What’s in a business name?

Lexicon Branding was founded in 1982 with a single mission: To create extraordinary brand names. Names that get attention, names that generate interest, and names that tell the relevant consumer something new. From the company website

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.

Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare


In 1996 Larry Page and Sergey Brin two Stanford computer science grad students began collaborating on a search engine which they called BackRub.  Two years later they decided that this name just wasn’t right. Following a brainstorming session they came up with Google, a play on the word “googol,” a mathematical term for the number represented by the numeral 1 followed by 100 zeros. They wanted to reflect the search engine’s mission to organise the vast swathes of information on the internet. And the rest is history. Would BackRub have come to dominate the market like Google has done? We will never know the answer to that question. In 2001 Andersen Consulting changed its name to Accenture. This word is said to derive from accent on the future. The name emerged from an internal competition and was submitted by Ken Petersen, a Danish employee from the company’s Oslo office. The name change proved fortunate when the Enron imploded. It enabled them to distance themselves from Arthur Anderson, which was effectively dissolved as a result of its unfortunate role in the scandal. And Philip Morris has sought to change its image as a purveyor of addictive carcinogens with the name Altria, designed to evoke images of altruism. And for me the most was when Procter and Gamble callously killed off Mister Proper replacing it with the insipid Don Limpio.

Lexicon Branding, Inc., which was founded in 1982 by a UCLA political science graduate, David Placek is perhaps the most prestigious firm in the world of company names and brands. This firm, which is based in Sausalito, has been responsible for 15 billion-dollar brand names, including BlackBerry, PowerBook, Pentium, Scion, and I have mentioned the tech ones because these are the most famous ones in global terms, but they are in many other sectors. Sales of products with Lexicon-created brand names now total more than $100 billion.

How do they come up with these names? After meeting the clients they have different teams coming up with thousands of potential names. The names are gradually whittled down. They normally present the client with between 25 and 50 words. They use multiple strategies to generate names: free association, mind maps. Linguistics plays an most essential role for Lexicon. They have a global team of 77 Ph.D. linguists from around the world who evaluate the pros and cons of each name. They don’t just worry about the meanings of the words, but they have conducted extensive research into how sound symbolism affects our perception of brand names. The sound cl as in cluster, clamp, or close, signifies ‘togetherness’. So you get the name Clio for a small but cosy car. Lexicon’s team of linguists found that names starting with the consonants V, F and S sounded the fastest, while names starting with B, D and P suggested dependability.

What makes a successful brand name? It should be memorable. Successful names can often be incredibly simple. Leonardo put it very succinctly: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” A short name is good, but it is not essential. The name has to be available. I heard one estimate that 98% of the words in a typical dictionary have been registered as dotcom domains or trademarks, leading to a glut of fabricated names such as Diageo or Verizon. The drawback with having these meaningless names is that you have to spend millions to make them mean something. A name that will travel well is also useful. The internet is full of stories about brand names not working well internationally. I’m never sure how much truth there is to them, but here are a few examples:  A famous French mobile company’s slogan – The future’s bright … the future’s Orange –  did not go down well with the Catholic population in Northern Ireland The Mitsubishi Pajero translates as tosser in Spanish and in Germany a latte is an erection

I heard Placek talking on the radio about what his company does. He believes that it is a mistake a brand name too descriptive. The hotel chain Budgetel was struggling. The name, which sounded a bit cheap and cheerful – wasn’t attracting customers. Lexicon suggested that they change it to Baymont Inn & Suites and the company has gone from strength to strength. Intel were the first microprocessor company to brand their microprocessors.. Pentium takes the Greek word for five with the Latin suffix ium which evokes strong powerful elements such as titanium. Lexicon wanted to create an image of speed, power and innovation.

I think we shouldn’t make too much of all this. A company will be successful because of what they do rather than what they are. General Electric, I.B.M and Singer sewing machines don’t strike me as particularly inspiring but that didn’t stop them enjoying success –they did this on the basis of what they achieved , rather than what they were called. You can have the best name in the world, but if there is nothing behind it, the product will surely fail. Lexicon came up with Zune for Microsoft’s MP3 player. It was supposed to be their iPod killer but in the end the it was beaten hands down by the Apple device. I am not really an Apple fan, but they have captured a really important sector. One has to ask oneself if iPad is such a great name. When it came out people were joking about sanitary pads. But it doesn’t seem to have held it back very much. Anyway if you want to find any more about this subject, I suggest you BackRub it.

One Response to What’s in a business name?

  1. Alberto says:

    There is room for a post on slogans.

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