Choosing a name for a strong brand

Manufacturers make products; consumers buy brands. Pharmaceutical laboratories produce chemical compounds, but doctors prescribe brands. In an economic system where demand and prescription focus on brands, brand names naturally take on a pre-eminent role.

For if the brand concept encompasses all of the brand’s distinctive signs (name, logo, symbol, colours, endorsing characteristics and even its slogan), it is the brand name that is talked about, asked for or prescribed. It is therefore natural that we should devote particular attention to this facet of the brand creation process: choosing a name for the brand.

What is the best name to choose to build a strong brand? Is there anywhere a particular type of name that can thus guarantee brand success? Looking at some so-called strong brands will help us answer these usual questions: Coca-Cola, IBM, Marlboro, Perrier, Dim, Kodak, Schweppes... What do these brand names have in common? Coca-Cola referred to the product’s ingredients when it was first created; the original meaning of IBM (International Business Machines) has disappeared; Schweppes is hard to pronounce; Marlboro is a place; Kodak, an onomatopoeia. The conclusion of this quick overview is reassuring: to make a strong brand, any name can be used (or almost any), provided that there is a consistent effort over time to give meaning to this name, ie to give the brand a meaning of its own.

Does this mean that there is no need to give much thought to the brand name, apart from the mere problem of ensuring that the brand can be registered? Not at all, because following some basic selection rules and trying to choose the right name will save you time, perhaps several years, when it comes to making the baby brand a big brand. The question of time is crucial: the brand has to conquer a territory of its own.

From the very start, therefore, it must anticipate all of its potential changes. The brand name must be chosen with a view to the brand’s future and destiny, not in relation to the specific market and product situation at the time of its birth. As companies generally function the other way around, it seems more than appropriate to provide some immediate information on the usual pitfalls to avoid when choosing a brand name, and also to give a reminder of certain principles.

Brand name or product name?

Choosing a name depends on the destiny that is assigned to the brand. One must therefore distinguish the type of research related to creating a full-fledged brand name – destined to expand internationally, to cover a large product line, to expand to other categories, and to last – from the opposite related to creating a product name with a more limited scope in space and time. Emphasis, process time and financial investments will certainly be different in both cases.

The danger of descriptive names

Ninety per cent of the time, manufacturers want the brand name to describe the product which the brand is going to endorse. They like the name to describe what the product does (an aspirin that would be called Headache) or is (a biscuit brand that would be called Biscuito; a direct banking service called Bank Direct). This preference for denotative names shows that companies do not understand what brands are all about and what their purpose really is. Remember: brands do not describe products – brands distinguish products.

Choosing a descriptive name also amounts to missing out on all the potential of global communication. The product’s characteristics and qualities will be presented to the target audience thanks to the advertisements, the sales people, direct marketing, articles in specialised periodicals and the comparative studies done by consumer associations. It would thus be a waste to have the brand name merely repeat the same message that all these communication means will convey in a much more efficient and complete way.

The name, on the contrary, must serve to add extra meaning, to convey the spirit of the brand. For products do not live forever: their life cycle is indeed limited. The meaning of the brand name should not get mixed up with the product characteristics that a brand presents when it is first created.

The founders of Apple were well aware of this: within a few weeks the market would know that Apple made microcomputers. It was therefore unnecessary to fall into the trap of names such as Micro- Computers International or Computer Research Systems. In calling themselves Apple, on the contrary, they could straightaway convey the brand’s durable uniqueness (and not just the characteristics of the temporary Apple-1): this uniqueness has to do more with the other facets of brand identity than with its physique (ie its culture, its relationship, its personality, etc).

The brand is not the product. The brand name therefore should not describe what the product does but reveal or suggest a difference.

Taking the copy phenomenon into account

Any strong brand has its copy or even its counterfeit. There is no way out of this. First of all, manufacturing patents end up being public one day. So what is left to preserve the firm’s competitive advantage and provide legitimate recompense for investing in research and development and innovating? Well, the brand name.

The pharmaceutical industry is the perfect example: today, as soon as patents become public, all laboratories can produce the given compound at no R&D cost and generic products start flooding the market. A brand name that simply describes the product and the product’s function will be unable to differentiate the brand from copies and generic products entering the market. Choosing a descriptive name boils down to making the brand a generic product in the long run. That is exactly how the first antibiotics got trapped: they were given names indicating that they were made from penicillin – Vibramycine, Terramycine, etc.

Today, however, the pharmaceutical industry has become aware that the name is in itself a patent which protects the brand from copies. This name must therefore be different from that of the generic product: in becoming distinctive and unique, it also becomes inimitable. The Glaxo-Roche laboratory, for instance, discovered an anti-ulcer agent which it called ‘ranitidine’. Yet the brand name is ‘Zantac’.

Their competitor, Smith, Kline and French, also identified an anti-ulcer agent called ‘cimetidine’, but sold it under the Tagamet brand name. This naming policy is a good hedge against copies and counterfeits. Doctors are under the impression that Vibramycine and Terramycine are the same thing. Tagamet, though, seems unique, as does Zantac. The inevitable generic products that will eventually take advantage of the cimetidine or ranitidine patents will not use the Tagamet or Zantac names.

An original name can protect the brand since it reinforces the latter’s defence against all imitations, whether they be fraudulent or not. The perfume name Kerius, for example, was considered as a counterfeit of Kouros: in litigation, legal experts do not judge counterfeit in terms of nominal or perfect similarity but in terms of overall resemblance.

Thus Kerius became Xerius, while another cosmetics company had to pull out the products it had just launched under the name, Mieva because of Nivea. Descriptive names fail to act as patents. A brand called Biscuito would be very little protected: only the ‘o’ could be protected so as to prevent someone from naming a product ‘Biscuita’! Even Coca-Cola was unable to prevent the Pepsi-Cola name! Quickburger, Love Burger and Burger King have similar names, whereas McDonald’s name is inimitable.

Distributors’ own brands have greatly taken advantage of descriptive brands’ scarce protection. Planning to win over some of the leading brands’ customers, distributors have chosen names for their own brands that are very similar to those of the strong brands to which they refer: this way, consumers are likely to easily mistake one for the other. Ricoré by Nestlé has thus been copied by Incoré, l’Oréal’s Studio Line by Microline, etc.

Because the packages look alike (Incoré is in a yellow can like Ricoré’s, with a picture of a cup and table setting also like Ricoré’s ...), consumers get all the more confused as they only rely on visual signs to find their way through the store aisles. As a matter of fact, recent research has shown that confusion rates are often above 40 per cent (Kapferer, 1995).

The way in which the pharmaceutical industry has been handling the copy problem is extremely promising in terms of the long-term survival of all brands. By creating at the same time a product name (that of a specific compound) and a brand name, they have avoided the Walkman, Xerox or Scotch syndrome.

These proper nouns now tend to become common names, merely used to designate the product. In order to overcome such risk of ‘generism’, companies must create an adjective-brand (the Walkman pocket musicplayer), not a noun-brand (a walkman). When creating a brand name, it might therefore also be necessary to coin a new name for the product itself (in this case, the pocket music-player).

Taking time into account

Many names end up preventing the brand from developing naturally over time because they are too restrictive:

  • ‘Europ Assistance’ hinders the geographical extension of this brand and has also facilitated the creation of Mondial Assistance.
  • Calor etymologically (meaning ‘heat’ in Latin) refers to heating appliance technology (irons, hair-dryers), and thus excludes refrigerators, The Radiola brand never managed to impose itself in the field of household appliances: its brand name was much too reminiscent of one specific sector.
  • As time goes by, Sport 2000, the sporting goods distributor, seems less and less modern and futuristic.
  • The non-fat yoghurt name, Silhouette, was too restrictive in terms of consumer benefit: slimness for the sake of slimness does not necessarily prevail anymore. This is why Yoplait decided to change the name to Yoplait fat-free, after having invested over 20 million dollars since 1975 in advertising the first brand name.

Thinking internationally

Any brand must be given the potential to become international in case it should want to become so one day. Yet many brands still discover quite late that, if such is their desire, they are limited by their name: Suze, the bitter French aperitif wine, almost literally means sweet in German. Nike cannot be registered in certain Arab countries.

The Computer Research Services brand name causes problems in France, as does Toyota’s MR2. In the United States, the almighty CGE name cannot be protected against the famous GE (General Electric) brand name. Prior to internationalizing a brand, one must ensure that the name is easy to pronounce, that it has no adverse connotations and that it can be registered without problems. These new requirements explain why there is so much interest in the 1,300 words which all seven major languages of the European Union have in common. It also explains the current tendency to choose abstract names which, having no previous meaning, can thus create their own.

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