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5 Myths about Brand Names

by Steve Rivkin

A good brand name is golden. As a Kraft Foods executive says, “Kraft has thousands of trademarks and they are among our most treasured assets. To the outside world, they represent who we are and what we do.”

But over the years, lots of false notions and fuzzy thinking have crept into the naming game. Let’s clear up five major misconceptions.

Myth #1: Size doesn’t matter.
Yes, it does. Long names are awkward, likely to be abbreviated, and are prone to nicknames not always of your choosing. Shorter is better in everything from memorability to packaging. Examples: Aim, Ban, Bic, Bold, Jif, Raid, Sure, Tide and Visa.

Shorter names can even save you money, as FedEx found out. Changing their name from “Federal Express” to “FedEx” eliminated a wide purple color field in the logo and saved up to $1,000 in labor and materials on the paint job on each vehicle. The company operates thousands of vehicles.

Myth #2: There are no words left to steal from the dictionary.
Not true. Your speaking vocabulary may only be 30,000 words, but a hefty dictionary will yield 750,000 words. So dig a little deeper. Amplify? It’s become the name of a haircare product. Hefty? A trash bag. Meridian? A bank. Platinum? A software firm. Tenet? A hospital chain.

You should also consider two-word phrases. Idioms, expressions and figures of speech can make highly evocative names. Examples: Cover Girl, an aspirational name for makeup. Gold Medal flour and Blue Ribbon margarine are two of many ways to say “best of the breed.” City Limits is the name and ambiance of a retro diner. Second Nature, a renewable energy program for consumers. A phrase is more than the sum of its parts.

Myth #3: Coining a new word is easy.
Sure it is, if you don’t give a damn about communicating. The proper term for manufacturing a name is a “neologism.” Anybody with a computer or a set of Scrabble tiles can crank out a newly-minted word like Anadem or Zixoryn. But the trick is to create a new name that is meaningful, impactful and starts the positioning process for the brand or company.
Trueste is the name of a perfume from Tiffany. (You can see the foundation of “true.”) Premio is the new name for America’s leading maker of Italian sausages. (It’s the Italian word for prize or reward, and you can see the foundation of “premium.”) These neologisms mean something. They start the communications process.

Myth #4: Manufactured names are all the same.
Au contraire. A made-up name might be a simple fusion of two easily recognized words. Examples: Seagate, Bridgestone, Earthgrains. Or it might be an altered form of a recognizable word. Examples: The pain reliever Aleve. Or the computer brand Compaq. It might be a foreign word that some people would recognize. Example: Diamante, the Spanish word for “diamond.” But if you select a foreign term identifiable only to scholars, you start with zero recognition.

Myth #5: Customers will take our name literally.
No, they won’t. They’re smarter than that. Does the deodorant name No Sweat mean you absolutely, positively won’t sweat? Is a car from Rent-A-Wreck really a wreck? Does the perfume name Passion guarantee that — well, you get the idea. Good names are suggestive. They are bundles of possible meanings. They are not contractual commitments.

Steve Rivkin is the co-author of The Making of a Name: The Inside Story of the Brands We Buy and the proprietor of the highly successful U.S. naming consultancy Rivkin & Associates.

Recent Comments

  1. Katya Miller


    You forgot to mention one thing in “Myth #2: There are no words left to steal from the dictionary” – the name’s availability.

    There are more than 200,000 applications being submitted every year for trademarking in U.S.

    If anything, I think we are running out of time to trademark the natural words in English, and the only option left is to come up with the coined brand names.

    It is not the matter of finding the name, but whether the name is available from the legal perspective.

    Thank you.

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