The Power of A Name

George Leposky

Some years ago, a real-estate development firm asked me to compile lists of geographic names suitable for residential subdivisions. After several days of reading atlases and noting names of communities and physiographic features (rivers, mountains, etc.) that intrigued me, I delivered a database of several thousand names from all over the world.

Many products are named in an equally random fashion. Others may go through a more structured, elaborate, and costly process. Either way, a good choice will give a product a strong boost toward success, while a bad one could aid in its demise.

A product’s name matters because the name identifies the item to customers, and helps to give it ambience, image, and theme. The right name motivates people to buy, and helps a product stand out from the competition in a crowded marketplace.

“The average consumer is bombarded by more than 4,000 messages every day, ranging from TV and newspaper ads to electronic billboards. The names heard and seen in those media will reach the public consciousness only if they are unique, distinctive and memorable,” states Naseem Javed, author of Naming For Power: Creating Successful Names for the Business World (Linkbridge Publishing, 1993).

Sources Of Names

Javed says the most popular sources of business names are geography, family names (though their use is declining today), words or descriptive phrases found in dictionaries, and coined names using “composed alphastructures” -- syllables and roots juxtaposed to produce words that are memorable, pronounceable, and legally protectable.

You can find obvious examples of the first three categories in the advertisements in any newspaper or magazine. With respect to the fourth category, the Japanese have excelled in coining names for automobiles, but others have found composed alphastructures more problematic and fraught with peril. In this increasingly global industry of ours, what may look like a catchy coined name in one language may be a meaningful descriptive word or phrase in the dictionary of another language.

Additional sources of product names include historical figures and events, mythology, and zoology (names of animals, birds, fishes, trees, etc.).

In the vacation resort industry, some developers have devised creative names that describe their resort in an imaginative, imageful, cute, or evocative way. At Star Island Resort in Kissimmee, Florida, for instance, the stars are sports celebrities who reinforce the resort’s active-recreation theme, and water features create an insular feel even though the site is not an island.

Two of my favorite resort names come from New Orleans and reflect that city’s French heritage: Hotel de la Monnaie (House of Money), which stands across Esplanade Avenue from an old mint building that is now a museum; and Hotel de l’Eau Vive (House of the Living Waters), located three blocks from the Aquarium of the Americas and the Mississippi River.

I also like Jolly Harbour Beach Resort on the Caribbean island of Antigua, because just seeing or hearing the name gives me a jolly feeling.

Perils to Avoid

Many perils await the unsuspecting company that doesn’t exercise care in the choice of a product name. If a name you select resembles that of some large corporation, expect a challenge even if you spell it differently or use it in an unrelated industry. A Pennsylvania man, Gene Holliday, once opened a motel near Harrisburg that bore his last name. The Holiday Inn hotel chain objected.

Prospective customers are less likely to purchase a product that they have trouble spelling and pronouncing. For this reason, alphabetical product names can be hard to remember or yield an unaesthetic sound, so they are rare – although, paradoxically, alphabetical corporate names have gained in popularity in recent years.

A company with a product to name may go through a corporate brainstorming process in which top executives suggest names and the market-research staff conducts focus groups to test the suggestions. A few firms even hire name-selection consultants. These experts develop a list of names that relate to the product’s appearance, function, and target market, and systematically test various possibilities to identify the best possible choices.

Whatever method you use, avoid names with an inappropriate meaning in another language or culture that may be represented among your clientele. General Motors fell into this pitfall when it tried to sell the Chevrolet Nova in Latin America. In Spanish, no va means “it does not go.”

Another example is the Japanese tourist agency that entered the English-speaking market and began receiving requests for sex tours. When the owners of the Kinki Nippon Tourist Company found out why, they renamed their business.

George Leposky is editor of Ampersand Communications, a news-features syndicate based in Miami, Florida.

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