Business Week

January 6, 2004


The Game of the Name

Not only is the process of christening a new product a lot trickier than it sounds, the most obvious candidates can be the most perilous

Let's just say that you have come with a product so revolutionary that it seems a short-odds bet to set the world on fire, but there's a problem: What to call it? As any parent knows, picking the right name can be a very tricky business indeed -- and the potential pitfalls become even more of an issue when your business, livelihood, and financial security may well depend on making just the right choice.

At this point, since you need to give your brainchild every chance of success, it might seem like a grand idea to conduct focus-group testing. If the reaction is favorable, then you will know you have a winner. If not, then it's back to the drawing board for another brainstorming session.

BIG BOYS' WISDOM. All very safe and one-step-at-a-time logical. Right? Not at all -- in fact the approach detailed above couldn't be more wrong, as Corporate America knows all too well. Most major companies won't formally test their business or product names, experts say, and for compelling reasons.

For starters, if they start testing a name in public, they telegraph their moves to competitors and reduce the element of surprise that would otherwise help their latest offerings make a bigger splash. Another problem is that testing names by subjecting them to an opinion survey can sometimes be the most effective way of ensuring that the best and most catchy ones never see the light of day.

"Here is the type of feedback you could have expected had some powerful names run such a gauntlet," says Steve Manning, managing director of Igor, a San Francisco naming-and-branding consultancy. "'Virgin Airlines' says 'we're new at this' and the public wants airlines to be experienced, safe, and professional. 'Caterpillar' is a tiny, creepy-crawly bug that's not macho and easy to squash. 'Banana Republic' is a derogatory cultural slur that could draw protests from small, hot countries. And who would take stock quotes and world news seriously from the bunch at 'Yahoo!'"

EXPENSIVE ERRORS. Many well-known and very successful names would not have survived focus-group testing, Manning says, because, viewed in isolation, they yield more negative connotations than positive ones. Yet they work fine in the real world. Why? "A target audience never engages in this type of literal deconstruction, only focus groups do," he explains. "When a name is rolled out, the public's perceptions are based on the entire experience of the brand. Consumers don't separate the name from its context."

Even with a brand or product name that could convey a negative spin, the worth and value of the actual product can often overcome the apparent negatives and, ironically, bless the name with a sense of depth and an aura of intrigue. If the name is presented as a consistent part of a well-positioned brand experience, Manning says, the target audience will accept it in the way it was intended. Another problem with testing a name, especially for startups and new products, is that test audiences typically prefer familiar names. But if a product or business name is familiar, the name is not likely to get trademark clearance, says Athol Foden, the owner of Brighter Naming in Mountain View, Calif. "You really should have a professional who knows about linguistic, legal, and international issues scrub the names for you, rather than leaving such a big decision up to a focus group," Foden urges. "A name is very important. If you make the wrong choice it can be very costly, whereas a small company can hire a professional naming agency for as little as $5,000."

ADS AND MINUSES. That sum may sound like a lot, he adds, but the costs involved in changing an unpopular name can be astronomical -- and that's before all the lost revenue as salespeople drop other, more productive matters to concentrate on explaining the switch to customers, whose understandable confusion may well make them wary of issuing purchase orders.

Still, for those entrepreneurs determined to get focus-group feedback on your name choices, Name One! partners Lee Ballard and Lauren Teton suggest contacting a local chapter of the Sierra Club or Public Interest Research Group with a view to circulating a simple questionnaire to members at a meeting or online, or simply asking for informal responses.

At a focus group, you could come out with useful information if you go in with the equivalent of a print ad, Web site design, or product package, Manning says. "If it's a print ad, have five of them that are largely identical, except that the graphics or illustrations or taglines are different. Ask people, 'Which photograph works best?' or 'Which tagline do you like?' Don't ask about the name. Take note if anyone volunteers an opinion on the name. If they don't, that will tell you just as much as if they did."

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