Naming In The News

Name Recognition

by Phil Bolsta

Do people remember your company and its products? The name game isn't as easy to play as it looks–and not playing it right could be the difference between success and failure. So how is a good name for a business discovered? Seems like it should be pretty simple. It's not.

The Game of the Name

Considering there are nearly 12 million active trademarks around the world, dreaming up a name you can own is a major challenge. "The big rub is that a lot of the names we come up with aren't going to be available," says William Lozito, founder and president of Bloomington-based Strategic Name Development. "There are in the neighborhood of 260,000 trademark applications a year& So it's no surprise that, in many categories, a lot of good names have already been registered."

Bill Lozito
William Lozito of Strategic Name Development didn't cook up the Davanni's name, but he has worked for another food-service business. Lozito helped G&K Services come up with the "ProSura" name for its food-service garment and safety products.

Experts also say that an in-house naming project can be undermined by egos, politics, and emotional attachments. One of the most frustrating obstacles for many naming agencies is "the Thanksgiving table." That's the one we dread," says Levin with a laugh. "It's when the CEO gathers the family around the table, and Grandma decides to tweak the name. We always try to go to legal before Thanksgiving!"

Even the perfect name may still leave customers perfectly confused. In 1983, when Roger Schelper, Mick Stenson, and Bob Carlson decided to aggressively grow their eight-year-old pizza-and-hot-hoagie restaurant business, they were dismayed to learn that they didn't have exclusive rights to the name Pontillo's. Paging through an Italian dictionary, the word d'avanti–"ahead" or "the leader"–jumped out at them. They Americanized the word to Davanni's and tested it in focus groups. "People started describing exactly what we were," Schelper recalls. "Family, casual, not too expensive. Wow! It was perfect."

Instead, it turned out to be the perfect nightmare. As son as signs out front changed from Pontillo's to Davanni's, sales dropped 11 percent the first week and 15 percent the next. "Your pizza isn't as good as when you were Pontillo's," read one customer comment card. "I don't like those new guys who bought the company," said another.

Schelper was apoplectic. "We hadn't changed one bloody thing, just the name!" he recalls. "That's all we had done, just like we had said in our advertising. It was so frustration–the eight years of goodwill in the Pontillo's name was lost, and we had to start from square one again."

It was a tough lesson to learn–customer perception often trumps reality. Schelper and Stenson slashed their own salaries 15 percent, added more pizza ingredients, instituted performance incentives, and brainstormed other ways to ensure that customers "left happy." It took nearly two years, but the plan worked. Davanni's now has 21 restaurants in the Twin Cities metro.

What's in a name?

Typically, agencies use proprietary methods for developing names. Nametag uses a process called Ideonics, which begins with a deep understanding of the client's business strategy. Next comes market feedback, analysis, presentation of results, and rolling out the brand plan.

The list of names that Nametag presents is typically very short. "Every single name we present is in lockstep with the strategy and positioning of the company or product," Levin says. "Only then can the brand come to life in the marketplace to articulate that strategy."

Recently, Nametag put Ideonics to work for Imation, the Oakdale-based manufacturer of data-storage systems, which sought a name for a new coating that protects CDs and DVDs from scratches and smudges. "Imation, like many technology companies, is risk averse," Young says. "Its competitors often choose names that are flat and predictable." Nametag assembled a cross-functional team from various Imation departments–engineering, sales, research, science lab, field sales, marketing–to get the company to think more broadly and creatively.

"As a company, we had spent several years identifying scratch resistance as a primary customer need," recalls Jessica Walton, Imation's manager for optical media. "We then went through a detailed process with Nametag to identify the technical elements of the product, its features and benefits, and the target customer."

Even when a strong name emerged, Imation remained in research mode. "It wasn't until we went into customer testing, which Nametag orchestrated for us, that 'ForceField Scratch-Resistant Coating' rose above the other names," Walton says. " 'ForceField =' encapsulates the feeling we wanted our target customer to have. It tells the customer right away that their digital content will be protected." Imation launched ForceField in January 2005.

Like Nametag, Strategic Name Development also has its own methodology. Key to that approach, says Lozito, is to "encourage the client to step back and look at potential names through the eyes of the target market."

Strategic Name Development then identifies the appropriate naming criteria. What kind of name is the client looking for–descriptive, suggestive, offbeat? Is the product or service a brand-new, standalone offering? Or is an existing company or product in need of a new name due to an outmoded business model, a change in direction, a shift in the market, or a negative event? Perhaps the current name no longer represents its values or its mission. Changing a name can help establish a new company persona, reposition an offering, or jettison unwanted baggage. For instance, ValuJet changed its name to that of a company it purchased, AirTran, in 1996, after one of ValuJet's planes went down in the Florida Everglades.

Once the development process begins, Lozito says, "We look at everything from morphemes, which are the smallest roots of words, to phonemes, which are the sounds of words." He adds that "while you use a morpheme to create a word, you consider phonemes to make sure the name is sonorous. For example, generally speaking, a name that's structured consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel is easier to pronounce." Individual letters also play key roles: A plosive sound–a p or a k–evokes a sense of speed.

When the final candidates are identified, Strategic Name Development applies a proprietary tool called Name DNA Validation, which is designed to measure the emotional connection a name has to the target market. The company put that approach into practice recently when it created a new brand name for G&K Services, Inc., a Minnetonka-based uniform supplier and production-facility management company. In developing a brand for its food-safety systems, G&K sought to find a unique name it could trademark–and to make sure the new brand didn't have any adverse meanings in both the U.S. and overseas markets. "They let us through a very methodical process in which they explored different prefixes, suffixes, roots, and stems, and combined them in creative ways," recalls Peter Ellis, G&K's senior vice president for marketing and business development.

Eventually, Strategic Name Development came up with the name ProSura. According to Ellis, the name "embodies what we offer to our food industry customers, which is the professional assurance that what we deliver is part of their food safety solution. That's what ProSura stands for – professional assurance." G&K rolled out the ProSura name in early 2005.

Functional to Fictional

A useful way to look at the various species of names comes from Yamamoto Moss, whose creative team considers five major categories.

Description. Straightforward, descriptive names–AutoZone, Toys "R" Us, Discovery Channel – are advantageous when a company or its products are first to market, allowing them to own the position in customers' minds. As Al Ries and Jack Trout observe in their 2000 book Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, "The name is the hook that hangs the brand on the product ladder in the prospect's mind." A local example is the name that Yamamoto Moss developed in 1980 for a new type of hearing aid, the Miracle-Ear, which also became the name of the Plymouth-based company that produces the device.

Functional. Think law firms, ad agencies, and financial services firms sporting the last names of partners. But even with such tight naming parameters, there's room to be creative.

When Minneapolis-based ad agency Martin Williams hired Glenn Karwoski to start a PR firm as a separate operating group in 1992, it fell to him to name the new company. "A professional services firm is typically named after the professionals who work there in order to capitalize on the positive equity attached to their names," Karwoski says. "However, our research showed that a name like Karwoski & Associates or Karwoski & Partners could lead people to think I was a lone freelancer."

As a creative exercise, Karwoski picked up one of this favorite books, The Courage to Create, by Rollo May, flipped it open, and started reading. "I opened to a page where May was talking about courage," Karwoski recalls. "I liked the sound of that, investigated further, and found that cor, the Latin root, evolved into cuer, or heart, in French, and then to the French word, corage, which can mean heart, mind, and spirit. I thought, 'Those three would be pretty good partners.' " Thus was born Karwoski & Courage Public Relations, which now employs 15 people.

Roark Kramer Kosowski Design, a Minneapolis architectural firm, has a senior partner who's a fictional character. "I founded the company in 1976 as The Design Collective, but in 1985 we thought the name sounded too communist," says firm Principal Peter Kramer. "We decided to come up with a snappier name, and Howard Roark seemed like the perfect person to add as our senior partner."

Roark is the heroic architect in Ayn Rand's 1943 novel The Fountainhead. "I assume that everybody's read it," Kramer says. "All architects had to have read it. Still we get a lot of people asking, 'Who is Howard? He never seems to be around.' Our phone message says that he's in New York marketing, and he'll be back on Friday."

Experiential. Think Web browsers like Netscape Navigator, Internet Explorer, and Safari. They all tap into what people experience–searching, exploring, navigating–while using the product.

Invented. The uniqueness of an invented name has numerous advantages. It belongs to no other product or company; it can be typed into a Web browser and take the viewer directly to a company's site. But uniqueness can also mean unfamiliarity, a lack of clarity about a company's message or product. An invented name, then, often needs a measure of market familiarity to be successful.

Alternative Living Services, a Milwaukee-based provider of residential housing for dementia patients and their families, asked Nametag to help determine if it needed to change its name. Levin and Young's research included Equitest, a proprietary tool that measures the "equity" of a brand–its meaning, its perception in the marketplace, and how well it fits with the message the company is trying to convey.

Alternative Living Services executives were dismayed to discover that the general public viewed the company as a provider of housing for people pursing "alternative lifestyles," an interpretation that kept prospective customers from even calling them. Still, the company's executive team wanted to retain the root of the name, because the 25-year-old business had established some brand equity.

The name that emerged, Alterra Healthcare, is a nod to the past, but it also implies "alternate," which means a new and better way to provide care. Plus, the "al-" portion of the name ties to Alzheimer's, while "-terra" evokes foundations, land, and grounding. The cherry on top is that the new name will continue to appear near the top of the Yellow Pages listings.

Evocative or Emotional. The most creative names are the most unexpected–and also the riskiest, which makes them more difficult to sell up the ladder to company leaders. The name "Banana Republic" had nothing to do with clothing, but it did the heavy lifting of differentiating the stores in a crowded marketplace, suggesting an out-of-the-ordinary irreverence.

Similarly, if you sent out to name an online job-search sit, a cartoon monster would not be the first thing to come to mind. But now stands out above competitors like,,, and Those other site names, while more descriptive, are less memorable and blend together in the prospect's mind.

"You'll come up with logs of safe names by sticking with things that are likely to be associated with the product, but those names won't make a big splash," says Yamamoto Moss's Lee Thomas. "That's where the creative potential is. Going in unexpected directions is where the potential is to differentiate yourself."

In 2000, Nametag was commissioned to name a new liquor product for Seagram (which has since merged with the U.K.-based wine and spirits giant Diageo). Captain Morgan, the company's franchise brand, appealed primarily to men, and its market share was steadily eroding. Seagram wanted to introduce a coconut-flavored run to take advantage of the trend toward flavored liquor. Nametag had to come up with a name that made customers feel they were buying a "vacation in a bottle."

Levin and her creative team zeroed in on the captain's vocation. "Captain Morgan's a pirate, and the iconic image of a pirate always includes a parrot," Levin says. "So we came up with the name Parrot Bay. It's done screamingly well for them and is the cornerstone of their franchise now. And even non-coconut run drinkers recognize the brand."

Of course, Banana Republic,, and Parrot Bay would have died on the vine without an intelligent–and expensive–branding campaign. "Almost any name can become familiar with unlimited spending behind it," Lozito says. "That's an important consideration when selecting a name–what will the marketing budget support?"

Still, even the biggest budget doesn't make you bulletproof. When Google introduced Gmail recently, the online behemoth discovered that it couldn't use the word "Gmail" in England and Germany, where the name was already taken.

"It just goes to show that even the big and mighty can stub their toe," Lozito says. "And it makes you wonder–why didn't they just Google it?"

Phil Bolsta is a Rogers-based freelance writer.