Brand culture: What’s in a name?

Published: October 5, 2010
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The name of a brand or product can determine its success

Let’s face it Shakespeare was wrong, his immortal words from Romeo and Juliet are inherently flawed. No a rose will not smell as sweet if it were named smelly socks would it?

Names are important and complicated creatures and the naming process, whether for a first born child or a brand requires a somewhat lengthy but always intense thought process.

My own name Tyrone is one unfamiliar to most Pakistani eyes, ears and tongues. Forget the double take, I’ve had people pause for minutes on end when they hear my name. My poor listener is even more flabbergasted if s/he happens to ask the meaning but more on that later.

Names are part and parcel of a brand/ company identity. Naming is so vital that those maestros of strategy Ries and Trout even devoted a whole chapter on it and how it can help or hinder your positioning.  They rightly said that the name starts the positioning process. A case in point, some names are geographically challenged – people would be hard pressed to believe that South West Airlines, actually does fly North. Another danger is of the name becoming too abbreviated and losing equity – a too long name can cause issues and so can a too short name.  In fact Ries and Trout advocated using initials to name your company only after it becomes famous.

Brand names and culture

In this era of globalization and integration, the cultural significance of names is also a point that needs to be considered. I remember when I was doing my first job –a salesman stint for half a month. The exercise was a brilliant failure and a spectacular success –both for the same reason I found out the hard sell is not for me. If I ever got my foot in the customer’s door I’d probably politely ask him to open it so that I could take it out!

Anyway, one day during our ‘training’ sessions our sales leader was talking about the impact of culture. To illustrate he told us of how Reebok launched a new shoe in the US called Incubus, it was all the rage, however when they brought it to Spain the shoe failed. His question to us was ‘why?’ We sat around trying to think of a reason a few colleagues made a few attempts at answering but were not on the mark.

Meanwhile I was getting a bad vibe from the name Incubus, so finally I spoke up –“There is something wrong with the name.” The sales leader was pleased and told me I was right. He explained what incubus meant – a male demon that spreads evil by having sex with a woman (by the way it was a woman’s shoe). In ‘liberal’ America the shoe would be accepted but in Catholic Spain it would raise eyebrows and be shunned. Eventually Reebok had to apologise and recall the shoe even in the US, after a year, when ABC broke the news of the meaning of the name.  Another classic example where a seemingly great product failed because of the cultural differences in the name was of the Chevrolet Nova – a great name for a car but the only problem was that in Spanish No va (two words) means it doesn’t go.

The sound of success

Of course there have been people who have been smart and chosen names that were successes. Growing up in the Gulf, we were always listening to Thomsun cassettes on our walk-mans. It may surprise you to find out that the founders of Thomsun were three Indians: P. Shrinivas, K.V. Thomas and V.T. John. I doubt if they had stuck to an Indian sounding name like Shrinivas, Thomas and John their company would have been such a success.

All of us are familiar with Marilyn Monroe, if not the epitome, one of the sexiest and famous women ever, who has heard of Norma Jean Baker? Yes Norma Jean changed her name to Marilyn Monroe and the rest is history. Of course most famous people rarely keep the names they were born with.

Even closer to home we had savvy marketers change their names to succeed –would Chen One get the rush it does if it was called Chenab One? Or would you buy chips from KS Sulemanji Esmailiji & Sons or from Kolson? (They are one and the same.)

In the last three years a company has been created that has used unusual names which spawned a lot of interest and speculation –I’m referring, as you may have guessed to Engro Foods and their names –Olpers, Owesum and Olwell. When Engro Foods was launching Owesum a product with yet another O name, some people were even going so far as to put the names down to subliminal messaging –a reference was even made, wrongly to the Oedipus complex. The theory developed by Freud based on the Greek mythical king who killed his father and accidentally married his mother! Mythology and conspiracy aside –Engro Foods did in fact use what I would like to call a cue. Read the word Owesum (or Olwell) again and again –it resembles the word awesome (all well). That is an intelligent use of association to name a product. How far the brands success is due to the name is another story.

What a name should do

A good name can help you jump-start your career and stand out. Ries and Trout had this to say in their chapter on positioning yourself, one of their rules is:

Make sure your name is right.

You might be wondering what this means –the idea is that a name that is commonplace will not prompt recall and stand out.  If your name is differentiated and unique they say you are helping yourself to grow and prosper.

Which means I’m on my way to fame and fortune, not only do I have an unusual name I’ve a name with unusual meanings too. You see my name has two meanings as it is used in two languages. The first is the Gaelic (Irish) meaning which is Owen’s land. The other, more exotic meaning, is Greek and has the same root as tyrant, my name means a despot or dictator. However little did I know growing up whenever someone would call me Tyrone the Tyrant how true to reality they were! I only found out the meaning of my name when I was about 22-23 so it really hasn’t greatly influenced me.

In the beginning, I said that the naming maybe long but usually has an intense thought process. That is not always the case. The iconic brand Mercedes got its name less from strategy and more from affection, Daimler and Benz named their car after the daughter of the Austrian consul- she was called Mercedes and they liked her and her name. Similarly, my grandmother – my mom’s mother was a great fan of the American actor Tyrone Power, so I was named after him. Both my mom and Daimler and Benz, may not have read Kotler or Ries but they knew somehow the power of a name.

tyrone.tellis

Tyrone Tellis

An advertising professional who specializes in media planning. During his six years in the industry he has worked on accounts like the Johnsons and Johnson's baby range, Linkdotnet, PIA, Engro Fertilizer and Rose Petal

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.