Why naming has become harder than ever

March 20, 2012

In his 2005-released song “27 Jennifers” Mike Doughty sings, “I went to school with 27 Jennifers, 16 Jenns, 10 Jennies.” The prevalence of a popular name made it difficult to differentiate one girl from another until the singer meets “the one” that stands out. Naming in the branding world is facing a similar crisis of finding available names for companies and products.

What’s the cause? I’d say the Internet. Before the World Wide Web, businesses were built with brick and mortar. That took capital, investment and the sweat of the brow of owners and workers. Go back far enough in business history and you’ll see how many company names were the names of founders: Sears & Roebuck, J. Walter Thompson, Ford, Chubb & Sons, BF Goodrich. Certainly there have also been hundreds of thousands of businesses named for what they do, where they are located or how they operate.

But what the Internet made possible was the ability to start a business for little investment. And with the birth of a new business, it needed a name. Since web based businesses were new and unusual, there were few conflicts with other names in their competitive space. With a more youthful engine propelling the industry, names could be funkier, friendlier and less corporate. Names such as “JamCracker” for an IT management company, or “Hubbub” for a PR firm or “Gear6” for a web performance company are now commonplace.

Naming is a game of hurdles and gates.

There are a multitude of filters that names must pass through before they can be trademarked. From a creative strategy to legal availability to linguistics checks — more often than not what starts as hundreds of name candidates are soon whittled down to less than five. The ease of starting a company and registering a name has made it almost impossible to find names that aren’t protected through a masterbrand prefix or are completely made up.

Companies file for names in various classes of business based on SIC classes (Standard Industrial Codes) established by the Federal government. If you want to come up with a name for your company, it has to be free from conflicts with other companies in your class. The larger the class, the harder it will be to find a name that can pass through all the strategic, creative and linguistic filters before even reaching the stage when a trademark attorney will feel comfortable passing judgment on the element of risk in selecting a potential name. As more names are created, companies must find even more abstract names for themselves and their products and so on.

However, the newer the industry, the more possible names there are as the category has yet to be saturated. One such area these days is smartphone applications. Millions of apps are being generated for iPhones and Android phones. Aimed at predominantly youthful audiences, apps need eye-catching, memorable and easy to use names to capture the attention of their audience. And because apps aren’t too “corporate,” they can break many of the rules of conventional naming.

Quick! Name an app.

In one category of apps alone — tools to help people make new connections or meet up with people they should know — there are a plethora of new names. A recent New York Times article cited: Kismet, Glancee, Highlight, Meteor, Pearescope, Intro, Mingle and Sonar. What do they all have in common? They all are metaphors or words that speak to what they do: help people meet up. Do they differentiate from each other? In name, yes. In function, only slightly. What will drive purchase of one over the other? For 99¢, an app user may download two or three just to find one that’s right. But with one early start up app with 50,000 downloads, that could mean a huge windfall of start up money.

Can established corporations learn from this youthful outpouring of fresh names in new categories? If names are about differentiating one service or product from another, then it’s incumbent on companies to make sure that what they have to offer really is different. Me-too products and services will be hard pressed to compete with the first to market. Just witness the difference Google and Bing, Microsoft’s search engine. No one says, “I’ll Bing it.”

As one of my colleagues who is a very creative namer said, “In the world of blackberry, pinkberry, yodle and iEverything, how can a non-contrived name stick out? Maybe it can’t anymore. Maybe a backlash is coming and we’ll swing back real people’s names like Burt’s Bees beauty products and Tom’s shoes?” Without real differences in the product or service, a rose by any other name will still be called a rose.

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