In a recent article in The New York Times, John Williams discussed the evolution of our language through the “vowel dropping” trend.
He mentions the use of vowel dropping in naming tech companies, as tech companies like Tumblr and Flickr dropped vowels “…both for distinctiveness and because the altered names made it easier to trademark, claim domain names on the internet and conduct other practical business.”
In my book The Science of Branding, I noted that the human brain has the ability to “fill in” the gaps caused by vowel dropping. For example, read this sentence and you’ll see how distortion of words does not impair communication:
“It deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr all the ltteers in a wrod are. You can stlil raed it wouthit a porbelm bcuseae the huamn mnid wroks by a porecss of ptatern rceigontion. It dtemrines maennig bfoere porecssnig dteails.”
Isn’t tihs amzanig? Your brain can make sense of even the most chaotic situation.
But just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Dropping vowels is not always a good strategy for name development. While dropping vowels can make acquisition of .com domains easier, it does not guarantee that getting a trademark will be easier. One important reason for avoiding this strategy is it can distort consumer communication.
One of the most important considerations in evaluating a name is the ability of people to remember the name. Test your “day after recall” with some members of the target audience. Make sure they can pronounce and spell it correctly the day after hearing it. If they can’t repeat it and get it right, then they won’t be able to find your product or service on the web. If they can’t properly recall it then they won’t be able to tell a friend about the name in a way that the friend can find it. Net, net, if the name is too difficult to recall properly, then it won’t be a good name (unless of course you have a lot of money to invest in awareness-generating advertising).
Mastercard has become the latest company to shift to a “no name” approach to branding.
Of course, they aren’t the first to do this (see Nike, Starbucks, Apple, Target, etc.). We are living in an image-driven world (e.g., Instagram) so this trend is not surprising.
A Mastercard spokesperson said: “As the consumer and commerce landscape continues to evolve, the Mastercard Symbol represents Mastercard better than one word ever could, and the flexible modern design will allow it to work seamlessly across the digital landscape.”
One thing that many people forget is the millions (billions?) of dollars invested in the Mastercard name itself. And yes, that Venn diagram logo design is on every single credit card that Mastercard offers. It is no surprise that “…over 80% of people recognized the brand without the name.”
Does this trend mean that professional logo designers are more in demand or professional name developers are doomed? Nope. Mastercard could not have started with a snappy logo and assumed that everyone would get it. They spent years investing in their brand name and now they can reap the benefits. But you can’t just skip to the “image only” logo design. You have to create the meaning first, and that requires a great brand name (and logo!).
Last year I wrote a “Change Your Name Already” blog post about Overstock.com which described the painful way that Overstock.com was trying to communicate that their name did not fit what they were doing as a business…”we are so much more!” My response was to politely suggest that they call me to help them find a new name that did fit their business model.
Recently MailChimp launched an ad campaign that approached the “our name does not fit our business model” issue from a different angle. In this effort, they celebrate the fact that they have outgrown their name and tell prospective customers that they would like to help them do the same thing.
Brilliant…simply brilliant. Both Overstock.com and MailChimp have outgrown their names, but Overstock.com communicates it in a way that makes the potential customer feel stupid (“you thought we only sold overstock items but you are stupid…we actually do more!”). MailChimp admits they do more than what their name implies and desire to have the same impact on the prospective customer’s business, thereby leaving prospective customers feeling hopeful. Big difference.
So the CEO of Overstock.com should still call me to initiate a name development project…but the CEO of MailChimp can just take a bow!
I’ve just finished reading a fascinating book by Allen Gannett: The Creative Curve.
The author discusses how important it is to develop the right idea at the right time. Innovative ideas are more well received when they are introduced at the right time. Too soon and they are viewed as being weird. Too late and they are passé.
One of his foundational principles is that the intersection of the familiar and the unknown leads to breakout success. He provides extensive scientific support for this theory.
In my book, The Science of Branding, (www.amazon.com/Science-Branding-Proven-Better-Decisions-ebook/dp/B00TBOL6YA) I explain how this principle can lead to better names. There is a lot of scientific backing for using slightly ambiguous names for your company or product.
Let’s take a simple example: Intel®. Intel processors can be found globally across all platforms and the Intel name is arguably the best-known trademark in its class. Company history indicates the Intel name was derived from condensing the term “integrated electronics” into one word. Integrated Electronics was the company’s first choice, but the name was already taken, so they settled for Intel. Most importantly, Intel is a shortening of intelligence; or as a real word intel means “information of military or political value.” This familiarity enhanced brand recall and memorability. It also did not hurt that it implied being smart.
Using a name that is familiar but different also engages your customer’s brain by creating a “mind puzzle” with your branding. When the name is familiar but different, the customer’s brain will work to find a way to understand the familiarity and will spend time trying to figure out why the name was chosen, which can lead to higher recall of the name later and positive attributions to the product (the science behind this is in my book). If the consumer doesn’t have to work too hard to get the “mind puzzle” they might even have positive emotions about your brand. At the very least, when consumers solve the puzzle, they will then have a sense of accomplishment because they were able to figure it out.
Using “familiar but different” names is a strategy that challenges people to think about your product and to have your name on their minds. This can often lead to a stronger response from customers when the connections are made with the name of your company or product. Just don’t make the “mind puzzle” too difficult or you will frustrate your consumers!
About 6 months ago I wrote a blog post about the future of name development and the use of Artificial Intelligence to name things. I also made a prediction that AI was going to get better and better as it practices name development.
Since that time, AI is getting better at developing names. Check out these potential names for tomato varieties from a recent post by Janelle Shane.
I’m pretty impressed by some of these!
Of course, AI also generates names that might be considered to be bad choices, like these examples:
Golden Cherry Striped Rock
Old German Baby
Ranny Blue Ribber
Adoly Pepp Of The Wonder
Cherry, End Students
Small Of The Elf
Champ German Ponder
Green Zebra Pleaser
As predicted, AI is getting better at developing names. And this should increase the demand for professional branding services by experienced human beings! When AI was generating bad names it was easy to separate the stupid names from the barely acceptable names.
But now that AI is doing a better job, clients will have a harder time choosing a name because the list of 100 names contains 85 good ones! Clients will need the assistance of a branding expert to help make a branding decision, and perhaps a research expert to get consumer feedback on names.
Janelle Shane (https://twitter.com/JanelleCShane) is a research scientist who likes to play around with neural networks. Recently she’s been having fun investigating whether neural networks can replace traditional means of creative development. As a professional name developer, I’m watching her work closely (http://lewisandquark.tumblr.com) because I’ve been told that my chosen career is about to be destroyed by the use of artificial intelligence to develop brand names.
Based on the results thus far, I’m not worried. While it is true that computers can develop names, I strongly believe that the judgment of a seasoned branding expert (like me!) will be necessary to identify names that will resonate with consumers. As evidence of my confidence, I provide some examples of names developed by artificial intelligence in the past year:
• Paint Colors – Janelle’s experiments yielded names like Stoomy Brown, Stanky Bean, and Bank Butt (https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/05/when-a-robot-names-a-new-color-of-paint/527421/). I’m pretty sure nobody would buy a paint called Stoomy Brown (which actually looks like a shade of green) or Stanky Bean.
• Craft Beers – The AI developed names like Toe Deal, Sacky Rover, and Cherry Trout Stout (http://lewisandquark.tumblr.com/post/163753995072/craft-beer-names-invented-by-neural-network). Given the proliferation of crazy craft beer names, some of the names developed by the neural network appear to be reasonable (e.g., Devil’s Chard, Whata Stout, and Black Morning), but you have to sift through a lot of “Toe Deals” before you get to a decent name.
• Guinea Pig Names – While the AI names for guinea pigs are better (e.g., Funbees, Sporky, Furzy, and Farter) that is only because you generally don’t have to say the name in public. Can you imagine using “Farter” as a dog’s name? “Stay Farter!” http://lewisandquark.tumblr.com/post/162263942282/more-neural-network-guinea-pig-names
• Superheroes – I really don’t think a superhero called Nana will be feared by an evil villain…although I’m heard of some pretty badass grandmas. And would Supperman’s superpower be the ability to put the fear of bankruptcy in the hearts of owners of buffet dinner establishments? http://lewisandquark.tumblr.com/post/140829108357/superheroes-designed-by-neural-network
You get the point. Right now it is all fun and games and it is easy to separate the stupid names from the barely acceptable names.
But eventually the AI will get better, and that is when demand for my services will actually increase! When AI starts generating excellent names companies will be faced with having to pick a name from a list of 100 great names, and they will need the assistance of a branding expert to make that decision. Put me in coach…I’m ready to play, today!
Ernest Hemingway wrote a book about his years as an aspiring novelist in Paris in the 1920’s. He titled it, A Moveable Feast. It, of course, is one of his best works…a true classic.
When translated into German, the book was titled Paris: Ein Fest Furs Leben or in English Paris: A Feast For Life.
Two different names for the same book. I would argue that the second title does a better job of communicating what the book is about. But it is hard to argue with success of the book under the first title!
Names matter. Choose wisely.
Mark Cuban held a variety of jobs in his youth including selling garbage bags door-to-door and being a bartender, a disco dancing instructor, and a party promoter. But one thing that frustrated him was bank overdraft fees. Now he’s helping to fund an app that claims it can help people avoid them by predicting incoming expenses and comparing them with the person’s spending habits.
The app is called “Dave.”
“We named the company Dave because we wanted people to think of the app as a friend they can turn to when they’re in a financial bind,” said Dave’s CEO, Jason Wilk.
“Dave” is another example of people trying to anthropomorphize their brand. To anthropomorphize means to attribute human form or personality to things not human, and I noted this trend in my 2015 book The Science of Branding. Giving your product a name that enables consumers to attribute human qualities to it can be a very memorable way to develop your branding, and it is proven to be a successful branding technique.
Please note, this is not the same as using the founder’s name in the business name. The name Ben & Jerry’s reflects that name of the founders, not an attempt to attribute human form or personality to things not human. Some people might have a favorable opinion of Ben & Jerry’s because of the use of the founders’ names in the business name, but this was not a deliberate attempt to anthropomorphize the brand.
Alexa, Siri and Cortana are good examples of an attempt to anthropomorphize a brand name in technology. If you are going to launch a digital assistant, shouldn’t the name sound like a real person (albeit with a techie feel)? Wouldn’t you want a user to develop a relationship with the device/service in the same way that you would develop a relationship with a friend?
Of course this naming approach is not without risk. Developing a personal relationship with a consumer requires authenticity that leads to trust and a deeper connection. If “Dave” is able to develop that connection and build on it over time, then the approach can be a success. However, a few missteps along the way can cause Dave users to start thinking of Dave as their goofy brother-in-law rather than as a respected friend they can turn to when they are in a financial bind.
I sometimes get asked by prospective clients if they should change their name, and I help them evaluate if a change is necessary. But sometimes there are stubborn companies who persist in marketing a name that is not right. Overstock.com is a prime example of this behavior.
In early 1999, Dr. Patrick M. Byrne recognized the potential in liquidating excess inventory through the Internet. He started Overstock.com as a way for consumers to gain easy access to closeout merchandise. Overstock.com is a pretty good name for that business model.
In January 2011, Overstock.com acquired the O.co URL and began incorporating it into its marketing. CEO Dr. Patrick M. Byrne said, “When we first started our business in 1999, we only sold surplus inventory. We are no longer just an online liquidator. Our current offerings span from furniture and home decor to cars. We want an identity that more accurately reflects our company as it has evolved: hence ‘O.co’.”
I’ll admit I’m biased, but the strategy shift provided the prime opportunity to change their name.
However, Overstock.com doubled down and tried to leverage its name through a sexy sell with a campaign about “It’s All About The ‘O’ “(wink, wink added for emphasis). While the Overstock.com name faded into the background it was still the official name of the company.
Fast forward to today. Overstock.com continues to use the name that the CEO admitted didn’t fit six years ago. But now, instead of hiding their name embarrassment, they want to draw attention to it. Their latest campaign uses offensive “name shaming” language to point out that people also look at Overstock.com and think they only sell closeout items.
Dear Overstock.com CEO:
WILL YOU PLEASE JUST CHANGE YOUR NAME ALREADY?????
Overstock.com has spent years explaining their business model because they continue to use a name that does not fit it. How much further ahead would the company have been if they had just changed their name when given the right opportunity years ago?
We all get attached to things and letting go is hard. But there are times when you need to suck it up and change your name rather than continue to use a name that does not fit your current or future strategy!