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Mercury Radio Research

February 13, 2004

What's In a Name?

An interview with Jay Jurisich, Creative Director of Igor International

Igor International is one of the world's foremost naming and branding agencies. Mercury Radio Research recently interviewed Igor's creative director, Jay Jurisich, about Radio and the Name Game. Here is the full text of that interview:

1. Your firm specializes in naming products, services, and companies. How would you assess the names you see applied to radio stations?

Most radio station names either play-off the call letters or have some experiential aspiration, such as "POWER 106," "LIVE 105" or "HOT97." Some achieve a unity of call letters and evocative name -- KFOG in San Francisco, for instance, invoking the city's most noteworthy climatological feature as well as a stoned rock concert state of mind.

Many radio station names are basically mnemonic devices for remembering the call letters -- stations like KROQ in Los Angeles ("K-Rock") or New York's WHTZ ("W-Hits") -- and some even manage to turn the mnemonic into a brand, as did San Francisco's KLLC, known as "Alice," a name that goes beyond the call letters to effectively evoke its "chick rock" brand identity as well as referencing Lewis Carroll's famous Alice (their in-studio webcam is called the "Looking Glass") and the lyrics of "White Rabbit" by Jefferson Airplane ("Go ask Alice...").

A growing trend, I think, is that more and more radio stations are beginning to realize that there's no law requiring them to be named after their call letters, so you get stations like San Francisco's KSAN calling themselves "The Bone," a name related more to their hard classic rock format and brand identity than their call letters (which, typically, just relate to the local area). When a station has an evocative name, it has more than just call letters or a handy way to remember the call letters -- it has a brand. And since radio is now such a competitive big media business, brands are more important than ever. So The Bone's listeners are called "Boneheads" and KFOG's are called "Fogheads," and all kinds of promotion is done playing-off the names.

However, even a name like "The Bone" is being copied: once by a station in Texas with the exact same format, logo and positioning, which, because it's owned by the same parent company (Susquehanna Radio Corp), is understandable; less so are the two other classic rock format stations calling themselves "The Bone," one in North Carolina and one in New York, with different but very similar logos. Perhaps they've all worked-out some sort of an agreement regarding trademark, but purely from a branding perspective so many stations with the same name and very similar positioning demonstrates that the brand is not very unique. But since broadcast radio is still by and large a regional business, such cloning is not as egregious a brand faux pas as it would be in other industries. Not yet, anyway.

2. What are the most important things a radio station should be mindful of in naming itself? How do you distinguish between "good" and "bad" names?

A powerful brand draws consumers to it like moths to flame. Apple could enter the radio market with an "Apple Radio" product and immediately generate a lot of buzz; in effect they've already done this with iTunes and AppleMusic.com for the MP3 market. Virgin is already in the radio business, but over the Internet rather than on FM. Their UK channel is called "Virgin Radio" and their US channel is called "RadioFreeVirgin" As with most things Virgin, they have done an excellent job of branding, and break many of the usual taboos, including that of the single, brand-reinforcing tagline -- RadioFreeVirgin serves-up a new tagline every time you load a page, including such unconventional tags as "Sometimes I can't feel my feet;" "Never tested on animals;" and "Listen at your own risk." Virgin consistently does the unexpected in every market they enter, backs up their marketing efforts with real actions that benefit consumers, and in the process generates fierce customer loyalty.

Of course, the fact that both Apple and Virgin have well-established brands with a high cool factor gives them a big advantage when they enter new markets; but remember, they were once small companies. The important thing is to think beyond the boundaries of the current market sector to create a brand that consumers can form emotional attachments to, and to begin life with a name that can be just as powerful ten or twenty years down the road, no matter what path your business follows. That's what all great names do, no matter the industry.

A bad name in radio, as in any industry, is a name with no soul, that the consumer can't get emotionally attached to, and therefore will not remember. You want a name that will make people pause, even for just for a few seconds, scratch their heads and think, "what's going on here?" When that happens, they're engaged, and once you've achieved engagement the listener is ready to give you a chance. That's all you really need the name to do for you -- beyond that, you have to backup your name and messaging with meaningful actions, you have to demonstrate why you are different and why consumers should care about you at every opportunity; this is what is meant by "branding." So while your name can get you noticed, and even remembered, it's your brand is what will make people want to remember you and come back to you; the prerequisite, however, will always be a name that is capable of becoming a strong brand.

3. Most radio stations copy their names from like-formatted stations in other markets. There are scores of "Star" and "Kiss" and "Lite" and "Mix." Is this good or bad?

As I've said above, you need to differentiate yourself from your competitors, otherwise you'll be lost in the crowd. So in the radio space, I'd avoid all those "Star," "Kiss" and "Hits" words, they're just deadly. Then again, for those stations that are selling a homogenized, least-common-dominator type of "light urban contemporary easy listening" music, perhaps a watered-down, generic name is appropriate. Maybe that appeals to their audience, just as "The Bone" appeals to the classic rock crowd of any given city.

4. Why is a radio station's name so important, anyway? Can a great product overcome a mediocre name?

In theory yes, but the full answer is that a great, successful product always could have been even more successful if it had a great name rather than a mediocre name. Again, it goes back to the branding, which is intimately related to a company or product's messaging at every point of contact. If the business proposition is that a given new company or product (or radio station) is "revolutionary," "totally unique" or "unprecedented" (which these days nearly everything claims to be), but it has a boring name that is just like all its competitors, then it is undermining its core values. Consumers will pick up on such brand disjunctions, consciously or unconsciously, and it will become a barrier between them and complete emotional engagement with the brand.

A great example of this playing-out right now is the success of Southwest Airlines vs. the success of JetBlue. Before JetBlue, Southwest was very successful with a generic name simply by beating the other airlines on price. Then JetBlue came along and matched Southwest's low fares. But that wasn't all it did. JetBlue made many smart branding decisions, beginning with its name, including adding amenities such as leather seats, each with its own TV screen, great service, and the counterintuitive masterstroke of actually taking away airline meals, which nobody likes anyway. Now JetBlue has a fanatically loyal following, and Southwest, which never created true brand loyalty among its customers, is losing them in droves to JetBlue, while discount newcomers like Song and Ted are forced to imitate and play catch-up.

Radio, however, is a bit of a special case because there is a small, finite number of stations competing in a given market, so a great brand name is of less importance, at least for the moment, than in most other industries. But "for the moment" is the important qualifier here, because things are changing so quickly with technology such as webcasting, MP3s and satellite radio, that in five or ten years we may have an entirely different definition of "radio," and a strong brand may be crucial. So I think it's best to err on the side of caution, and create a memorable brand even if you think, today, that you don't need one to compete. Chances are great that soon, you will. Just ask Southwest Airlines.

5. Naming aside, if you owned a radio station in the Bay area, how would you approach its branding (I know this depends on the format, but I'm curious about your approach in general)?

If it were my station, regardless of market or format, I would burn the template that all other commercial stations follow, since I don't understand the point of being a "me-too" company in any industry. Beginning with the name, which would be different, evocative an memorable, down to every last detail of the brand: the music (much more eclectic), the playlists (extensive), the djs (intelligent, not annoying, and minimally intrusive), and the advertising (as little as possible). Obviously, you can tell I'm more of a public radio listener, and if I owned a commercial radio station I'd probably go bankrupt in a year. But I'd at least try to do things differently, as much as possible, and strive to capture the listener's imagination, create the conditions for solid brand loyalty, and figure out other ways to generate revenue from this committed audience besides continuously assaulting them with obnoxious djs, station promos and commercials.

"You may say I'm a dreamer / but I'm not the only one." As I said above, change is in the air, so my idealist vision may not be too far off. For instance, if a radio equivalent of TiVo were to come out, for home and auto, and listeners could easily skip all commercials and perhaps even dj chatter, well, that would spell the end of commercial radio as it exists today, I should think. And it really doesn't seem to be a question of "if," but of "when." Radio will probably move to a subscription model: listeners will subscribe to a service, as they do now with cable, satellite radio, or TiVo, which will give them access to a wide variety of stations with many different formats and little or no commercial interruption. When this happens, the naming/branding of individual stations (formats) will likely become less important -- they'll just be descriptively named to identify the format -- while the naming/branding of the radio access providers will become extremely important, because competition among those players will be fierce.

Congress and the FCC will most likely determine how the structure will evolve, and whether radio as a medium remains in the hands of a few large corporations like Clear Channel and the satellite operators, or if it's opened-up to companies of every size broadcasting over the Internet that listeners can receive with high-bandwidth wireless IP receivers in their cars. What's clear is that as users taste the freedom to control their media, through the Internet or services like TiVo, they are increasingly unwilling to go back to the old way. It's what obnoxious brand consultants call a "paradigm shift," but you didn't hear that from me. Stay tuned.

6. If a radio station hired your company, what could you do for them?

As with a company or product naming project in any other industry, we would first do a thorough analysis of the names and messaging of all the competition to find out what's been done, what's been done to death, what areas are ripe for exploring, and the edge that everyone else is afraid to cross. We would probably advise against being restricted by call letters, or playing-off the type of music being played ("EZ 103" or "Lite 99" for easy listening, "KMTL" or "Power 104" for heavy metal, etc.). The goal would be to differentiate the station from the pack and create a brand that is bigger than the goods and services being offered -- in this case broadcast radio and all related spin-offs.

We would get involved with the station to learn everything we could about its culture, format, history, listeners, disc jockeys, revenue, advertising, record-company alliances, partners, concert promotions, etc, to fully understand where they are coming from and where they need to go. We would begin developing the new brand positioning and new name options simultaneously -- for us, the naming and the positioning go hand-in-hand, and each informs the development of the other. As we narrow the field of name candidates, we would present them to the client with contextual graphic support -- ads, websites, audio clips, etc -- to give them a life, to make them real, rather than just lists of names on a white page or screen. Obviously, with radio, the phonetic component of a name is more important than in most other areas, so we'd probably test a number of different audio treatments of potential names.

Usually, when we find the right name for a new brand, it quickly becomes the perfect name, and all others fade away. The chosen name will be the final piece of a complex puzzle that is a brand -- the brand positioning will dictate the kinds of names that will work, and the final name will reinforce the brand positioning. All of these steps are discussed in much greater detail in the Process section of our website. We also have a printable version of our process available as well.

Beyond naming, we help clients optimize their websites for search engines, which is really more of a messaging task than a technical task. We also write copy, design promotional activities, and effectively use the Internet to conduct grassroots viral marketing campaigns to spread the word about a company or product, as we recently did for BBC America's Golden Globe winning comedy show, "The Office".

Further reading:

Fast Company – The Brand Called... Who? next