The brand positioning challenge
When naming, it’s tempting to create a well-defined, buttoned-down brand position. You may be rigidly specific down to the smallest detail. This positioning stance is often the outgrowth of a process in which competing client factions allow too many cooks in the kitchen. These “cooks” often dictate an overwhelming number of positioning “requirements” to satisfy each faction. This is a dangerous practice. It can lead to the creation of an empty set. Conflicting “rules” cancel each other out. They leave a hollow space where no possible name can exist. Here’s an example, exaggerated to make a point:
A common pitfall
In the search for a perfect name, beware of this demon when it rears its ugly head — you or your team members declare, “I’ll know it when I see it.” This is the kiss of death for a naming project. It’s highly likely your team is dealing with the impossible outcome of an empty set, or the wrong filters are in place, or both.
In this situation, you could consider every word in the English language (UPDATE: officially 1,066,095.9 as of August 16, 2021) as a potential name for your new company or product. You could even consider another million invented or compound names. But you could still never “know it when you see it.” There’s a simple reason for this. No name can satisfy a brand positioning framework that defines an empty set. This situation is the cause of most abandoned naming attempts.
Adjust your approach
The first thing to do is to make sure you have no contradictions in the brand positioning. No name can satisfy all requirements. For instance, here’s an example of an empty set — “invented abstraction with no prior meanings that evokes our brand positioning, is memorable, and helps tell our unique story.” Another example might be — “available for global trademark, exact match.com domain, one syllable, five letters maximum, easily understood and pronounceable in eastern as well as western languages, yet a common word that closely describes our brand position in our industry.”
Time to order up a new dictionary, a new language, or a new parallel universe. The first step toward recovery is to recognize that you have a problem. Then make changes in your approach.
Here are five steps to free yourself from the prison of empty-set brand positioning:
- Resist the urge to box your brand into a corner. Create a cloud of positioning attributes and know your fundamental story. Don’t try to describe every little detail of the positioning, then expect to find a name that aligns with all of them. You won’t.
- Map to, reinforce, and inform your brand positioning. It’s a two-way street — brand positioning leads to a name, but the perfect name also influences the brand positioning moving forward. For example, a similar brand positioning could have led to the names Yahoo! and Excite. But the brand positioning that came after the names was very different. In the former, the brand positioning was powerful with great marketing legs for years to come. In the latter, it was a conforming derivative long since out of business.
- Open your minds to metaphor. Avoid merely describing your brand position with a descriptive or experiential name. Instead, consider a highly-memorable evocative name that differentiates your brand from your competitors. Your name should demonstrate your brand positioning rather than explain it. The key is to move beyond the literal and into the metaphorical. Think Amazon, Virgin, Twitter, Coach, Caterpillar, Yahoo!, Oracle, Apple. That’s not to say that great invented or experiential names aren’t out there. They’re just few and far between. You have to work extra hard to identify them.
- Evaluate names like a Socratic dialog, not an exercise in democracy. Resist the urge to let everyone on your naming team, or your company, vote on the final name. Nobody’s first choice will survive. The “winning” name will be the one that is most people’s third choice. It’s the one nobody loves, but everyone can “live with.” Great brands are not created from a shrug of the shoulders. A vigorous debate is beneficial. It’s even sometimes necessary to create a powerful name. If half the team loves a name and half the team hates it, you’re in a much better place than if you have immediate consensus one way or the other. When you adopt an amazing name, no matter how contentious the process may have been, the naysayers will eventually embrace it. They always do. It takes some people longer to understand the power of a truly different and memorable name.
- Consider hiring a naming agency (even if it’s not Zinzin). If you are stuck in your naming process, you will likely benefit by hiring a naming agency to come in with a fresh perspective. A naming agency can also help your team see name development and brand positioning in a new light. There is a (darker) flip side you can pursue: take a short list of names to a focus group or other uninformed outside agent to solicit opinions. This will almost guarantee that the most unique and powerful names will be killed off. Whereas, the weakest, most typical or conformist names will be celebrated. This is especially damning, of course, when you attempt to position your brand as bold, adventurous, and fiercely independent.
Transcend the “empty set” conundrum
During your naming project, you will generate –> iterate –> regenerate –> and reiterate the name development process. Keep the above five steps in mind. At each step, continue to be sure that you have not defined an empty set. If you have, you’ll never find the perfect name. You wouldn’t know it if you saw it.
Cautionary tale: Krafting a failed name: Mondelez, or how not to do corporate rebranding.
Thanks Terry! Cheers.
Terry O'Gara says
I’ve read this post a muchillion times since you posted it, Jay. Very engaging essay on the branding process as it applies –not only to naming– but to everything.