Is Artificial Intelligence The Future of Branding?

Janelle Shane ( 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 ( 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 ( 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 ( 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!”

• 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?

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!


Names Matter

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.


Hello, My Name Is Dave

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.


Change Your Name Already!

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. 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 as a way for consumers to gain easy access to closeout merchandise. is a pretty good name for that business model.

In January 2011, acquired the 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 ‘’.”

I’ll admit I’m biased, but the strategy shift provided the prime opportunity to change their name.

However, 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 name faded into the background it was still the official name of the company.

Fast forward to today. 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 and think they only sell closeout items.

Dear CEO:



Mark Prus
Principal @NameFlash 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!


A Tipping Point For Super Bowl Advertisements?

I was largely unimpressed with the crop of Super Bowl ads this year. It seemed to me that advertisers have chased “form over function” and have forgotten that when you spend $5 million for a 30-second ad you should probably sell some product to offset that cost. There were few ads that actually tried to communicate in a strategic way and present a compelling selling message for their brand.

Why have Super Bowl advertisers stopped selling their products?

Here is a prime example of how far we’ve fallen in just a year. Last year Christopher Walken used his unique communication style to decisively deliver the selling message of “don’t be beige, be bold” in a Kia commercial. This was a “Top 10” ad from Super Bowl 2016. Check it out.

This year Christopher Walken again appeared in a Super Bowl ad, and again used his unique delivery style but this time he was reciting song lyrics in an ad for Bai. Many polls have indicated that this was the “Best Super Bowl Ad of 2017.” Check it out here.

The difference is amazing. Walken stayed in character in both ads. However, last year the message was a strategically focused argument for the new Kia Optima. This year the Bai ad reeked of borrowed interest and delivered absolutely no selling message for the brand. OK, there was that tagline that was on the screen for 5 seconds at the end that said “5 Calories, No Artificial Sweeteners, and Tastes Amazing” but that tagline has no relevance to the rest of the ad so it was clearly a band aid that was inserted to appease the Brand Manager.

The makers of Bai were no doubt hoping that using Christopher Walken and Justin Timberlake in an ad would break through the Super Bowl clutter. Alas, they were seduced by the cleverness of their brand name in relation to the “Bye, Bye, Bye” lyrics. What does the NSync song from 2000 have to do with an antioxidant beverage? The only possible outcome that would benefit the brand would be name recognition, which could be important if people do not know how to pronounce Bai. But in the end, I suspect they were using borrowed interest because they apparently have nothing to say about why I should choose their brand.

I know some Super Bowl ads were making political statements or “feel good” messages to bolster corporate identity. But seriously, if you spend $5 million for a 30-second ad, shouldn’t you attempt to sell something? You can use other tools in the marketing toolbox to bolster your corporate image.

Here is an example. In 2002, Scripps Networks (the company behind HGTV and the Food Network) wanted to announce their newest media property Fine Living. They could have blown their budget on a Super Bowl ad but instead they created a PR event by building a tropical island in New York City’s Hudson River. The island was complete with sand, palm trees, a thatched-roof hut, hammock and hot tub. They towed the island in place at night for the big reveal on Columbus Day. One lucky couple (and their dog) got to enjoy the island for a few days. They romped in the sand, relaxed in the hot tub, and enjoyed the good life…Fine Living indeed! This event cost $300,000 to arrange and generated over $30 million in media exposure, or 100x the original investment.

Can the advertisers in this year’s Super Bowl claim that they got a 100x return on their investment (doing the math: $5 million for a 30-second ad means they would have to get a $500 million payback)? I doubt it.

What do you think? Have we reached a tipping point in terms of Super Bowl advertising? Should we stop calling them ads? Maybe “public service announcements” would be more appropriate!


The End of Bland Names?

Publicis Groupe, the holding company of worldwide marketing agencies, has been restructuring over the past year. In March they announced a major restructuring of their media arm Publicis Media that broke apart longtime media agency ZenithOptimedia. Zenith now operates as a standalone agency, while Optimedia joined forces with Blue 449 to form Optimedia | Blue 449. Publicis has now decided to drop the Optimedia name in favor of Blue 449 on a global basis. The six remaining Optimedia offices and Match Media in Australia will all take the Blue 449 name.


Does this signify a landmark change in naming? Dropping Optimedia and Match Media eliminates two more descriptive names in favor of a more creative arbitrary name. I can only hope that others follow this trend!

OK, as a professional name developer I’m biased, but names like Optimedia are not that hard to generate. Take two key words like “optimal” and “media” and slam them together. How hard is that? But developing names that are arbitrary or coined takes more work (and therefore companies tend to hire name developers for assistance!).

Avoiding generic or descriptive names also makes a lot of sense from a trademark standpoint. I’m not a trademark attorney so please do not consider this to be legal advice. However, Steve Baird, who is a trademark attorney, developed this chart with Minnesota Continuing Legal Education to help explain the role the “Spectrum of Distinctiveness” plays in getting a trademark.


In general, names on the left-hand side of the spectrum are not immediately eligible for trademark protection, if ever – and, never, if generic. This is because neither generic nor descriptive names are considered to be inherently distinctive and trademark law only provides legal protection to names that are or have become distinctive. In other words, in order to immediately get a trademark the name must be creative or out of the ordinary (inherently distinctive).

There is a complicated loophole for once purely descriptive brand names (immediately descriptive, laudatory, surname, geographic, etc.) that can prove that over time they have become distinctive to the relevant public. This loophole is associated with some significant limbo though and requires that you prove that your descriptive name has acquired “secondary meaning” over time. However, this proof is difficult especially if you are just starting to use the name.

That is why I generally recommend to my clients that they avoid generic or descriptive names and instead select suggestive, arbitrary, or coined/fanciful (created) names. Names on the right-hand side of the spectrum will be easier to trademark and will result in stronger brands over time. In the end, a strong brand name that can be legally protected is the goal of most naming projects!


Increase Recall of Your Message By…

Yes, I know the title of this post is incomplete. That is what this post is all about. Marketers know that “unfinished tasks” are the most memorable. Your brain seeks “cognitive closure” and so you will remember unfinished tasks until you complete them. This effect is called the Zeigarnik effect after Bluma Zeigarnik who studied this effect in the early 1900’s.


The first publication of the Zeigarnik effect in 1927 was based on Bluma’s observation of a waiter in the local beer garden who had an uncanny ability to remember the orders of multiple diners all the way through delivery of the meals. However, after the meal (once the waiter’s task was completed), the diners would cover up their plates and the waiter could not come close to recalling what the all the diners had ordered. Zeigarnik postulated that the waiter had extreme cognitive focus on the unfinished task that enhanced his recall, but once the meals were delivered that focus shifted elsewhere.

There are numerous studies validating this effect. My personal favorite is a recall test of advertising in which consumers watched a 30-minute TV show with ads for soft drinks, mouthwash and pain relievers ( In a crossover design, respondents sometimes saw ads that were full-length and sometimes saw ads that were clipped with the last 5 or 6 seconds missing. Researchers found that consumers remembered specific details about the unfinished ads significantly more than the finished ads in 3 different timeframes: immediately, 2 days later and 2 weeks later. Clearly lack of closure is a powerful tool in marketing!

So how can you use the Zeigarnik effect in your marketing? Well, you can’t just start showing ads that are clipped at the end and hope for the best.

One approach to leverage “the power of the incomplete” is to create “unfinished business” in the minds of your target market by igniting their curiosity. If your messaging causes a consumer to become curious about your product, it is likely that the person’s brain will view your messaging as an incomplete task that requires further investigation, which may lead to a Google search or click on your website. I discussed the science behind this approach in the first chapter of my branding book The Science of Branding: (

As an example, consider Buddha Balm Lip Balm. In my case, I was intrigued by the use of a key figure in Buddhism to sell something as trivial as lip balm. Buddha is recognized by Buddhists as an enlightened teacher who shares his insights to help others in their suffering. Turns out the lip balm is “designed to awaken the senses and promote awareness” and to “enhance lives and inspire positive emotional and physical well-being” so once I saw that connection I “completed the task” and was ready to move on. But I will remember Buddha Balm!


Unfinished business is something that your brain hates, so leverage the Zeigarnik effect in your marketing to engage your consumers!


Stealth Marketing: How Marketers Use Emotions To Sneak Their Messaging Past Your Brain’s Filters

When your brain uncovers new information, it says: “You Shall Not Pass!” Fans of “The Lord of The Rings” will recognize this as Gandalf’s quote ( or perhaps will recall its use in the “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” movie (

Your brain applies this gatekeeper logic to prevent itself from being overloaded by irrelevant information. Just image if you had to pay equal attention to every single stimulus the brain receives…you would be overwhelmed in minutes.

The brain has a well-defined way to deal with information from the environment1. It has strict criteria for allowing incoming information to flow and it effectively uses a three-stage process to filter out irrelevant information. Like the famous “Bridgekeeper” from the “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” movie (, the brain requires that information meet three challenges before it is stored in long term memory (and not forgotten).

Stage 1: Sensory Registration – This system filters incoming environmental information to determine how important it is. In milliseconds, the brain evaluates the sensory input and relates it to the individual’s past experiences to decide what to do with it. Most of the time it decides the input is unimportant so it ignores it. This is how you can read a book while your spouse watches television. But this system can also save you because it gives dangerous stimuli (like a gunshot) maximum focus and attention.

Stage 2: Immediate Memory – If the information gets past the sensory register (i.e., gets noticed) it will proceed into the first of two temporary memories where it will be assessed again. The first is called the immediate memory, and it holds information for up to 30 seconds while it decides what to do with it. If the information is deemed important, it will proceed to the next temporary memory. If not, the information will be forgotten. One of the most important functions of the immediate memory is to prioritize input. It is believed that there are 3 levels of priority:

1. Highest Priority = Survival – Data that concerns your survival will be given top priority and the information will be accompanied by a rush of adrenaline, causing a “fight or flight” response that shuts down all unnecessary activities and focuses the brain on the stimulus.

2. Second Priority = Emotions – Data that generates emotions will also be given high priority as portions of the brain will shut down to address the emotional stimulus. Powerful emotions like fear or anger can cause the brain to shut down the ability to talk (“I was dumbfounded”) or move (“I froze in place”). Interestingly, while strong emotional content can shut down conscious processing, it can also enhance the recall of the event by causing the release of hormones that stimulate the amygdala to signal brain regions to strengthen memory.

3. Third Priority = Everything Else – All other data falls to the bottom of the priority list. That does not mean this information is eliminated, but it certainly lessens the odds of generating strong impact in the brain.

Stage 3: Working Memory – If the information gets past the immediate memory, it will proceed into the working memory. The working memory is different because it is where conscious, rather than subconscious, processing occurs. Working memory is constrained by capacity which averages to roughly 7 “chunks” of information in working memory at a time. Working memory is also constrained by time, as testing has shown information can reside there for 10 to 20 minutes. During those 10 to 20 minutes the brain will decide whether to encode this information for long-term storage or forget it. Studies have shown there are two important factors for meeting the challenge for encoding and proceeding to long-term memory:

1. Does this information make sense? – The brain will draw upon past experiences to identify if this new information fits into the person’s understanding of the world. If it does, then it is likely to proceed. If it does not, it is likely to be forgotten.
2. Does this information have meaning? – Is this information relevant to the person? Again, the brain will compare prior experience to attempt to identify relevance. If the information is deemed relevant, it is likely to proceed. If not it is likely to be forgotten.

If the information passes the “make sense?” and “have meaning?” screens in the working memory, it is likely to be encoded for long-term storage by the hippocampus and sent to a retention area of the brain.

Summary: The Three Questions The Brain Asks:
1. Should I notice this?
2. Should I pay attention to this?
3. Should I remember this?

How does Stealth Marketing slide past the brain’s filters? Obviously the goal is to have the brain:
1. Notice Your Messaging
2. Pay Attention To Your Messaging
3. Remember Your Messaging

One simple way would be to make your messaging a “fight or flight” life-threatening risk. However, I suspect that a “buy this or die” pitch would not be conducive to building a long-term customer relationship.

A superior, “stealthy” way to pass the brain’s filters is to embed your messaging in emotion. Here is how emotional messaging gets past the brain’s filters:
1. Sensory Registration – Emotional content gets an automatic pass through the first filter. It will get noticed.
2. Priority Input Into Memory – Emotional content gets high ratings, after the “life or death” ranking of survival content
3. Successful Encoding Into Long-Term Memory – Because emotional content will likely pass the “make sense?” and “have meaning?” screens, it is likely to be encoded for long-term storage

So what does emotional marketing look like?

Southwest Airlines has understood the power of love for quite a while (e.g., their stock exchange ticker symbol is LUV), and their advertising campaign utilizes love in verbal and visual form to drive the “Southwest = Love” point home. Suburu is another company that leverages the power of love in their marketing, including the tagline of “Love. It’s What Makes a Suburu, a Suburu.” The scientific evidence about the persuasive power of love abounds.

Volvo is currently running a “Volvo Wedding” ad that is either very confusing or highly engaging depending upon how the emotional content hits you. Personally I found the :30 ad confusing ( but the long-form ad showed the full story ( Your daughter’s wedding day is one of the most emotional days a father can experience, so all the Dads of daughters were no doubt paying attention.

So next time you see a marketer trying to tug at your emotional strings, recognize that they are just trying to get past the brain’s filters and make their messaging a long-term fixture in your head!

1Please note much of the technical information in this post is sourced from this outstanding book (you should buy it!): Sousa, David A. (2006). How the Brain Learns (3rd edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press


A Lesson In Reusing Historic Brand Names #TBT

The music streaming service Rhapsody just announced that they are rebranding themselves as Napster, a brand they acquired in 2011. Is bringing back this historic brand name a good idea?

Let me go on record as saying I’m a huge fan of leveraging existing brand equity in historic brand names. However, you must do this with extreme care because existing brand equity always includes baggage.

Here is an example of good baggage and bad baggage. At the North American International Auto Show in 2012, Chrysler/Fiat unveiled the 2013 Dodge Dart. This was not the first time Dodge returned to a historic nameplate rather than introduce a new name. A few years before Dodge reintroduced its muscle car as Dodge Challenger.

The new Dodge Dart was a great car. It used the mechanical platform of a vehicle by Alfa Romeo, a Fiat-owned brand in Europe. This Dart was loaded with technology and attention to detail that is not normally found in a compact car. The Dodge Challenger was also an excellent car.

But bringing back the Dodge Dart name was a poor choice, while reusing Dodge Challenger was a great choice. The existing brand equity on the name “Dodge Dart” was horrible. The existing brand equity on the name “Dodge Challenger” was perfect.

Did Chrysler/Fiat actually do any research on the equity present in the historic names? I doubt it. You can understand this if you ask a few friends 3 important things they recall about Dart and ask the same questions about Challenger:

1. Who owned the car?
2. What was their ownership experience like?
3. What is their lasting memory of the car?

The answers you are likely to get are as follows:

Who owned the car?
Dart = my grandmother; Challenger = my crazy, risk-taking uncle

Ownership experience?
Dart = she drove it to church on Sunday; Challenger = he drag raced it on the street

Lasting memory?
Dart = car rusted away in the driveway; Challenger = coolest car ever

As a result you will see why Chrysler/Fiat recycled Challenger as a muscle-car name. But you will be shaking your head over why Dart was the name for the new Chrysler/Fiat compact car.

Many who owned an original Challenger still regret the day they sold it. Many who owned an original Dart still regret the day they bought it. Sometimes it is far better to create a new name rather than to use an old one with baggage like that!

So it is no surprise that the new Dodge Dart has already been discontinued.

Napster? Have they done the necessary research to understand that brand name’s baggage? I certainly hope so…otherwise the name Rhapsody will be a fond memory of people who used to work at the music streaming service as Napster gets discontinued.


Fictitious Versus Fake Branding

Creating fictitious names for products is standard practice in many industries. Creating a brand that evokes a certain image or feeling is so commonplace that most of us don’t think twice about it.


Consider Genova Tonno. In the Italian language, Genova is the city of Genoa, and Tonno is tuna. So you might infer that a can of Genova Tonno contains tuna caught in the waters off Genoa. Actually, Genova Tonno is a specialty brand of tuna owned by Chicken of the Sea. The label says:

Genova Tonno© Premium Yellowfin Tuna. Wild caught from deep waters, Genova Select Yellowfin is all natural with no additives or preservatives. Genova is packed in the Mediterranean tradition with olive oil, which provides a rich and delicious flavor.

Chicken of the Sea is owned by a Thai-based company called Thai Union, which has its own packing facilities in Thailand. While the source of its tuna is never identified beyond “deep waters” it is believed that those deep waters are not off the coast of Italy, but rather are off the coast of Thailand.

By all reports, this is very tasty tuna. Do you really care that the manufacturer is positioning its product as being Italian when its heritage is clearly not Italian? If so, perhaps you should buy Asdomar which claims that its tuna is “100% processed in Italy.” Note: even this does not mean that all of their tuna is caught near Italy

Need another example? Would you be upset to know that Häagen-Dazs was born in the Bronx, New York in 1961? Its creators were not Scandinavians but rather two Polish immigrants, Reuben and Rose Mattus. Why did they choose the name Häagen-Dazs? The name was created to look Scandinavian for Americans because the European cachet radiates craftsmanship, tradition, and wholesomeness, thereby justifying the higher price.

Recently in the UK, Tesco has been drawing flak from consumers because they created seven fictitious farm names and are using them in marketing their products. Fake farm names such as Rosedene and Nightingale now provide a cachet to their product lines.

“Authenticity” is a traditional buzzword for marketing. Studies have shown that brands should be authentic to build trust among consumers. At what point does a “fictitious” name cross the “authenticity line” and become a “fake” name?

The Tesco example shows one flash point is food sourcing. Consumers want to know where their food comes from and apparently once people discover that “Rosedene Farms” isn’t a real place they no longer trust that those apples sold under that brand name are of high quality. Critics in the UK are calling this practice “legal deception.”

The US Patent and Trademark Office has a fairly broad definition of what they consider to be “legal deception” in geographic names. The policy of a name being “geographically deceptively misdescriptive” would prevent the registration of such a trademark. According to the USPTO website, “A mark will be refused as primarily geographically deceptively misdescriptive if: (1) the primary significance of the mark is geographic; (2) purchasers would be likely to think that the goods or services originate in the geographic place identified in the mark, i.e., purchasers would make a goods/place or services/place association; and (3) the goods or services do not originate in the place identified in the mark.”

That would seem to indicate that Tesco might be facing some storm clouds on the horizon if they try to register their set of “fake farm names” in the US.

Perhaps I am immune to this issue because I am a professional name developer with 25+ years of experience as a consumer products marketer. I long ago stopped losing sleep over the fact that Betty Crocker isn’t a real person!

Get the Book!

"Better Branding Through Science"

Twitter Feed


Follow NameFlash


Contact NameFlash!
Please contact Mark Prus to begin exploring the possibilities!

(412) 287-8674