Playing the name game

The naming business is ever more challenging thanks to a paucity of suitable names, decreased activity and increased competition.

There’s nothing like a name change to get chins wagging. Everyone from the chairman’s PA to so-and-so’s cousin has a view. Newspapers seldom miss the opportunity to scoff at the latest corporate offering. But it’s a serious business.

Enterprise IG’s annual survey of naming activity (DW 24 January) reported more than 3500 name changes last year. The trend, however, was down almost 10 per cent, reflecting the worsening economic climate.

Cyclical factors apart, the volume of names already registered as trademarks is putting the squeeze on creativity. ‘It’s an enormous constraint’, says John Simmons, Interbrand director of verbal identity. ‘Any word you can find in common use or in the dictionary has been registered. Dotcoms only made this worse.’

Dragon senior consultant Max Du Bois agrees. ‘It’s increasingly hard to generate names that are both distinctive and available to register’, he says. Dragon created Consignia for the Post Office, Xansa for logistics firm FI Group and 3663 for the demerged Booker Foodservices.

When a legally protectable, global name is the ‘usual requirement’, says Simmons, ‘it’s extraordinarily difficult’. Although, he points out, ‘there is a saying that the secret of creativity is the welcoming of constraints’. Interbrand’s recent work includes Umicore for a Belgian minerals company, Tindra for a Norwegian utility and Ocado, a Waitrose-backed on-line grocery.

Du Bois adds, ‘A name is not just for today. You have to make sure it’s not going to restrict future growth, while taking care that it doesn’t sound like a Norse god clearing its throat or something rude in Spanish.’

Enterprise IG suggests companies have become more conservative in their tastes after the dotcom experience. Du Bois contends, ‘It was a genuine blip. Most names try to reflect what the company’s doing. You have to look at each company individually and its positioning. Names can differentiate, though blue chips tend to want some gravitas.’

The problem, suggests Watermark & Co principal Mark Lee, is that ‘a name’s value is only apparent after the event. You can have a great name, but a bum product. The name gets tainted by it’. Sometimes the names themselves don’t come up to scratch though.

Lee continues, ‘mm02 is especially problematic. What sense does it make for customers? How do you look it up in the telephone directory? Practical and strategic issues need to be matched.’

For Nigel Long, chief executive of ad agency Partners BDDH, launching a name involves ‘being brave, especially if you’re creating a sector or entering a market with a few established competitors’. Landor Associates’ logo for BMI British Midland’s low-cost airline Bmibaby launched last week, but Partners BDDH came up with the name. Is this a challenge to corporate identity firms’ hold on naming?

Long denies it. ‘Ad agency involvement in name creation is not a new phenomenon’, he says.

‘Take Orange. Wolff Olins came up with the name, but it was very much in collaboration with WCRS, where I then worked. The name for Bmibaby came out of the idea for the launch positioning – a junior airline. It almost fell off the page.’

Naming work is ‘nice to do, not a must do’, says Long. ‘It’s good if we can get a run at something. But I’m not about to look to naming for new business.’

Long maintains that naming is ‘difficult to price’. And when fees generally range from £12 000 to more than £60 000 for the creative input alone, selling a new name to both internal and external audiences is crucial.

Simon Williams, Enterprise IG director of strategy, says ‘Big corporations don’t explain the strategic context well. Information drips out. The press can bend and shape it how they want.’ Du Bois adds, ‘It’s vital to have an anchoring point and a good story, where elements transfer across to the name. If you spell “food” on a telephone keypad you dial 3663. People in that market associate it with food.’

Simmons likes names that ‘communicate directly’. Tindra, he explains, derives from the Norwegian for ‘sparkle’. He is concerned that ‘post-rationalising often seems thin. It leaves you open to sceptics in the pub’. While for Lee, ‘some things shouldn’t have to be explained. [The story] shouldn’t be too tortured’.

All agree that the name must work well with a brand’s visual and experiential qualities. As Lee puts it, ‘The name is only one player in a larger play.’ Simmons adds, ‘The best names generate the best visual suggestions, and not just in typographical terms. Shell is a good example of a name that is powerfully associated with an image, although it could never be registered now.’

The experts worry that naming is not appreciated within the design industry at large. Lee says, ‘It’s like songwriting. It looks so easy, but people don’t realise what you have to go through.’ Du Bois adds, ‘Some consultancies are terrified of it. They don’t understand the legal consequences. Outside the industry, it strikes fear in a lot of people. But if you do it well, you reap the benefits.’

Perhaps editorial-led consultancies like Wink Media, currently involved with rebranding Swissair/ Crossair, may ultimately pose a threat. However, given the legal complexities and the sheer creative slog, specialists are likely to remain custodians of the naming art. But, as Simmons admits, ‘it’s not an exact science.’

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