Friday, October 23, 2009

What's in a Name?

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."

Shakespeare clearly hadn't heard about branding. The name of a thing, be it a product, company or even a person, is seen by branding professionals a critical step in driving perception, value and success. Marketing consultancies make a lot of money devising names-as-brands, something that's been in my mind a lot lately: in my day job, we're sweating over the naming of some new products we're launching. Of course, the names of things matters outside the world of branding, and we marketeers can learn a lot here.

A few years back the author David Lodge wrote a wonderful essay about names in literature and how they can have either connotative or denotative meaning. To understand what he means here, think about the discount home goods chain “Lowes” (connotative of their pricing and value) and their arch-rivals Home Depot (denotative, it says what they are). In literature all names are fair game for manipulation. Dickens particularly understood how names drive character: think the diminutive, contracted “Pip” and and the frightening Miss Haversham from Great Expectations (saying “Haversham” out loud, one syllable at a time, will extract the connotation). Nabokov famously made his eponymous heroine's name physical: Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. J. K. Rowling has great fun with her magical names: Mad-Eye Moody, Severus Snape, Fudge, Malfoy. In fact, names are so powerful in fiction that their absence can be used to great dramatic effect, such as the unnamed narrator in Du Maurier's Rebecca or the man and boy of McCarthy's superb The Road.

So what about tech world naming? Intel and Oracle are two very different companies, but judged just on the intended connotation of their names they have the same lofty aspirations. Microsoft and IBM are contractions and acronyms, and take the say-what-we-do approach. Google, Amazon and Pandora all have obscure origins and associations, but you really wouldn't extract much meaning from the names by themselves. The current trend in tech company names is to murder ordinary words – Flickr, Digg and Zune are good examples – probably in an attempt to land a decent domain name and get a watertight trademark. TheNameInspector has a very good list of IT company names.

In my day job the chore is to avoid the three-letter-acronym (which of course has its own acronym, TLA) product naming trap. It's challenging, although I try to remember that Shakespeare probably did have it right, after all: If the product's any good, who cares what it's called? Meaning follows naming and there's no short-cuts to the laborious process of creating a real brand.

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