It Will Always Be the Sears Tower

Anyone who names things for a living will tell you a name is simultaneously the most important and least important signifier of a brand. It’s the most important because it’s the most succinct verbal expression of everything the brand stands for. It’s the least important because that “everything” is what gives the name value. The name alone—outside its brand context—doesn’t mean anything aside from its dictionary definition, if there is one.

Think of all the places you’ve been, especially those places that conjure up fond memories or positive associations. The place names stand for something much larger than their geographic locations. Even places you’ve never been can have very specific associations. Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr at the top of the Empire State Building. Dr. King and the March on Washington. Paris, France. Wasilla, Alaska. Each place name has its own narrative, real or fictional, that gives it significance beyond the everyday. The name represents the story that is the brand experience.

The Sears Tower was completed in 1973, but it feels like it’s always been there. Grade school kids who grew up in the 70s and 80s knew it as the tallest building in the world. Chicagoans considered it an icon of urban pride. The name “Sears Tower” came to symbolize American industry and audacity, literally and figuratively scaling new heights of cultural prominence. Even after Sears, Roebuck and Co. vacated the building in 1992, the company retained their naming rights through 2003, an indication of the edifice’s brand value.

When the Willis Group obtained the naming rights to the building (thrown in as part of the deal) and renamed it the Willis Tower, they joined a long line of place renamers: New York’s Pan Am Building is now the MetLife Building; San Francisco’s Candlestick Park is now Monster Park; Washington National Airport is now Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. But ask the residents of those cities how they refer to their landmarks, and there’s a good chance they’ll use the old name.

The associations we make in relation to brands—whether place or product—are powerful enough to overcome reason. Refusing to use a new place name is just an expression of brand loyalty. The familiar name triggers something inside us that can’t be ignored. And so for many of us, that formidable structure on South Wacker will always be known as the Sears Tower.

Read this article on Brandland USA here.

Originally published August 2009.

What a Shortened Name Says About a Brand

Two name changes—or more correctly, modifications—have received attention in the media and branding worlds recently. Pizza Hut has announced that its boxes and select locations will carry the name “The Hut,” and RadioShack plans to unveil new creative for “The Shack,” its shorter, catchier moniker. These name shortenings are proof of what professional namers already know: names acquire meaning, they don’t create meaning. Once meaning is established, the brand name can be reduced to a shorthand version of itself, signaling its secure place in the realm of consumer awareness.

In the case of Pizza Hut and RadioShack, there’s also a more tactical motivation. As brands move away from their legacy offerings and expand product assortments, they outgrow their descriptive names. Today, Pizza Hut sells more than pizza, and RadioShack has more than radios on its shelves. The two brands are larger than their original products; their names stand for tangible and intangible experiences.

There’s also a familiarity expressed in a shorter name, akin to a nickname. The shorter handles inject the brands with a first-name-basis ease that everyone can participate in, but that ultimately acknowledges a loyal clientele. “The Hut” isn’t just any hut, it’s the hut. The only hut.

Name shortenings are nothing new. For decades, brands have abbreviated their names to reflect vernacular speech or to protect equity. In many cases, the brand adopted and claimed ownership of a nickname, a testament to the reverse influence consumers can have on brands. Here are a few notable examples.

Kentucky Fried Chicken
In 1990, the Commonwealth of Kentucky trademarked the name “Kentucky,” forcing businesses to pay a licensing fee to use it. KFC was able to sidestep the issue by changing its brand name to the commonly used nickname. The fast-food restaurant has recently expanded its brand nomenclature to include KGC (the “G” standing for “grilled”).

Jack In The Box
The brand’s new logo positions “Jack” as the primary name by demoting “In The Box” to a visually subordinate level. Whether “Jack” becomes the official name has yet to be seen.

Charles Schwab
Not a name change, but noteworthy nonetheless—the brokerage’s most recent ad campaign employs the headline “Ask Chuck,” conveying a trusted familiarity.

America Online
The company officially changed its name to AOL in 2006, stating: “Our new corporate identity better reflects our expanded mission—to make everyone’s online experience better. Plus, consumers in the U.S. and around the world already know us by our initials.”

American Express
Amex, the abbreviated form of the name, is a company trademark.

Federal Express
Global market research revealed that “federal” connoted something bureaucratic and slow, and the full name was difficult to pronounce in certain foreign markets. In 1994, Fedex was adopted as the official brand name. The company’s new name also proved much easier to use in visual applications where space was limited.

Coca-Cola
The company behind the legendary drink registered the name Coke in 1945, but it has since become a genericized trademark.

As for The Hut and The Shack, time will tell what market reception of the shorter names will be. In the latter’s case, there’s clearly an intent to inject a youthful hipness into the brand. Advertising invites customers to “Crash the Party” at The Shack’s dedicated web page, where an urban palette and social media define a more progressive brand experience. Is this a fresh new chapter for the dated electronics catchall? Does the literal meaning of “shack,” a crudely built structure, unwittingly reinforce the brand’s slipshod merchandising strategy? Like all brand names, new or modified, The Shack will acquire the meaning that consumers give it.

Read the article on Brandland USA and Ads Of the World.

Originally published August 2009.

When Brand Names Go Bad

There’s one indisputable truth about brand naming: your name is only as good as your company, product, or service. Consumers rarely invest in something based solely on the perceived quality of its name. They invest in a product’s or brand’s reputation. Names can influence purchase decisions, but they don’t unilaterally prevent or guarantee them.

Which leads us to the phenomenon of brand names that go bad.

In the 1950s, a top US automaker decided to elevate one of its existing brands to the level of luxury car, creating room for a new sub-luxury brand. The company did its due diligence and came up with a plan. The brand would represent a new business division. It would place the parent company in a parity position with other major US automakers.

The car launched with great fanfare. But in just a few short years, the party was over. The company was Ford, and the brand was Edsel—a name that has become synonymous with colossal public failure. Speculation as to why the Edsel failed is endless. But one thing is fairly certain: it wasn’t because of the name alone. If that was the case, then brands like DeSoto, Chrysler, Buick, Cadillac—names that are no more or less odd-sounding than Edsel—would have failed just as quickly.

Consumer research done after the fact revealed, among other things, that the name was a problem. That’s a bit of a post-rationalization. What’s more likely is the car was a flop and took its name down with it. If the car had been a popular success, the brand name would be upheld as an example of how an unusual family name (Edsel Ford was the car’s namesake) can have breakthrough brand significance and stimulate record sales.

To this day, innocent brand names can go bad because of product shortcomings. Take the recent example of Microsoft’s operating system. Over the course of just a few decades, the company has achieved record-setting equity in Windows, which today is a household name. It’s a technology standard. No one pointed out that actual windows get stuck, can shatter, and offer a limited view of the world outside. The operating system worked, and so the name worked.

Until Vista came along.

It’s easy to imagine the scene at Microsoft corporate headquarters when the Vista name was under development: “We need a name that families with Windows, but takes it to the next level. This is a technology innovation, not just an operating system. It has to be aspirational yet approachable. It has to convey possibility. It has to accommodate future product developments. The name has to signify the next thing in PC-based computing.”

Fair enough. Vista might be somewhat expected as far as Microsoft brand names go, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with the name. It has positive connotations. It implies expansive view and freedom. It broadens the range of possibility established by Windows. But the product itself has not been the success Microsoft hoped for. In fact, it’s been the source of significant consumer dissatisfaction. And the name Vista has come to stand for the operating system’s shortcomings.

Part of Microsoft’s strategy to address the problem was to launch a campaign in which the name Vista was replaced with “Mojave” in focus groups. Users were introduced to the capabilities of Mojave, then told it was actually Vista. This was the “Mojave Experiment.” The operating system was, in essence, given a different name to represent its positive qualities. Rather than improve the perception of Vista, the campaign created a two-headed monster, each head with its own name. You never saw the operating system at work in the TV ads, making the situation seem slightly implausible—and adding to the perceptual divide between the names.

The problem is not the product, it’s in users’ heads, according to Microsoft. But Vista/Mojave continues to be unpopular, as evidenced by users who are voluntarily downgrading to the more predictable Windows XP. A bad product by any other name stinks just the same.

In the end, even the best names can suffer the same fate as the products they stand for. No brand name has ever concealed product failure. Consumers just aren’t that naïve. When it’s time to name your product, remember that success doesn’t just come in linguistic terms. If the product succeeds, the right name will more than likely succeed, too.

Read the original article on Ads of the World.

Your Name Goes Here

Your name has been your name for as long as you’ve known you. At least that’s the case for most of us. Sometime between the ages of four and seven months, the neurons involved in name recognition kicked in, and you learned to recognize your own name. And so you learned the word or words that represent you.

What does this have to do with branding? Flash forward to adulthood, and “Jim” and “Karen” and “Mark” and “Hildegard” are not just random syllables. They’re signifiers of personhood and personality. Or as we say in branding, identity.

And that brings us to the brand naming conundrum: Does the name create the identity, or does the identity give meaning to the name? The answer: yes.

A name is a relatively small verbal unit. It can only convey so much. And contrary to the most earnest client aspirations, it can never tell the full story about a brand or product or service. It can suggest that story, but the experience of the brand (or product or service) is what invests the name with meaning. On the flipside, a brand name is like shorthand. It’s a verbal label, an emblem. It stands for everything the brand represents, just like your name represents everything that makes you “you.”

Let’s go back to people names. If I described my friend “Fred” to you in detail, some of that explanation might stick. But chances are you would need to meet Fred in person to form an opinion of him, which you would then retroactively associate with his name. Your experience of my friend Fred is what gives unique meaning to his name. You might even know other Freds. But your specific knowledge of my friend gives the name Fred specific meaning in his case. It’s a contextual thing. To take it a step further, think of an expression like “That’s so Fred.” That’s a person’s name acting as a brand in everyday speech. We’re able to take the attributes that make Fred “Fred” and apply them to someone or something else, just by using his name. This is something celebrities are fully aware of—and why they often legally protect their names.

The naming conundrum I mentioned? It’s not easily solved. And maybe it’s not supposed to be. But here’s what I know: People tend to learn more easily through experience than being told. Which is why the better you get to know someone, the more likely you are to remember his or her name. Does this mean all names are just blank slates? No. Even coined names, which have no dictionary definition, cause our synapses to fire. The challenge is to make sure you’re activating synapses—as opposed to not activating them—with a brand name. Ultimately, how people perceive your brand is how they will understand its name. And somewhere in there, the name will come to represent the brand.

See this post on Ads of the World.