What are the pros and cons of using a ‘meaningless’ brand name?

Yell chief executive Mike Pocock has admitted that hibu, the company’s new name, is a meaningless word. What do you think are the benefits and disadvantages of using a “meaningless” brand name

Nick

‘There are many arguments against “hibu” as a piece of rebranding, but being meaningless isn’t one of them. A meaningless word can be a useful blank canvas. The best example is Kodak, made up because the founder liked the letter “K”. The trouble is, it’s hard to invent something completely meaningless. It’s already been suggested that “hibu” has unfortunate associations with genitalia in Japanese. That aside, even made-up words carry subliminal meanings. You could argue “hibu” contains traces of “Hi!” and “Boo!” – both friendly exclamations that suggest a brand personality. Meaning creeps in, even when you don’t invite it.’

Nick Asbury, copywriter, Asbury & Asbury

David

‘I guess there are practical benefits in being able to register a meaningless name and URL without too much trouble. I’ve never been a great fan of these names though. I would find it hard to justify my fee if I was paid for coming up with random, illogical names. My feeling is there ought to be a “story” behind the name, even if it is not obvious, which supports what the organisation is about.’

David Kimpton, creative director, Kimpton Creative

Daniela

‘The great thing about a meaningless word is that it provides a blank canvas, an empty vessel that you can then imbue with whatever meaning you choose to reflect your brand. Take Haagen-Dazs for example, a made up name that now triggers a whole world of associations that are specific to that brand and represent the founder’s vision. The drawback is that meaning can take time to establish. Names inspired by where the brand comes from, what it does or who created it carry associations that provide a foundation from which to build a story more quickly. Meaningless or meaningful, a name will only ever be as strong as the brand behind it.

Daniela Nunzi-Mihranian, creative director, JKR

Jonathan

‘Abstract, meaningless new names are always going to be difficult for a business that feels partly owned by the nation. Remember Consignia anyone? You have 15 minutes of fame at launch to tell your story – justifying and explaining your name wastes this time. When we launched Yodel, we ensured the name communicated the proposition from day one – Your delivery, your call. An abstract meaningless name may be easier to create and register, but who’s interested in a meaningless brand?’

Jonathan Hubbard, creative director, The Clearing

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Comments
  • Rob Andrews November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    An old friend always used to tell people that her favourite brand name was Carphone Warehouse – because they don’t sell carphones and it isn’t a warehouse, but the name works. It’s evocative. Similarly, I don’t ever expect to find the hard copy of Facebook in Waterstone’s. The sad thing is that Pocock et al didn’t realise that you don’t need to have yellow pages to be called Yellow Pages.

  • Guy Tierney November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    A meaningless name can be perfect as long as supporting materials, product and experience match up to expectations. The issue I believe with Hibu wasn’t one of the naming itself but the briefing, and capabilities of Pocock himself in the launch; expecting to be able to field questions from the press on branding he only proved he was way out of his depth. It is a shame that figures of this magnitude think ‘all’ we do in design and branding is as simple as colouring in.

  • Francisco Bernal November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    A global brand should definitely research word meanings. Just remember the “Avios” debacle, which makes it an experience to ask for your Avios to be added at any check-in desk in Spain… ie Avíos [del Puchero] means Stew Stock

  • Andrew Kelly November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I thought “yell.com” was already a move away from the print-based nature of “Yellow Pages”? (Not that this is necessary, as Rob Andrews points out. FaceBOOK is such a great example I’m going to have wheel it out every time a client wants to needlessly go digital with their rebranding…)

    The great thing about “Yell” is that it retains the brand identity and everything that goes with it. “Hibu” just wipes the slate clean, and that means they’ve got to start building their reputation, and implanting themselves into the public’s psyche, from scratch. I believe the public can be quite alienated and averse to new names attached to established brands anyway, so they’re actually giving themselves a bit of challenge in the first place even to get to the point where they’re starting from scratch.

    Maybe Yell like a challenge? But, really, was this the best way to go forward?

  • Holly Cato, Director, NamingNames Co Ltd. November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Completely made up names?
    I agree with the idea of a ‘blank canvas,’ as others have commented. From a name strategy standpoint, a made up name can be very useful when you have an offer which is so new and different that you don’t want consumers to bring any pre-conceived notions to the offer. Instead, you want them to ask, ‘What’s that all about?’ and for them to then learn what it is from the rich portrait of imagery and words you’ve developed to support the brand.

    Made up names can also be useful if your strategy is to create a unique sound that you want to associate with the brand, and for the sound to become as much a part of the identity as its letters and graphic elements.

    However, completely made up names are not my favourite to create. My instinct is to have the name serve as the foundation to a story, and here I want the name to have some kernel of meaning, something which will resonate. I much prefer semi-descriptive names when, from a strategy perspective, there’s the opportunity to use a name to help ‘own’ an entire category.
    More emotive, associative names are very useful when we want to create a distinctive, emotive world for consumers to engage in and invite the brand into their lives. It’s all in deciding what’s the strongest role the name can play in communicating the brand, and deciding which types of names best do that.

    The simple truth? A lot of times made up names are born because they are all that’s left on a name list after the trademark and languages specialists have done their work, particularly if it’s an international brand. And that doesn’t even include the URL issue.

    Kodak? Some people say the founder loved the letter ‘k’. Others say it made the same sound as when the camera shutter closed when he took a picture. Ko-dak. Who knows?!

  • David Luttenberger November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    So, how is that meaningless naming convention working out for HaagenDaaz? I’d say it’s done quite well!

  • pacifica November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Es muy facil criticar a una persona o empresa cuando ya esta elegido un nombre para una marca, producto o eslogan.
    Me encantaría verles a Vds. poniendo nombre a una empresa que acaba de brotar de las cenizas de otra y que le pongan un nombre que sea pegadizo, que no se olvide, que sea comercial, etc, etc.

  • David Merrifield, Brandscape Architect November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Any made-up name (within reason) can provide a blank canvas on which a brand platform and a brand story can be developed and written. But the point with hibu is surely that a brand already existed and with it were the associations and perhaps loyalty of the audience. Presumably there were good reasons to think the brand needed to be repositioned, but a complete ground-up rebrand is radical enough (as opposed to some fresh communications and a tweak to the brand elements) without making life harder by coming up with a non-sensical name. I would love to have been a fly on the wall in some of those planning meetings!

  • David Bartholomew November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Rob: When Carphone Warehouse launched all they sold was carphones and ‘warehouse’ implied a good range at a low price. They built the brand on that basis and then the brand meaning evolved as the range changed.

  • David Bartholomew November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Daniela asks if anyone remembers Consignia. The trouble is, everyone in the business does, and it’s become a byword for branding foul-up.

  • Brandon Botha November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I’d start looking for a new job if I were employed by these monkeys.

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