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Elements of a Successful Brand 5: The Name

A brand is a complex organism. This is part five in a series of articles in which we examine a successful brand's component parts.

If you could light a Bunsen burner under a great brand and distill it down to its most basic substance, you'd be left with the brand's most valuable asset — its name. Even after other critical elements have evaporated away, a brand's name still packs a punch. If American Express, IBM, or Coca-Cola were to shut down their businesses today (assuming nothing had tainted their reputations), these brands could be revived a few years from now and still be formidable contenders in their categories. Such is the power of the brand name.

More and more professional services companies are recognizing that their firm name can help them stand out in a competitive environment and contribute to long-term customer loyalty. Over the past five decades a whole industry has emerged to help entrepreneurs and corporations name their businesses and products. Larger naming firms employ linguists and proprietary computer programs to develop hundreds or thousands of potential names and name fragments (called morphemes). Smaller firms rely on their experience, wit, and brainstorming techniques to produce options for their clients. Both approaches can produce excellent names. And very poor names, too.

In this post, we take a closer look at firm names — the good and the bad. Names can be broken into five categories:

  1. Coined
  2. Descriptive
  3. Abstract
  4. Acronyms
  5. Founder/Partner names

Let’s dive into each.

1. Coined Names
A few years ago, names coined from Greek and Latin roots were all the rage, and they still pop up with some regularity today. From Accenture to Zillow, coined names are imbued with latent meaning and are easy to trademark. Trouble is, these names have little meaning to ordinary people who are unfamiliar with classical languages — and they can sometimes be bland and hard to remember. ArcelorMittal and Amedisys don’t exactly roll of the tongue, do they?

2. Descriptive Names
Many names are descriptive of their services. Computer Associates, General Mills, Pre-Paid Legal Services are examples of business whose names reflect what they do. On the upside, people will understand what these businesses do. On the downside, these names can be very generic, making them difficult to trademark. Generic names tend to make poor long-term brand names because they have little traction in our minds. And as companies evolve, these names don’t offer much flexibility.

3. Abstract Names
Other names are pure abstractions, like Amazon, Alphabet, Google, and Karhoo. While many of these are real words, they have little obvious connection to their businesses. Their value comes from their quirkiness, not their connotations. What these abstract names lack in seriousness they more than make up for in the attention they command. They are difficult to forget. There is a danger with these names, however — they have the potential to be perceived as unprofessional, eccentric, or silly.

4. Acronyms
Another popular choice are acronyms — IBM, CVS, and CBS are well-known examples. In almost every case, the name started as something else (a string of founders’ names or a descriptive name) and became condensed over time. Clients, for instance, have a knack for abbreviating long vendor names. The problems with acronyms, however, are legion: they are usually impossible to trademark, they have no meaning or emotional appeal, and they are easily transposed and confused with similar-sounding company names.

5. Founders’ or Partners’ Names
Many companies, particularly in the professional services, are named for their founders or partners (and in larger firms, these names can be a real mouthful). This tradition, which goes back for centuries, makes sense in an industry in which personal connections are all-important. The long-term implications, however, can be problematic. When a named principal dies or leaves the firm, those personal connections are lost. In many cases, as these companies evolve over time, so do their names — as new partners replace old. These transformations can create confusion in the marketplace and makes it difficult to establish a widely known brand name.

This tradition of naming companies for their principals is unlikely to go away any time soon. But firms with an eye to the future may want to choose a name with better long-term branding prospects — one that is short, differentiated from competitors, and unlikely to metamorphose over time. You could select a single distinctive-sounding founder's name, for instance, and stick with it for the long haul.

SEE ALSO: How to Choose a New Company Name, Logo and Tagline

Choosing a Good Firm Name

Most experts agree that choosing a good name is important. A name encapsulates all of the content — intellectual and emotional — that people associate with a product or service. Some names make this process of association easier than others. With all of the challenges business owners face, it makes sense to use every advantage at their disposal.

So what’s the right name for your firm? Well, that depends on a variety of factors. Unless you are a startup, your current name carries at least some — and perhaps considerable — equity from its years of use. Adopting a new name at an established firm is no small decision.

But if you are in a highly competitive market with little differentiation among firms, a distinctive name could give you a leg up. In fact, there are a number of reasons you might want to break with the past and introduce a new firm name:

  • Your name is easily confused with a competitor
  • Your name is difficult to remember, spell, or pronounce
  • You are looking for a way to differentiate your firm
  • Your name or brand feels stale and old
  • Named partners have retired or left the firm
  • Your firm is trying to recover from a PR disaster
  • You are undergoing a major rebrand or shift in strategic direction

If are considering a new moniker for your organization, you’ll want to choose one that will stand the test of time. Remember, your name has a great deal of potential. It’s an opportunity to establish new associations and expectations as your firm takes on the future.

6 Ways Your Name Can Build Your Brand

  1. Differentiate you; contrast you against competitors
  2. Aid recall of your brand name
  3. Engage your audience
  4. Support your positioning
  5. Establish your business' personality
  6. Stand for something more universal than your product or service

Read Earlier Posts in This Series:

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