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Choosing a Powerful Brand Name
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  Tom Blackett Choosing a Powerful Brand Name
by Tom Blackett
October 10, 2005

If you are searching for a name for your new product or service, what guidance can you get from the world’s leading brands? Business Week and Interbrand’s "100 Best Global Brands" rankings show the world’s leading brands, according to their value. In the top spot for 2005 was Coca-Cola, with a value of US$ 67.5 billion, a sum that approximates to 50 percent of the stock market value of its owner, the Coca-Cola Company. Following Coca-Cola come Microsoft, IBM, GE, Intel, Nokia, Disney, McDonald’s, Toyota and Marlboro; these brands make up the world’s "top ten" by value.

Interestingly, these top ten brands cover the full scope of naming possibilities. There are family names, like Disney and McDonald’s; initials, like IBM and GE; semi-descriptive and "associative" names, like Microsoft and Intel; and abstract names, like Nokia and Marlboro. Taking the complete list we find that family names are by far and away the most prominent, with 46 of the 100 brands named after their founders. Next are abstract names and semi-descriptive or "associative" names, with 21 in each group, and then come initials, with twelve.


Many of the family names are concentrated in such sectors as finance (Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs) and fashion (Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Chanel), but they are to be found in most industries, as Mercedes-Benz, Gillette, Kellogg’s, Pfizer, Harley-Davidson, Wrigley’s, Hertz, and Heineken show. Abstract names occur at random (Toyota—Toyoda was the family name, Gap, Canon, Nivea), as do semi-descriptive and "associative" names (Citi, Volkswagen, Motorola, Caterpillar). The same applies to initials (BMW, UBS, KFC, MTV).

So it is difficult to infer a pattern—much less a model for successful naming—from the world’s 100 most valuable brands. However, there are some general principles for choosing a new name upon which we can draw.

The first is to do with family names. As we have seen, these make up 46 of the top 100 brands. They are spread across industries and are by no means confined to "smokestack" or "heritage" businesses. They tend to be associated with products and services where the personal touch and continuity over the years are both seen as important. Authenticity is therefore an important attribute that family names help express. Perhaps the lesson here is that family names can be most effective in areas where the product or service is innovative and unfamiliar, and where consumers need that extra degree of reassurance to buy for the first time. The presence of a personal endorsement in the brand name (and therefore the implied accountability) can provide the trust that is needed to prompt the purchase decision.

Abstract names (those without any obvious descriptive content when it comes to the nature of the product, its use or benefits) are potentially strong marketing and legal properties. They can create powerful differentiation, which, if backed up by products and services of high quality and value for money, can lead to strong and successful brands. Precisely because such names lack any descriptive content, they are relatively easy to register and protect as trademarks. However, they need to be explained to consumers at launch.

Semi-descriptive and "associative" names contain a clue about the product or service and are therefore more user-friendly. The reality is that the world abounds with such names (Kwikfit, Dunkin’ Donuts, Mastercard, Duracell… the list goes on). Semi-descriptive and "associative" names have become the "lingua franca" of international branding. Because they are relatively easy to understand, they simplify the task of positioning the product or service concerned, and therefore, they allow the advertiser the luxury of developing "brand personality," thus strengthening differentiation at an emotional level. But semi-descriptive and "associative" names can sometimes prove difficult to protect as trademarks.

Initials are perhaps the most difficult form of brand name in which to create meaning. They tend, almost entirely, to be business rather than product brand names, and used by organizations that are confident they will be understood (International Business Machines contracted its name to IBM many years ago; Imperial Chemical Industries also condensed to ICI) or who are happy to shelter under relative anonymity (LG, for example). The truth is that very few companies or products would choose the initials route if they were new to the market. Initials lack information, differentiation and personality; they are also notoriously difficult to protect as trademarks.

So which is the right naming strategy for you, as you ponder the launch of your new product or service?

Your first duty is to the customer, because if you look after the customer, as the saying goes, the business will look after itself. This means that you must strike the right balance between explaining what the new product is about, and creating differentiation to secure future purchaser loyalty. It is the role of advertising to explain features and benefits as the first phase in any new product launch; it is the role of the name to capture this information and to provide the platform for developing brand personality. Perhaps, therefore, you might be better served by an abstract name?

It is perhaps no coincidence that two of the fastest growing brands in the world—Samsung and Apple—have abstract names. They both have excellent products, and this is the most important factor. But their names, which are highly distinctive and memorable, provide an extra competitive edge, and in crowded marketplaces this can make all the difference.

   Tom Blackett is Deputy Chairman of the Interbrand Group.

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