Posted in: Opinion

The name says it all — or does it?

First impressions are key; often, the first thing we see from a brand is its name.

2nd June 2021

James Bolton

James Bolton

James Bolton

Written by James Bolton,
Brand Strategist & Creative Copywriter

Whether it’s word of mouth or flicking through a magazine, a name can often spark interest and create brand awareness instantly. But it’s worth pointing out that just like a logo, they can’t do everything.

Without brand elements like marketing collateral, tone of voice, design style and customer service, a name is just one piece of the puzzle. It’s only when all the pieces of the branding jigsaw are put together that you get a complete, coherent brand with meaning and value.

But how often do we stop and think about the reasoning or theory behind the name? Unless you’ve got all the time in the world, probably never. So, here we’ll run through a few things to think about before you decide on a name, elements like naming conventions, as well as some well-known brands and the less well-known stories behind their names.

The branding rebel

Naming is a crucial cog in your branding machine. It can help increase brand recognition, build loyalty and ultimately set you apart from the rest. Yet, unlike most visual elements, it can break the rules, be unconventional and go against the grain. The only fundamental rules are to be memorable and easy to pronounce. Of course, that’s open to change based on business and brief but broadly speaking, when it comes to naming, the world is your oyster. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily easy.

Just ask Netflix co-founder Marc Randolph: “Picking a name is incredibly difficult. For one thing, you need something catchy, something that rolls off the tongue and is easy to remember. One or two-syllable words are best.

“Too many syllables, too many letters, and you run the risk of people misspelling your website. Too few letters, and you risk forgetting the name.”

Change is good

While some start-ups or newly formed businesses will be entering the stage with an exciting blank canvas, for others, it will be as a circumstance of a strategic decision or organisational merger. But no matter how long you’ve been around, changing your name doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Just like your visual identity, there’ll be a time when you might be due an upgrade or a change of direction. That change is to be embraced and used as a platform.

Ever heard of Burbn, Backrub or Kibble? Probably not. Once upon a time, they were Instagram, Google and Netflix respectively. Yet despite their unconventional names they’ve become so commonplace that we don’t even think twice about their meaning or theory.

To be descriptive or not to be

When someone says ‘Moonpig’, we all know they’re talking about buying personalised greetings cards online. Yet the word itself is completely unrelated to its product and doesn’t even hint at a level of service or emotion.

Instead, Moonpig self-deprecatingly comes from founder Nick Jenkins’ childhood nickname. But when you break it down it ticks all the boxes of a good, if unconventional name. It’s punchy, fun, memorable, and above all unique in a search and domain sense; something that was so crucial to the business’ development and growth. In Moonpig’s case, their name benefits from being easily adaptable and represented visually, with obvious and clear potential for identity routes. Nick must be grateful for having such a large head during his youth after all.

Moonpig advert

Moonpig advert

On the opposite side of things, someone like lays all its cards (not birthday ones) on the table. Like Ronseal, it does what it says on the tin. Despite being a little clunky and lengthy, it’s super simple and instantly memorable. It even benefits from having its domain within the name and logo, making the online search effortless. But, again, there’s no great concept or theory here; it simply works and does the job; given their sector and market position, it works for them.

Mix and match

A typical naming strategy amongst both small and large brands is acronyms or portmanteaus. The former usually creates a word from the first letters of a longer set of words. ASOS is a prominent example, which many will know stands for As Seen On Screen. BMW is another example, which for non-car geeks represents Bayerische Motoren Werke, or ‘Bavarian Motor Works’ in English. This strategy is a handy way to whittle down longer sets of words into something memorable and easy to say. If, like ASOS, the letters can make a new or existing name that fits, then even better. One watch out is making sure the letters don’t sound overtly cold or corporate, which they easily can. Another is anything that could be misinterpreted or potentially viewed negatively.

ASOS advert

ASOS advert

Portmanteaus are slightly different but follow a similar naming convention. Here words, or their component parts, combine to create something new — Aldi and adidas being two prominent brand examples. In Aldi’s case standing for Albrecht, the founding brothers’ surname, and diskont, which you guessed it, means discount. Adidas took a similar approach, deriving from founder Adi Dassler’s full name. It’s almost as if the Germans have a habit of making things shorter, smarter and more efficient.

Durex tred a familiar path, but leave personal naming to one side in favour of combining three promises or qualities; durable, reliable, excellence. As does Netflix, (*insert Netflix and chill jokes here*), which is adapted from a combination of internet and flix, a shortened version of the synonym for movie. Vodafone is another perfect portmanteau, which stems from voice, data and telefone.

In similar territory is supermarket chain Spar, with their name acting as a shortened acronym for Door Eendrachtig Samenwerken Profiteren Allen Regelmatig; meaning ‘all benefit from joint co-operation’ in Dutch. It’s also why the logo features a tree, with De Spar being Dutch for ‘the spruce’.

SPAR van livery

SPAR van livery

Looking back to the ancient past

Over the years, Greek mythology and ancient language have inspired some of the most well-known and world-renowned entrepreneurs. Whether it’s naming, logos, products or purposes, they’ve played a big part in inspiring household brands we interact with on a daily basis. None more so than Nike, whose name pays homage to the Greek goddess of victory.

Some less well-known examples include fellow sports company Asics — a brand that coincidentally played a decisive role in Nike’s history, check out Shoe Dog by Phil Knight for more — and Sony. While Asics combines history with an acronym strategy to reflect the Latin phrase ‘anima sana in corpore sano’, which translates as ‘a sound mind in a sound body’, Sony is an interesting combination of Latin and local history. In its simplest form, Sony doffs its cap to the Latin word for sound, Sonus (that might sound familiar too), but it also derives from the founders considering themselves ‘sonny brothers’ — a borrowed Japanese word that suggests smart young men. Nivea is another example in this category, translating to Latin as snow-white; a metaphor for the purity of the company’s skin cream.

Asics - sound body sound mind

Asics - sound body sound mind

Keep it local

Sticking with the language theme, and a technique used by some of the world’s biggest brands is adopting their native tongue to transcend its meaning across the globe. Korean brands Hyundai and Samsung have both stuck with their national dialect; the former meaning modernity and the latter, a combination of three and star, which represents something ‘big, numerous and powerful’. Lego follow a similar route, with their name a contraction of the Danish phrase leg godt, which means ‘play well’.

While these names work well abroad and particularly so once brand reputation is built, they run the risk of not being a strong enough differentiator at home or in other cases simply being lost in translation.

Lego Signage

It’s a similar story for personal names; putting your name above the door is always a bold call. On the one hand, it benefits from being genuine, meaningful and can even add a personal feel. On the other, it runs the risk of feeling outdated and potentially limiting, mainly when presented as a family or homemade style business. Individual first or surnames are an option, but it needs to be suitable for your business and what you’re hoping to achieve.

Mistakes make sense

There have even been cases where misspellings have inadvertently made words easier to say or write, one famous example being Google.

After a brainstorming session at Stanford University, founder Larry Page looked for a name for his vast, new data-index website. One student suggested ‘googolplex’ — one of the largest describable numbers — which was accidentally misspelt then shortened. As they say, the rest is history. If you ever need an example where rules can be broken or convention challenged, just look at Google.

Options, options, options

There’s a host of other strategies we haven’t touched on, but the above gives you a flavour of some of the options and some of the stories behind the world’s most well-known brands.

In all likelihood, finding a name that feels right and looks right won’t happen overnight. It might even take months or years until you’re entirely comfortable and happy with your choice. But, even then, it might only be because of familiarity and the fact you’ve heard or read it so many times.

But as we’ve touched on, developing a great brand name — one that is distinctive, memorable, easy to pronounce and emotionally appealing — is a critical but challenging element to creating a successful new brand. You’ll need to think about how you want to position yourself, the space you want to occupy, and the image you want to convey. It could be more literal, metaphorical, an acronym or completely arbitrary.

While there will be a correct feel for your brand, keep your options open and don’t rule any strategy out. And always remember: inspiration can come from the most unlikeliest of places.

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