A brand name can make or break a business. Choose a weak, unmemorable name and even a revolutionary product can flop. Would America Online have succeeded if it kept its original name, Quantum Computer Services? It’s a pretty safe bet that Google wouldn’t have caught on if it called itself BackRub, as it did in 1996.
What do you do when you want to create strong brand names? For starters, you
Common words make strong brand names
You might intuitively feel that common words don’t make strong brand names. Honda wouldn’t name a new line of automobiles “Car”, after all. Strong brands go beyond the common. Or at least that’s what most of us believe.
The truth is that common words sometimes make the strongest brand names. Trademark attorney Xavier Morales of SecureYourTrademark.com explains using a fantastic example.
“One example that I like to give to clients is that of Apple Inc., the famous computer and software
manufacturer. The word apple is a very common word, and yet Apple Inc. had no problem trademarking the term “APPLE for computers and computer programs. Nor did Apple Rubber Products, John Middleton Co., and Scholastic, Inc. All of those companies, and many others, own trademark rights to the single word “APPLE”.
Why was this allowed? Because the word apple is an arbitrary word when used in connection with the manufacture and sale of computers and computer programs, or tobacco products, or educ
ational materials. That is, there is nothing about these products that relates to apples the fruit. Accordingly, the term “APPLE” is actually a pretty strong trademark, as is the case when you apply a completely arbitrary term (however common it may be) to promote your products or services.”
So while Honda wouldn’t call a new model “Car”, they could call it, well, the Honda Apple. Or the Honda Hammer, or the Honda Pipe. As long as another car manufacturer hasn’t used the name already, it’s fair game.
You can create some vivid images with the right common word brand names. These images will only help your branding campaigns.
Beware made-up words
Although common words do make strong brand names, not every company is going to choose a common word for their own brands. It’s just not practical. What else might make a strong brand name? Going with intuition again, a made-up word might sound like a strong brand name. If no one else could have possibly used it, and if subsequent uses must necessarily reference your brand, that must be good, right?
To an extent that is true. Companies that create successful brand names using made-up words can gain plenty of attention. Google is a great example. (Though they’re really an alternate spelling to a word someone else made up.) When people say google, the search engine is the only reasonable point of reference. The same goes for other popular online brand names, such as Plaxo and Quora.
Yet there is considerable downside to using made-up words as brand names: you can create too strong a brand. That sounds ridiculous at first, but take a step back and consider the litany of real life examples. What do you call headache medicine? Aspirin. Yet that was originally a trademark of Bayer Healthcare. What about the stuff you put on your lips to prevent dryness? Chapstick. That’s another brand name that is now used to define the product. The container you use to keep hot drinks hot and cold drinks cold? Yes, thermos is an actual brand name.
Business Insider has an enormous list of brand names that have become generic over time. This is sometimes refered to as genericide: when a brand name is so closely associated with a product that it defines all of that product, rather than the specific brand. It’s not a bad problem to have at first, since it signals a very strong brand. But over time it becomes less and less valuable.
Avoid descriptive and geographic terms
One common piece of branding and naming advice is to give your customers a clue about what you do. That might seem like perfectly good advice, but like all good advice you can take it too far. Remember, you wouldn’t call your new automobile “Car”. So beware using overly descriptive terms in your brand names.
If you feel more comfortable using some kind of descriptor in a brand name, be sure to combine it with a strong brand name. We can return to our first example: Apple Computers. They wouldn’t simply call the company Computers. Nor should they, as we will see in the tip below, have called themselves Jobs Computers. Using a descriptive name can work, but only in combination with a strong brand name.
Geographic terms are similar in nature. They merely describe the location, rather than the product itself. A combination makes for a very weak brand name. You certainly wouldn’t want to call your new restaurant San Francisco Burgers. Geographic factors can play a part in brand names, especially as a point of pride. But in general, they only serve to limit the brand’s aspirations.
Perhaps the greatest reason to avoid descriptive and geographic terms: the US Patent and Trademark Office will refuse your trademark application. Even if you attach a strong brand name to the geographic location or description, you will have to disclaim ownership of those words. In other words, they don’t really play into your brand at all, as defined by trademark law.
Be careful when using surnames
When putting your personal stamp on your brand, you might be tempted to use your last name. This is not at all uncommon. In fact, many companies have used a founder’s surname with great success. Just look at McDonald’s and Kellogg’s. It’s hard to argue with their success or the ubiquity of their brand names.
At the same time, these brand names are decades and decades old. Naming standards have changed over time. While branding a service business with your name might work well, branding products is another story. Consider the story of a successful St. Louis brewery that shared a name with a famous public figure.
The Schlafly brewery has been going strong since 1991, and has capitalized on recent growth in the craft beer industry. Tom Schlafly brews many lines of beer that people across the country enjoy. And yet, his aunt shares his last name. She doesn’t want her conservative activism associated with her nephew’s brewery. So she has opposed his trademark application.
This doesn’t prevent Tom Schlafly from brewing and selling beer under his surname. But because of the held up trademark proceedings, his brand isn’t afforded the greatest possible protection under law.
Even in cases where a surname isn’t attached to a public figure, the Trademark Office typically won’t approve a trademark application using a surname for many years. It has to acquire what is termed secondary meaning. That is, McDonald’s hamburgers had to become reasonably famous, for about five years, before they could receive trademark protection. This might seem like a small issue, but for brands, trademark protection can go a long way.
Consider the domain name
Another bit of branding advice I’ve heard: don’t worry about the domain name. It has become exceedingly difficult to obtain domain names, thanks to years and years of people holding onto them and demanding outrageous prices for their sale. Surely you can find a reasonable domain name for your brand, even if it’s not an exact match, right?
Perhaps, but you’re not doing your branding any favors. Nor are you aiding your customers. In fact, a strong branding campaign with a non-matching domain can hurt your marketing efforts.
If you created the brand Bodacious Blue Shoes, people who saw your branding campaigns might instinctively type in bodaciousblueshoes.com. If that doesn’t bring them to your website, you have a problem. We hear all the time that people’s attention spans have dwindled. Do you really think they have enough attention span, or patience, to seek you out? If it’s not easy, they’ll just quit.
Some companies can overcome this, but only with great effort. The social media tool Buffer is a great example. As you can see in the link, their url is not buffer.com. Type that into your browser and you’ll get a page about heat sealing buffers. Oops. Yet they have created such a strong and compelling content marketing campaign that it hardly matters. They might lose a few potential customers, but their marketing is so, well, remarkable that they’re doing quite well for themselves.
Images: ”KIEV, UKRAINE – FEBRUARY 21, 2012: A logotype collection of well-known world brand’s printed on paper. Include Google, McDonald’s, Nike, Coca-Cola, Facebook, Apple and more others logo./ Shutterstock.com“
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