Taxonomy of Airline Names

Before Virgin came along, all the airlines had the same kind of name: either Functional names that were descriptive of the region they fly over (Northwest, Southwest, American, etc.), or Experiential names that tried to speak to a higher aspiration (United, Vanguard). Along came Virgin into an industry without any strong, evocative brands, setting the bar higher than probably any other name in any industry. Now new airline names have begun to enter the fray in the space created between Virgin and the rest of the pack.

  • Virgin
  • JetBlue
  • Jazz
  • Ted
  • Aloha
  • Hooters
  • Olympic
  • Qantas*
  • Go
  • Zip
  • Frontier
  • Song
  • Alitalia
  • Vanguard
  • Tower Air
  • AeroMexico
  • Air France
  • Alaska
  • American
  • British Airways
  • Continental
  • Delta
  • Midway
  • Pan American
  • Trans World
  • United
  • America West
  • Eastern
  • Northwest
  • Southwest
  • U.S. Airways
  • World Airways
  • AirJet
  • EasyJet
  • Express Jet
  • ValueJet

* Qantas: Qantas is actually an acronym for "Queensland And Northern Territory Air Service." However, we're classifying the name as Invented rather than Functional because most people do not know what Qantas stands for, it is not written all in upper case as most acronyms are, it is longer than most acronyms, and indeed, it has been successfully branded as an entity in itself, not for what it may stand for, which in fact is never even mentioned.

Levels of Engagement: These eight levels (y-axis levels from minus 2 to plus 5) represent the amount of material (meaning, stories, associations, imagery, multiple layers) in a name the audience has to play with and personalize – and how "engaged" they are by a name. Names in the minus 2 level are the least engaging, and likely to be quickly forgotten; the higher the number the better, with level 5 being the best.

Functional Names: The lowest common denominator of names, usually either named after a person, purely descriptive of what the company or product does, or a pre- or suffixed reference to functionality. (Infoseek, LookSmart)

Invented Names: "Invented" as in a made-up name (Acquient, Agilent, Alliant, Google) or a non-English name that is not widely known.

Experiential Names: A direct connection to something real, a part of direct human experience. Usually literal in nature, but presented with a touch of imagination. (Netscape, Palm Pilot)

Evocative Names: These names are designed to evoke the positioning of a company or product rather than the goods and services or the experience of those goods and services. Removed from direct experience, but relevant – evoking memories, stories, and many levels of association. (Virgin, Apple, Cracker Jack)

We encourage you to print this out and move names around, and see if you think they should be classified differently. It's an exercise that will get you thinking about the names in your own industry. (Here is a blank taxonomy chart you can print out.)

The first thing we do at the beginning of any naming or branding project is to thoroughly analyze the names and messaging of the competition in your business sector, and plot those names on a taxonomy chart like this one. This document is very helpful for everyone involved in the naming project to see the competitive reality and understand what types of names are overused and where we have to go to separate from the pack.

Biotech / Pharmaceutical Name Taxonomy