What's in a Name? A Branding Expert Explains.

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June 10 2014 9:41 AM

What's in a Name? A Branding Expert Explains.

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Brands, global and local

Photo by Mustafa Ozer/AFP/Getty Images

This post first appeared on Business Insider.

The best brand names become a part of consumers' vocabularies and synonymous with the items they represent, like Kleenex has with tissues.

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"A name is a moniker that a company is going to wear probably the longest of anything we develop," says Sasha Stack, a partner at the Boston offices of brand-strategy and design firm Lippincott.

So why do names like Sprite and Verizon work so well? We asked Stack to guide us through the naming process using some of her favorite projects, as well as the brand names she most admires.

Determining a name for a company is about "being authentic to the personality of the organization," Stack says. A foundational aspect of this process concerns sound symbolism, the visual associations words carry.

Brand strategists often rely on what is known as the "bouba/kiki effect." In 1929, the German-American psychologist Wolfgang Köhler conducted an experiment in which he presented Spanish-speaking participants in the Canary Islands the following two images:

branding1

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Which one, he asked, was called "baluba," and which one was called "takete"? He didn't report a percentage, but the overwhelming majority of participants said the first was takete and the second was baluba. The results were repeated when the test was redone in 1947 and baluba changed to "maluma."

When scientists Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard did their own version in 2001, they presented the same shapes to American college students and Tamil speakers in India and asked which was "bouba" and which was "kiki"? More than 95 percent of each group said kiki was the angular shape and bouba was the rounded shape.

Stack says these experiments show how words often make our mouths feel a certain way, which in turn cues our brains into visualizing shapes. A name and a logo, therefore, have to work together, and jointly express what a company stands for in a single impression.

For effective names, Stack says, "We often go back to Latinate terms that feel universal." Stack prefers using real words, because they already possess meaning and consumers are more willing to accept them.

branding2

Screenshot of Sprite logo and dictionary.com definition

Lippincott created the name Sprite for the Coca-Cola Company's lemon-lime soft drink in 1961. The word means "elf, fairy, or goblin," and comes from the Latin spiritus, for spirit. The drink was to be marketed as something refreshing, lively, and energetic, says Stack, and the name fit, especially when paired with bright green and yellow.

branding3

Left image courtesy of Samsung. Right photo by Graeme Robertson/Getty Images.

Stack helped name Milk, Samsung's music-streaming service. She especially likes it because it's surprisingly different from anything else in tech. Rather than imposing a technical or esoteric word, the team chose to give consumers "something from their vocabulary," and play off the idea that Samsung wanted to make its service part of its audience's daily lifestyle, in the same way most people always want milk stocked in the fridge.

Sometimes all it takes is changing one letter of a real word to make a great brand name. In 2012, Stack and her team were hired to rebrand Pfizer Animal Health as it spun out from a subsidiary into its own company. As they looked at the name Pfizer, the letter "z" stuck out and got ideas rolling. When searching for appropriate words, "zoetic," a Greek word meaning "pertaining to life," seemed a perfect fit. And in regards to phonetics, changing the hard "c" into a soft "s" made it a warmer word, and thus Zoetis became "elevated above the rest of the pharma landscape," according to Stack.

branding4

Zoetis/Merriam Webster/Dictionary.com/Infiniti

Sometimes a letter change is purely about aesthetics. When a Lippincott team was working with Nissan to develop a marketing strategy for the Infiniti line of luxury sedans, a designer suggested turning the "y" into an "i" would be much more visually appealing, a point the team agreed on.

And while Stack prefers short, real words, she points out that over 300,000 trademarks are filed every year. A good way to stay simple but remain creative is by combining words. Lippincott, for example, created the name Verizon in 2000 because combining veritas, Latin for "truth," with horizon suggested a reliable and forward-thinking company.

branding5

Verizon/Dictionary.com

Stack thinks that the best brand names sound good in any language. American marketers may have thought the Chevy Nova was a great name, but for Spanish and Italian speakers, it was easy to mock the "No-va" in their languages as the "car that doesn't go," Stack says. (Though this story about Nova's unpopularity due to its name appears to be apocryphal.)*

She also thinks the best names avoid trends. For example, when it was cool for tech companies to drop a letter from a real word and make it their name, like Flickr did.

If you're coming up with a name for your own company or new brand line, mull over your options for as long as you can, says Stack, and make sure you see how it looks in real-world applications, like on a website or business card.

When Stack works with a company on a name, she and her team presents them with 20-25 names that go through two and a half weeks of preliminary legal screening to make sure they can be used. They are then thoroughly tested to see if they work for non-English speakers and work with the company's products.

Stack says it's important to remember a name is linked to everything else in a company. "A name is how a company introduces itself, so there's a lot of weight on the name initially," Stack says. "But we always look at it from the perspective of it being rooted in the strategy, and it's going to have other things that reinforce it, like the logo. We always look at names as just one piece of the puzzle of building a brand."

Correction, June 10, 2014: This post originally quoted Sasha Stack of Lippincott saying that Chevy's Nova with Spanish-speakers because its name sounded like the car "doesn't go." This story, while popular, has never been substantiated.

Richard Feloni is a strategy reporter at Business Insider. Follow him on Twitter.

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