Naming In The News

What's in a Name? (In Marketing, Everything)

November 4, 2008
By Dan Emerson
Finance and Commerce

Local firm works with companies and brands to create memorable names, like Wendys' 'Baconator'

When Canadian energy firm EnCana Corp. needed a name for its new oil-company spinoff, the company turned for help to the experts: Minneapolis-based Strategic Name Development Inc. (SND).

Using a methodical approach it has developed to create effective names for companies and brands, SND came up with the moniker ''Cenovus'' Energy. According to a release announcing the new name, ''cen'' represents an innovative way of doing business in a new century, while ''novus'' is taken from the Latin root meaning ''new.''

Thanks to that proprietary, empirical approach, SND President William Lozito and ''chief linguistic officer'' Diane Prange have carved out a business niche that is both unique and international. They founded their firm in 1992, after operating a company that specialized in food-product marketing.

SND's method of developing names bears little resemblance to the comparatively informal, focus-group approach often used in the workplace to name products, brands or new corporate entities.

In fact, ''we think focus groups are one of the worst ways to do research on a name,'' Prange explains. ''Your target market doesn't understand strategy, positioning, line-extension and long-term goals. They just want to solve the problem right there. And, most people are very literal – if you're trying to come up with a name for a white toothbrush, they would say, ‘Just call it a white toothbrush.'''

Not that SND's approach is purely based on logic and cold rationality. As part of applying science to the process, Lozito and Prange also stress the importance of appealing to the amygdale – the part of the brain that controls emotions.

''It's good for the target market to become emotionally connected to a brand,'' Lozito says. ''But the people who choose names and develop brands need to check their own emotions at the door.''

Nationwide, only a handful of firms specialize in naming, according to Lozito.

''Many other people claim to do this, but they also do packaging design, corporate identity [development] or advertising. … Most people who aren't in the business think naming is easy and fun. But it's not easy. When you come up with the right name it might be ‘fun,' but not the process you have to go through.''

The time SND spends on each naming process varies from as little as five weeks to as much as a year.

To be effective, a name ''has to connect with the company and target market in a meaningful way,'' Prange explains.

''Arbitrary'' names with no apparent connection to what a company does or sells usually aren't effective, according to Prange.

However, Apple Computers and Richard Branson's ''Virgin'' brand are notable exceptions to that rule, the former ''because they have worked hard to connect that name'' to cutting-edge technology, and the latter ''because, at least, the founder can talk of entering virgin territory when the company breaks into a new industry,'' she adds.

Company and brand names don't have to be ''direct,'' Prange says.

''Suggestive names give you more flexibility and help you adopt as time goes by.'' When Amazon named its online book-buying service, ''people wondered why they didn't tie it to books. But when you look up the word ‘amazon,' it means ‘big.'''

To test names quantitatively, SND uses a proprietary process they call ''name DNA validation.''

It's a process of researching candidate names with a target market to measure a number of characteristics, two of which are ''memorability'' and ''latent association.''

''When you hear this name, what's the first thing that comes to mind?''' Lozito says. ''Often, you hope that will be positive and consistent about what you are trying to convey about a company or brand.

''Then, we have a battery of questions to measure the potential for emotional bonding of a name with the target group or groups. Through research, we have established norms for many categories to determine which names perform best, based on both relative and absolute measures – to find a name that does better than other names being tested and also better than other names in the category,'' he adds.

To conduct research, the firm uses online panels of people who have ‘opted in' to participate in market research, with a minimum sample size of 300 participants.

One step in the naming process that could be fun is vetting each possible choice ''to make sure it doesn't mean anything profane in another language,'' Lozito says. To do that, the firm maintains a network of about 30 linguistics professors at various universities. In one case, they checked a suggested name in more than 200 different languages.

One recent challenge was coming up with an international brand name for China's top motorcycle manufacturer.

''The name they were using, Haojue, was wonderful for their country but not pronounceable elsewhere,'' Lozito says. One promising candidate name was eliminated when they tested it in Brazil and found the word means ''butt crack.''

The acceptable final choice was ''Maxtra.''

The company's most high-profile success so far was helping the Wendy's fast food chain name its catchy ''Baconator'' burger. The Baconator, a double cheeseburger topped with six strips of bacon, was introduced in June 2007. It sold 68 million within six months.

Liz Geraghty, Wendy's director of new product development, didn't work on the Baconator project, but has collaborated with SND on other naming tasks, such as the chain's Mornin' Melt panini.

''What's most interesting about what they do is that it's really like a lesson in language when you work with them,'' Geraghty says. ''You think about words and their origins and meanings in a way you never had before. I find their process where they dissect pieces of words and talk about words and what they conjure up with people – and what an expression itself feels like when you say it – fascinating. Even the process itself sharpens your thinking on positioning and naming.''

Most startup companies don't have the resources to hire naming consultants, so they name themselves in-house.

''They usually end up picking a name that tends to be distinctive or the founder's name,'' Prange says. ''Companies will typically hire a naming company when they are expanding nationally or going global.''

Choosing an effective name for a company can be fraught with constraints because one of the most common reasons for a company name change is a merger or acquisition, which limits possible choices. When an established company decides to change its name, employees are typically invited to participate. When the former Andersen Consulting became Accenture, the new name suggested by an employee was selected ''just a few minutes before the announcement was made,'' Prange says.

Lozito's advice for companies that want to handle naming in-house?

''Check your emotions, your biases and preferences at the door. And if you're not hiring a naming company, make sure you have a good trademark attorney. When you do due diligence on all of the possible names, it can be pretty expensive.

''And remember that in naming, less is more. The fewer people involved in a decision, the better.''