When naming, it is often tempting to create a very well-defined, buttoned-down and thorough brand positioning, rigidly specific down to the smallest detail. Such a positioning stance is often the outgrowth of a process in which competing client factions allow too many cooks into the kitchen and draft an overwhelming number of positioning “requirements” meant to satisfy each of those factions. This is a dangerous practice, as it often leads to the outcome of an empty set being created, as conflicting “rules” cancel each other out and leave a hollow space in which no possible name can exist, as in this example, exaggerated to make a point:
A sure way to spot when this demon rears its ugly head is if you find yourself or members of your team muttering, in reference to the search for the perfect name, “I’ll know it when I see it.” This is the kiss of death for a naming project, because it is highly likely that the impossible outcome of an empty set has been described, or the wrong filters are in place, or both. In such a situation, you could consider every word in the English language (Officially 1,013,913 as of January 1, 2012) as a potential name for your new company or product, plus another million invented or compound names, and still never “know it when you see it,” for the simple reason that no name can satisfy a brand positioning framework that defines an empty set. Such a situation is the cause of most aborted naming attempts.
To transcend the “empty set” conundrum the first thing you need to do is make sure you have no contradictions in the brand positioning. As the example above shows, no name can satisfy the requirements that it be an “invented abstraction with no prior meanings” and simultaneously “evoke our brand positioning, be memorable and help tell our unique story.” Another example of an empty set might be, “available for global trademark and exact match .com domain, be only one syllable, five letters max, easily understood and pronounceable in eastern as well as western languages, and yet be 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. So the first step toward recovery is to recognize that you have a problem, and make some changes in your approach.
Here are five steps to freeing yourself from the prison of an 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, but don’t try to describe every little detail of the positioning and then expect to find a name that will align with all of them. You won’t.
- Understand that while it’s true that a great name will map to and reinforce your brand positioning, such a name will also have the power to 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 very similar brand positioning could have led to the names Yahoo! and Excite, but the brand positioning that came after the names were chosen was necessarily very, very different; in the former, very powerful with great marketing legs for years to come; in the latter, well, a me-too derivative long since out of business.
- Open your minds. Rather then merely describe your brand positioning with a descriptive or experiential name, like your competitors do, consider creating a highly-memorable evocative name that strongly differentiates your brand from your competition by demonstrating your brand positioning rather than explaining 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, so you have to work extra hard to identify them.
- Evaluating names should be more 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, the one nobody loves but everyone can “live with.” Great brands are not created from such a shrug of the shoulders. A vigorous debate is not only beneficial, it is often a requirement for creating a powerful name. And 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 that got you there, the naysayers will eventually come around and embrace it–they always do. It just takes some people longer to understand the power of a truly different and memorable name that might at first be uncomfortable for them.
- Informed outside council can be beneficial, while uninformed outside opinion can be damaging. In other words, if you are truly stuck in your naming process, you will likely benefit by hiring a naming agency (shameless plug here) to come in with a fresh perspective and get everyone on the team to see name development and brand positioning in a new light. The flip side is taking a short list of names to a focus group or other uninformed outside agent to solicit their opinions about the names. Doing so will almost certainly guarantee that the most unique and powerful names will be killed off, and the weakest, most typical or conformist names will be celebrated. This is especially damning, of course, when you are attempting to position your brand as bold, adventurous, and fiercely independent, as it will lead you to a name that betrays all those fine aspirations.
During your naming project, as you generate –> iterate –> regenerate –> and reiterate the name development process, keep the above points in mind and continue to make sure at every step of the way that you have not defined an empty set. Because if you have, you’ll never find the perfect name, since you wouldn’t know it if you saw it.
Cautionary tale: Krafting a failed name: Mondelez, or how not to do corporate rebranding.