What’s in a (Brand) Name?
A brand identifies a company, product, or service as distinct from the competition. The brand is comprised of all the things that create this identity. A brand’s name is an essential part of the package. A brand name may be a product name (like Windows or Gmail), or it may be the name under which the entire organization operates (like Microsoft or Google). Because the name is so central to identity, naming a brand is an integral part of creating the brand’s reputation, development, and future success.
To some extent, a brand name amounts to whatever an organization makes of it: this is the genius of brand building and marketing strategy. Unlikely names have, on occasion, become powerhouse brands, and well-named brands have fizzled out. Naming is important because an ill-conceived or poorly chosen name can torpedo an organization’s chances. At the same time, a great name alone isn’t enough to guarantee success.
Naming a Brand
Selecting a brand name is one of the most important product decisions a seller makes. A brand name reflects the overall product image, positioning, and, ideally, its benefits. A successful brand name can enable a product to be meaningfully advertised and distinguished from competitors; tracked down by consumers; and given legal protection. At its best, a brand can provide a carryover effect when customers are able to associate quality products with an established brand name. Attention to naming also helps customers associate products within the same brand family. For example, Apple names its mobile products with a lowercase i—for example, iPad, iPod, iPhone. Starbucks names its coffee sizes in Italian.
Remember that legally protectable brand names are mandatory if an organization plans to produce mass advertising for their product or service. Once an organization starts using a new brand name, it may encounter other organizations’ claim to own the rights to that name and threaten legal action. To avoid the risks and potential expense associated with legal challenges to a brand name, it is important to use a thorough, systematic process for selecting a brand name.
Selecting a Naming Strategy
Before you start brainstorming new brand names and registering domain names, the company should evaluate which naming/branding policy to pursue for the new offering and choose one the following three viable options. This process helps determine whether you even need a new brand name.
- Strategy 1: Own Brand. A strict branding policy under which a company only produces products and services using its own brand. In this scenario, you need a new brand name.
- Strategy 2: Private-Label Brand. An exclusive distributor’s brand policy in which a producer does not have a brand of his own but agrees to sell his products only to a particular distributor and carry that distributor’s brand name (typically employed by private brands). In this scenario, the new offering will carry the distributor’s brand name, so you don’t need to create your own new brand.
- Strategy 3: Mixed Brand. A mixed-brand policy allows both own-branded and private-label versions of the offering. In this scenario, you need a new brand name for the own-branded product, and the distributor’s version of the product will carry the distributor’s brand name.
Steps to Develop a New Brand Name
Once you have confirmed that you need a new brand name, you should follow a systematic approach to developing and selecting one, as described below:
- Define what you’re naming. Define the personality and distinctive attributes of the company or product to be named.
- Check the landscape. Scan the competitive landscape to identify brand names already active in the category, in order to avoid selecting a name that would easily be confused with competitors.
- Brainstorm ideas. Engage a naming team to brainstorm ideas and generate potential brand names. Due to the challenges of identifying a unique, protectable name in today’s global market, the naming team should include some members with prior naming experience. Often companies hire specialty naming firms to add creative power and expertise to the process. The team should generate lots of ideas, knowing that the vast majority will fall out during the screening process.
- Screen and knock out problematic names. Screen favorite names to make sure they are available to use perceptually (no mind-share conflicts with other known brands), legally (no trademark conflicts) and linguistically (no problems in translation).
- Perceptual screening: Start the screening process with thorough Google searches on the names being considered in order to eliminate any that could easily be confused with established players in your product or service category, or a related category. If an established brand name is similar in terms of phonetics (sound), spelling, root word, or meaning, there is probably a conflict. Check with a trademark attorney if you have questions.
- Legal screening: The next screening process is to evaluate potential conflicts with registered trademarks that exist in the product or service categories in question. Each country has its own trademark registry, so this search must be performed in each country where you expect to do business using this brand name. While anyone can attempt this process, due to the legal complexities of global trademark law, it’s advisable to engage an experienced trademark attorney to review the names, conduct an authoritative search, and provide legal clearance for the short list of final names. To learn more about this process, check out the freely available U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) Trademark Electronic Search Service (TESS) trademark search tools.
- Linguistic screening: If you plan to use the brand name in different countries and languages, a linguistic screening is a must. Use a naming firm or a linguistic screening firm to screen your final, short-listed name candidates with native speakers from the countries where you plan to operate. The linguistic screening can help you avoid blunders like GM rushing to rename the Buick LaCrosse sedan in Canada when it learned that the word crosse means either rip-off or masturbation in Quebec French, depending on the context.
- Check domain name and social media availability. If you want to operate a Web site or social media using your new brand name, you will need an Internet domain name for your Web site, as well as social media accounts. As you are refining your short list of cleared names, check on the availability of domain names and social media handles. If you’re lucky, a clear .com domain will be available to reserve or purchase at a reasonable price, and a clear Twitter name will also be available. Here are some tips for navigating this process:
- Use a reputable registry to check availability. When you’re checking on domain-name availability, don’t just google domain names at random. Instead, use a reputable domain-name registry like Godaddy.com or Register.com. When you use Google or other standard search engines, Internet bots track this activity to detect interest in unregistered domain names. Unscrupulous Internet profiteers buy up these domains and then offer them for resale at a significant markup. When you decide to reserve your domain names, be sure to use reputable registries in all the countries where you plan to operate.
- Look at variations of your chosen name(s). Consider reserving domain-name variations of your chosen brand name(s), either because the original names you want are not available, or because you may want to control close variations to avoid letting them fall into the hands of competitors or Internet profiteers. For example, if your chosen brand name is “Chumber,” you may find that chumber.com has been taken, but chumber.net, chumber.org, and chumbercompany.com are all available. Although you don’t need all of these, you might choose to register them so that no one else can “own” the names and make mischief for you. For social media account names, if your first choice isn’t available, explore variations—perhaps a shortened version of your desired name. Remember, for services such as Twitter, shorter names fit better into the limited length of social media posts.
- Check out your Internet “neighbors.” For any domain names that are not available according to a reputable domain-name registry, do google them to see where they take you. Some may be operated by other businesses, while others may be “parked” and inoperative. Before you settle on a final domain name for your brand, make sure you investigate where common misspellings of your name might take site visitors. For example, an education technology company seriously considered the brand name “OpenMind” and the domain openmind.com until a marketing team member discovered that a variant spelling, openminded.com, would take prospective site visitors to an adult entertainment Web site.
- Reserve domains in geographies where you plan to do business. Consider whether to reserve domain names using different extensions. In other words, not just yourbrand.com, but also other extensions including those in other countries where you plan to operate: yourbrand.mx for Mexico, yourbrand.cn for China, yourbrand.ca for Canada, and so forth. If you plan to do business in multiple countries, it is wise to reserve domain names in each of the countries that are strategically important to your company.
- Customer-test your final short-listed names. It is always wise to conduct market research to test short-listed names among your target customers. This gives you insight into how they will hear, interpret, and think about the names you are considering. Customer testing can reveal nuances or connotations of a name that didn’t occur to the naming team earlier–for better or for worse. Customer testing results can also be a great tie-breaker if the naming team is split between finalists.
- Make your final selection. Ultimately the naming team should select the name with the most potential for creating a strong, differentiated brand, combined with the least risk from a trademark ownership perspective.
- Take steps to get trademark protection for your new brand.
Once a final name is chosen, engage a trademark attorney to file a trademark or service mark registration for the new brand. Ask for legal counsel on where to register your marks based on where you plan to operate globally. While this step may seem expensive and time-consuming, it can protect you and diminish risk for the organization if your brand name is ever challenged legally. Down the road, it is easier to enter into licensing and other types of agreements if a brand name is registered. Licensing can be a lucrative strategy for strong brands.