Product Naming

rose by any other name

Product naming is the discipline of deciding what a product will be called, and is very similar in concept and approach to the process of deciding on a name for a company or organization. Product naming is considered a critical part of the branding process, which includes all of the marketing activities that affect the brand image, such as positioning (the place that a brand occupies in the mind of the customer) and the design of logos, packaging, and the product itself.

The process involved in product naming can take months or years to complete. Some key steps include specifying the objectives of the branding, developing the product name itself, evaluating names through target market testing and focus groups, choosing a final product name, and finally identifying it as a trademark for protection.

Product names that are considered generally sound have several qualities in common. First and foremost, they strategically distinguish the product from its competitors by conveying its unique positioning (ideas associated with the product that distinguish it from competitors). They imply or evoke a salient brand attribute, quality or benefit. Successful product names are often specifically tailored to appeal to the product’s target audience, and allow companies to bond with their customers to create loyalty.  They have a symbolic association that fortifies the brand image to the consumers, which motivates customers to buy the product. They must also be available for legal protection and ‘trademark.’

There are many common types of brand names:

  • Acronyms and Abbreviations: AFLAC (American Family Life Insurance Company of Columbus), IBM (International Business Machines), M&M (Forrest Mars and Bruce Murrie)
  • Amalgam: Nabisco (National Biscuit Company)
  • Alliteration: Dunkin’ Donuts, PayPal, Coca-Cola
  • Alternative Spelling: 2(x)ist (‘to exist’), Krispy Kreme, Froot Loops
  • Descriptive: Toys R Us, General Motors
  • Evocative:  London Fog, Amazon
  • Founders’ Names (Eponyms): Barneys, Hewlett-Packard, Wendy’s
  • Geography: eBay (Echo Bay, NV), Fuji (the tallest mountain in Japan), Cisco (San Francisco)
  • Ingredients: Clorox (chlorine plus sodium hydroxide), Pepsi and Pepto Bismol (digestive enzyme pepsin)
  • Merger: ExxonMobil, Cadbury Schweppes, InBev (Interbrew and AmBev)
  • Nickname: Adidas (Adolf Dassler), Haribo (Hans Riegel Bonn), Kinkos (named for founder Paul Orfalea’s hair)
  • Neologism: Kodak, Verizon, Flickr
  • Onomatopoeia: Twitter, Meow Mix
  • Personification: Green Giant, Mr. Clean
  • Portmanteau: Travelocity, Pinterest
  • Rhyme: GrubHub, YouTube, Piggly Wiggly
  • Statement: Seven for All Mankind, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!
  • Symbolism: Caterpillar, Reebok

Linguistically, names are developed by combining morphemes (the smallest linguistic part of a word that can have a meaning), phonemes (consonant and vowel sounds) and syntax (the rules that govern the structure of sentences) to create a desired representation of a product.

Morphemes differ from words in that many morphemes may not be able to stand alone. The ‘Sprint’ brand name is composed of a single word and a single morpheme. Conversely, a brand like ‘Acuvue’ is composed of two morphemes, each with a distinct meaning. While ‘vue’ may be able to stand as its own word, ‘acu’ is seen as a prefix or a bound morpheme that must connect to a free morpheme.

Phonemes are minimal units of sound. Depending on the speaker’s accent, the English language has about 44 phonemes. In product naming, names that are phonetically easy to pronounce and that are well balanced with vowels and consonants have an advantage over those that are not. Likewise, names that begin with or stress plosives (consonant sounds that are formed by completely stopping airflow, such as B, hard C, D, G, K, P or T) are often used because of their attention-getting quality. Some phoneme sounds in English, such as L, V, F and W, are thought of as feminine, while others, such as X, M and Z, are viewed as masculine.

Syntax, or word order, is key to consumers’ perceptions of a product name. ‘Banana Republic’ would not carry the same meaning were it changed to ‘Republic Banana.’ Syntax also has significant implications for the naming of global products, because syntax has been argued to cross the barrier from one language to another.

A consideration companies find important in developing a product name is its ‘trademarkability.’ In many countries, including the United States, names can be used as trademarks without formal registration through first use or common law—simply to protect an established product’s name and reputation. Product names can also be formally registered within a state, with protection limited to that state’s borders. In the U.S., a federal trademark registration is filed with the USPTO and offered protection for as long as the mark is in use. The preeminent system for registering international trademarks in multiple jurisdictions is the Madrid system, based on the ‘Madrid Agreement Concerning the International Registration of Marks of 1891,’ a multilateral treaty.

In addition, protecting a trademark is just as important as the initial process of registration. Trademark rights are maintained through actual use of the trademark, and will diminish over time if a trademark is not actively used. Companies also need to consider whether they can own a name in the digital realm. Securing a domain name, particularly with the globally recognized dot-com extension, is critical for some companies. It has also become increasingly important for firms to interact with their audience through social media websites. Social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram all have procedures for acquiring a name on their sites. In modern communication, the trademark is just the start of owning a name.

Because English is widely viewed as a global language, with over 380 million native speakers, many international trademarks are created in English. Still, language differences present difficulties when using a trademark internationally. Many companies have stumbled across the importance of considering language differences in marketing new products. For example, Audi named their hybrid models ‘e-tron,’ but ‘étron’ means ‘excrement’ in French. The Mitsubishi Pajero SUV is called Montero in Spanish-speaking countries as pajero is a commonly used as a pejorative similar to the British ‘wanker.’ Reebok named a women’s sneaker Incubus, but in medieval folklore, an incubus was a demon who ravished women in their sleep. The Honda Fitta was, according to a popular urban legend, renamed Jazz after discovering that ‘fitta’ is Norwegian and Swedish slang for the female genitals.

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