Sometimes a name change is all that it takes to win. Consider the revised NAFTA. By most expert accounts it is a series of minor tweaks (minor, of course depending on whose ox is gored, or in this case, whose cow is milked) that were the result of overdue and ongoing work long before it became a political football. Trump claims that USMCA “kind of has a nice ring to it,” and while it doesn’t have any ring to it nice or otherwise it does put America first. And for good measure separates the countries the way NAFTA united them. In just one simple name (or initialism, more precisely) Trump has encapsulated his world view: America first, America alone, allies unhappy. One almost has to wonder how branding it “TRUMP” might have played?
What are the pros and cons of a name change? On the plus side there’s excitement, curiosity, a story to tell. On the down side there’s excitement, curiosity and a story to tell. Many marketers just split the difference and keep a foot in the old while taking a step in the new. It’s not a bad call. In DD’s case, they appeared to have generally positive brand awareness but saddled with a name that no longer described who they are or reflected part of the lifestyle of a desired customer base - fewer fatty donuts, more upscale java. Dunkin’ is a safe choice if not inspired. But it does seem an opportunity went missing. You gotta change all the signs anyway so why not craft a new brand and attendant experience that drives foot traffic? You might just sell a few crullers along side a moca-java-frapacafe-amerespresso.
Turns out even playwrights struggle with names. They and their producers wrestle with the same issues marketers do: is the name descriptive enough? Is it too descriptive, leaving nothing to the imagination? Is it too opaque? Does it mean something unintended in slang? Is it too long to fit on the marquee? Can they get the dotcom? The chief theatre critic at the New York Post has penned a piece describing the challenges of marketing “Kinky Boots,” “Urinetown,” “The New One,” and this gem, “Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties; In Essence, a Queer and Occasionally Hazardous Exploration; Do You Remember When You Were In Middle School and You Read About Shackleton and How He Explored the Antarctic? Imagine the Antarctic as a P____ and It’s Sort of Like That.”
But what hit closest to home for us namers is the closing quote, “when shows (product) becomes a hit (household brand) that means they have great titles (brand names).”
Fires get named, just like brands do, because names communicate information quickly. According to Cal Fire as reported in the New York Times, “Officials said that quickly coming up with a label provides firefighters another way to locate the blaze and allows officials to track and prioritize incidents by name.” But there is a bit of difference.
Fire names tend to identify a piece of geography which otherwise, unlike a strong brand name, doesn’t really signify anything. But like a brand name the fire name is infused with meaning, usually apocalyptical, as the product, in this case the fire, becomes an experience. Mann Gulch, Witch, Ute Park, Spring Creek could be benign suburban housing developments absent of context but for those who know these places, these names are are anything but benign.
Within days of each other two opinion pieces appeared about electric scooters invading San Francisco and, interestingly, looked at the story from the same point of view; they’re not cool, but they are fun. We thought we’d take a look at the brand names and see if we could draw a few insights from the four leaders; Bird, Lime, Spin and Skip.
- Insight #1: If anybody put in any thought in creating a name that would have market resonance it is not clear here. These four contain all the buzz of beige wall paper.
- Insight #2: What little thought did go into creating these names appears to have been limited to “make it short.”
- Insight #3: These names are anything but cool. But maybe that wasn’t an issue. But then again, how could it not be… these are scooters after all. Skateboards are cool. Surfboards are cool. Skis are cool, and snowboards, while not that cool are cooler than scooters. All these names are light, fluffy and decidedly unhip. But I guess if you are riding a scooter in public, you must feel pretty self-confident anyway.
- Insight #4: They may have been working against a stacked deck. Linguistically, scooter sounds like an emanation from one’s backside. And everything else about the word is childlike; “scoot along now” is as dismissive and diminishing as one can be in three words.
- Insight #5: Taken together they offer a meta lesson in naming; two are fanciful, two are descriptive, zero are invented, all are monosyllabic but none actually invite you into a conversation.
One is reminded of a certain highly fitting but equally inappropriate joke.
American democracy is going to hell in a clutch-purse yet our interest lies in the code name for the FBI’s investigations into certain foreign power’s attempts to influence our election. With a prescient eye to the storm to come some wag at the Bureau entitled the operation Crossfire Hurricane, a nod, as anyone older than 12 knows, to the Stone’s crucible song Jumpin’ Jack Flash. FBI policy suggests - but does not require - that codenames come from a randomly generated list. But clearly, someone foresaw this was not going to be a quiet, run-of-the-mill operation but, indeed, a stormy – pun intended – one. And, BTW, there's another eerily portentous line in that song that is well applicable to the target of said investigation… something to do with being schooled in a hard way.
The low hanging fruit is to take pot shots at FLOTUS’s first initiative and while derivative to be sure, the name Be Best is exceptionally strong. Grammarians will take issue, maybe rightly so given the target audience, but that’s just the point; the target audience will identify with it. It is traditionally aspirational yet rendered in contemporarily rebellious construction. It is at once a goal, an encouragement and an admonition.
The adage the all publicity is good publicity has always been suspect to this writer, but there are so many examples these days, that I may no longer be one of the few to feel this way.
Creating a provocative brand name for the purpose of generating the level of awareness that only press coverage can deliver can be a legitimate strategy – see Soylant, but there can be long term consequences. It remains to be seen where the Asian restaurant chain Yellow Fever (both a disease and slang for sexual preferences) will end up. They made the cover of the Times to be sure but despite the owner’s rationale, it was not favorable. The bigger question is what was Whole Foods thinking when they signed up for an onsite retail partnership? A few freestanding shops in strip malls for Yellow Fever is one thing but aligning with what is a questionable if not downright offensive name seems to be a question WF didn’t bother to ask.
If they are successful, will the spin-off, Ben’s Botulism Burgers, be far behind?
These are fascinating talks to be sure but there is a certain irony to the whole affair. Maybe TED no longer means Technology, Entertainment and Design. Maybe like IBM, it is just TED. But if TED is still an acronym, it needs, well need may be too strong, but it should be updated to TWED. The talks cover a range of topics but not too much on what is maybe the most powerful topic of all, the Words. Presenters speak to the power of technology, entertainment and design but the real power, the real force, the real launch pad for TED are the words themselves. The speakers have bona fides, they have stage presence but what gets them selected, what allows them to engage their audience is the power of their words. I’d argue it is words and language that not only are the building blocks for technology, entertainment and design, but are the very engine that drives them. So as awkward as it sounds, let the next talk be a TWED talk.
We reached out to the folks behind the Great Pacific Garbage Patch report and shared our opinion about the name. Amazingly they responded - who does that anymore? - and politely informed us that the term was created and accepted by the scientific community. I wrote back and opined that, from a marketer’s perspective, the scientific community is not the audience – Joe Doaks is the audience and calling it a “Patch” is not going to give him even the slightest pause in altering his behavior. And, for good measure, I added that defining this as a marketing problem instead of a scientific one dramatically increases the chances for a solution. No response to that, quelle surprise!
But you don’t have to be a tree hugger to maybe use one less plastic bag if you are now aware of the Horrific Pacific Garbage Disaster. Am I right?
The journal Scientific Reports reported this month that the circulating trash dump in the Pacific Ocean known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is four to 16 times bigger than previously thought. It contains an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of rubbish and covers an area four times the size of California. Given this is a very real, very tangible example of the existential threat of climate change, pollution, and human’s treating the planet like a dump, it deserves a rebrand. “Patch” simply doesn’t convey the enormity of the problem, indeed, it downplays it. Patches are small, they cover little holes or tears. This dump is anything but that. It is doubtful this “product” has a brand manager, but if it does, introduce us and we will brand this monstrosity with a moniker guaranteed to get folks to sit up and notice.
Two of the worlds most juvenile leaders, both delinquent, are supposed to meet on some playground in the coming weeks. Dotard and Little Rocketman will square off over marbles and hopscotch in a match of the dozens. Here, according to the New York Times, is a list of the names they have called each other over the past 13 months.
In yet another sign of the times, Russia announced that it created set of nukes that can evade detection and the world yawned. If anything signaled the new normal it was this. The red menace announcing what amounts to a threat of nuclear war and we are more mesmerized by Donald’s tweets and Stormy’s twerks. But buried in this story of impending Armageddon was a contest to name these bombs. Yes, that’s right, Vladimir Putin has asked his citizens to create a name for these stealth nukes. You can’t make this stuff up.
Two of the most powerful nations on earth are in a spat over street names. With a poke in the eye to the Russians, the Washington DC City Council has renamed the block on Wisconsin Ave. where the Russian Embassy sits after a murdered Kremlin critic, Boris Nemtsov. Russia, going one better is proposing to rename the street where the US embassy sits in Moscow to 1 North American Dead End. Well, given that they are military powers, economic powers, climate change powers, nuclear powers, we’ll take that spat every time. Even if Russia’s street name is better.
Brand equity cuts both ways. Sometimes it’s good, say Apple, and sometimes less so, say Enron. Take the coffee brand, Chock Full of Nuts. For most east of the Mississippi of a certain age they know this is a coffee brand. It wasn’t always that way. Originally Chock Full of Nuts was in the, take a wild guess, nut business. For whatever reason they got out of nuts and into coffee but stuck with the brand name. Maybe the CEO created it. Maybe the finance person said it will cost money to change it. Maybe a marketing genius said we have brand equity in the name; people know us, we’d have to start from scratch if we changed the brand name. All of this is true, but that doesn’t make it right. Chock Full of Nuts has to overcome this brand equity with every new prospect. They do it on their label, in their advertising, in their sales collateral. A name won’t make or break a great product or business model but putting a giant question mark between you and your consumer doesn’t make things easier. When your mission or value prop is masked, obfuscated, and hidden by your name, it is time for a new one. Creating new brand equity is quicker, better, cheaper than changing it.
We are currently watching the countdown to the launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket from Elon Musk’s Space X. Uppercase is not a big fan of either of the names Space X or Falcon. A boring and pedestrian set of brand names by any measure, but especially so given the audaciousness of what they represent.
But the “Heavy” moniker is simply way cool. Anybody can launch a kite or paper airplane or a hot-air balloon but launching something heavy is a true feat. Indeed, it is heavy. Go Elon!
It must have been a slow news day when the Times issued a call to those born after 1995 asking them to create a name for their cohort. Though the “Greatest Generation” will be hard to beat and “Baby Boomers” will be tough to match, “GenX,” “Slackers,” and “Millennials” are not very high bars. Here’s our submissions to christen the group ages 22 and younger:
“Good Luck, You’ll Need It”
“Your Boss the Robot”
“Using Social Media, But All Alone”
“Last Gen to see a Polar Bear in the Wild”
“Coders & Everyone Else”
“Why Donald? Dear God, Why?”
“Thanks for Nothing”
“Can’t Write a Sentence, Can Write Code”
“The Sea Wall Builders”
“Shoulda Bought Bitcoin”
“Glad I Didn’t Buy Bitcoin”
“My Grandkids Will Live on Mars, Thanks Secretaries Perry, Zinke and Pruitt”
“Thanks Elon for Getting My Grandkids to Mars”
On January 10, an organization nonpareil, the US Army, filed notice with the USPTO against the new (and winning) Vegas Golden Knights hockey team asking the board to refuse to register the franchise's mark, the “Golden Knights.” The Army bases the request on, among other things, the classic legal concept of “likelihood of confusion." This concept holds that a reasonable person is likely to be confused between the two products the trademarks represent and therefore the less established (newer) mark should be denied registration. Which in this case is a professional hockey team in sin city versus the US Army’s Golden Knights parachute team.
We’ll leave that quarrel for the lawyers to argue but as Uppercase wrote in 2016, the compelling issue with the Golden Knights name is the money the owners have left on the table by not pursuing a cool, contemporary, and evocative moniker with long term branding legs. $30.00 tee shirts and $130.00 jerseys emblazoned with an inspiring name to encourage a rabidly loyal fan base is the easy revenue stream.
The “Vegas Ace’s” is the obvious choice but something nonsensical say, the “Cactus Boulders,” or descriptively evocative such as “The Dry Heat” would have broader, not to mention more buzz-worthy, appeal.
How important is your brand name? Well, a lot of folks in the cryptocurrency space think it is mission critical. The New York Times featured a cheeky tongue-in-cheek piece on a number of companies who were failing in their original model but with a new name and quick pivot have joined the ranks of those seeking redemption and riches in ersatz currency.
A beverage maker is drinking the blockchain Kool Aid. A vaping company blew off steam, a pharma company unhooked itself from drugs, an apparel company disrobed, a gold company reburnished, and a cigar company stopped smoking (and maybe started blowing smoke) as they all changed their names to support their new mission. There is some sense to this. They are smart enough people to have started a business and stewarded it to some degree of success. They have a team and assets and imagination and, finally and most importantly, the perspicacity to telegraph their new direction with a descriptive name.
But, at the same time, when companies formally engaged in yoga pants design and making Macanudos enter the realm of currency creation, can a popped bubble be far behind?
A recent article in the Atlantic covered a pair of researchers who claim that the growth in SUV sales is an indicator of increased fear and isolationism among a certain group of the population. Since SUV’s are big, tall, powerful, heavy, and intimidating they suggest that they can be used as a measure of tribal protectionism. Further buttressing their argument, the researchers point to the names of these behemoths as appealing to and reinforcing this isolationist tendency, e.g. Outlander, Pathfinder, Crossfire. Now a relation does not a correlation make, but there is no doubt that the imagery evoked by these names, including Santa Fe, Yukon, Tahoe, Land Rover, Range Rover, and our personal favorite, Enclave, is meant to appeal to the rugged individualism nascent in every urban driver.
If the researchers could point to SUV names like Stay-Away or Backoff, or GunAboard, they’d have a stronger argument.