, Rivet has to beat Aucent by a landslide.