Logic Is the Enemy of a Successful Brand Name

There's a Method to the Madness of a Seemingly Meaningless Moniker

By Published on . 9

NutsOnline.com, according to a recent post in The New York Times, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy a new name, Nuts.com.

"The site . . . suffered a 70 percent decline in nonpaid Google traffic in the two weeks after the switch. Almost three months later, it was still down by more than 50 percent."

Now, do you suppose the owner of the site acknowledged his mistake? Of course not. Here is his reasoning, according to the Times.

"(A) Nuts.com is shorter; (b) It's more memorable; (c) It gives a lot more credibility than NutsOnline."

All of which is logical, but logic has nothing to do with what works in branding. Let's take a look at his three statements and use them to compare some other website names.

Books.com is shorter, more memorable and a lot more credible than Amazon.com. Should Amazon.com change its name to Books.com?

Video.com is shorter, more memorable and a lot more credible than YouTube.com. Should YouTube.com change its name to Video.com?

Search.com is shorter (one syllable instead of two), more memorable and a lot more credible than Google.com. Should Google.com change its name to Search.com?

Proper names versus common names
Logic suggests a common name like Search would be a better name for a website than a proper name like Google. There's a reason, however, why a name like Google is the better brand name.

Consider telling someone to use the web to "Search it."

"All right, I'll do that . What search site should I use?"

On the other hand, when you tell someone to use the web to "Google it," your meaning is quite clear.

The objective of a branding program is to create a name that stands for a specific product or service. That's difficult to do with a common name that stands for a class of things, rather than a specific thing.

In building a brand, it's usually better to work with a meaningless brand name like Google than a name like Search that has too much baggage. But you don't have to be a nut man from Newark to make this mistake.

$250 million to promote Clear
Unilever, a $62 billion conglomerate, is planning to spend $250 million in the American market in the next two years to introduce Clear shampoos and conditioners in three lines, one for women, one for men and one for African-American women.

Heidi Klum is the face of the campaign. A good choice.

But Clear ? A simple, generic word that is going to be awfully difficult to establish as a shampoo and conditioner brand. Especially in an over-crowded category with a wealth of brand names, most of which are either proper names or common names used "out of context."

Brands like Aveeno, Dove, Garnier Fructis, Herbal Essences, John Frieda, L'Oreal, Neutrogena, Pantene, Suave, Tresemme.

One thing that makes Unilever confident of its success is the fact that Clear is already a big brand, sold in 42 different countries. I wonder, however, how many of those 42 countries use English as a primary language.

What you often find on any visit to a non-English speaking country is a plethora of brands using common English words. Brands that would never work in America or in any English-speaking country.

A stroll down a street in Copenhagen turned up these store names: Biggie Best, Exit, Expert, Face, Flash, Limbo, Nice Girl, Redgreen, Sand and Steps.

Nice brand names in Copenhagen perhaps. But not in Columbus, Ohio.

Creating a secondary meaning
The objective of a branding program is to take a word and create a "secondary meaning" for that word. (Or in the case of an invented word, a primary meaning.)

The primary meaning of the word dove is "a bird of the pigeon family." Not a word most people use in a typical day. That's what made it relatively easy for Unilever to create a secondary meaning for its brand name Dove, a moisturizing soap.

"Go down to the drugstore and buy some Dove," and your meaning is clear. "Go down to the drugstore and buy some Clear ," and your meaning is cloudy at best.

Suppose Unilever had used "Head" as a brand name for its shampoo . That makes some sense because shampoo is used on a person's head. But no sense from a branding point of view.

So what about "Head & Shoulders?" A great brand name, especially for an anti-dandruff shampoo .

"Head & Shoulders" is a proper name you won't find in a dictionary. Sure, you can find "head" and you can find "shoulders." But consider this, almost nobody shortens the brand as "Head." Or as "Shoulders." It's always "Head & Shoulders."

First, burn your dictionary
The first step in creating a new brand name is to burn your dictionary. The biggest mistake a marketing person can make is to pick a brand name that defines the category. This happens all the time and it only works when you have the resources to create a monopoly.

Take cosmetics, for example. Why do women use cosmetics? What dictionary word best captures the essence of cosmetics?

How about the word "love?" That was the brand name chosen by Menley & James Laboratories for a new line of cosmetics introduced in 1969 with a budget of more than $7 million. (About $50 million today.)

And Menley & James chose the hottest agency at the time, Wells, Rich, Greene, to handle the launch of Love.

Love lasted about a decade before it sold off and mostly disappeared, although there currently is a U.K. website (LoveCosmetics.com) where you can buy "Cheap Makeup and Discount Cosmetics."

Second, pick a shocking name
As a general rule, any name that specifically defines a category is bound to be a loser. Check the Internet brands that have become big successes.

  • Facebook, not socialmedia.com
  • Groupon, not dailydeals.com
  • eBay, not auctions.com
  • Zappos, not shoes.com
  • Twitter, not shortmessages.com
  • Pandora, not webradio.com
  • LinkedIn, not professionalnetworking.com
  • Zillow, not realestate.com
  • Yelp, not reviews.com
  • Tumblr, not blogs.com
  • Dropbox, not cloudstorage.com
  • Pinterest, not scrapbook.com
  • Instagram, not photosharing.com
  • Foursquare, not checkin.com
  • Spotify, not onlinemusic.com
Note, too, that all of these names are unique names used on the Internet only. None are line-extended names from the physical world.

(Amazon.com, for example, is worth more on the stock market than Belk.com, Dillards.com, JCPenney.com, Kmart.com, Kohls.com, Macys.com, Nordstrom.com, Saksfifthavenue.com and Sears.com combined, even when you throw in all the retail stores and real estate.)

Third, now comes the hard part
After you have selected a unique and distinctive brand name and made sure it can be registered as a trademark, you need to launch a marketing program to position your brand inside the minds of consumers.

It's not easy even if your brand name is unique and different. It's almost impossible with a brand name that 's too broad, too common and too easily-confused with similar brand names and products.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Al Ries is chairman of Ries & Ries, an Atlanta-based marketing strategy firm he runs with his daughter Laura.
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