We were interviewed by Crain’s New York Business for a feature article on the business of brand naming. Senior reporter, Matthew Flamm, asked us to comment on a few examples of successful, and not so successful, brand names. Here’s the original article. Repost below. Thanks to Matthew for including us, and thanks to Margaret Wolfson for introducing us!
Some business names spell success, while others simply depress
Why names like Lunesta sound magical, while those like Altria make people gag.
By Matthew Flamm
LUNESTA: The prescription sleeping pill may keep its users in a trance longer than they’d like to be, but it has one of the lovelier pharmaceutical names. Combining luna, Latin for moon, and siesta, this so-called coined name suggests “a gentle rest,” said Margaret Wolfson, founder and creative director of River+Wolf, whose creations include Samsung’s PurColor TV. “The sound of the name is magic, too—almost like a lullaby.”
NEST LABS: An apt name for a home-automation company, Nest manages to be both suggestive and descriptive. “Simple, elegant and timeless,” said Scott Milano, managing director of Tanj Branding, who also likes that it’s flexible. “The name lets the company go into any technology in the home, and probably beyond.”
NET-A-PORTER: The name of the high-end online fashion retailer strikes “the perfect balance between descriptive and evocative,” said Lynn Haviland, managing partner of Applebaum Associates, whose creations include Nabisco’s SnackWell’s line. “The name clearly conveys the category with the allure of French sophistication.”
TWITTER: An example of how tech startups have pushed toward simplicity and natural language in their naming (think Apple, BlackBerry, Vine), Twitter also gets high marks for being evocative. “What a wonderful image of tweets, chatter and fluttering back and forth,” Mr. Milano said. “It’s exactly what the platform offers.”
UBER: The attention-getting mobile transportation tech company was well named even before it became the world’s best-funded startup. A slang word rooted in German, it’s both straightforward and unexpected for a U.S. company—and it now doubles as a verb. The name says “This is more than just a ride,” according to Nikolas Contis, global director of naming at branding agency Siegel+Gale. “It’s a better experience, above all others.”
ALTRIA: Another coined name, Altria was concocted to rebrand Philip Morris in 2003 as more than a cigarette company. But the attempt to connote altruism and high-mindedness made many people gag. “It has no apparent meaning at all, just a feeling that says ‘We won’t say what we do, but trust us: it’s good,’ ” said Scott Stowell, whose design studio Open recently gave Citi Bike operator Motivate its new name. (It had been Alta Bicycle Share.)
XE: Another rebranding, Xe—pronounced “zee”—replaced Blackwater in 2009 after the security company became infamous for killing unarmed Iraqi civilians. The company came up with the name on its own, and said it didn’t mean anything. “It’s hard to pronounce for Americans,” said Tanj Branding’s Mr. Milano, a former manager of verbal identity at Interbrand Japan, where he named Nintendo’s game console Wii. “Maybe this was intentional: ‘If they can’t say our name, they can’t say anything bad about us!’ “
QWIKSTER: Netflix’s ill-conceived and short-lived attempt at creating a DVD-only company, Qwikster was also half-baked as a name. “It has a Web 1.0 vibe to it, like Napster,” said Mr. Contis of Siegel+Gale, which helped You Send It become Hightail. A name “is very important real estate, and they didn’t put a lot of thought into it.”
MONDELEZ INTERNATIONAL: An example of crowdsourcing gone wrong, Mondelez (pronounced Mahn-de-LEEZ) was created by two Kraft Foods employees for its snack-foods division when the company was splitting in two. Namers thought the word clumsy and tin-eared—it’s a combo of “world” and “delish” with a romance-language accent—but then Crain’s Chicago Business reported that it also contained the Russian slang for an oral sex act. Mondelez outlasted the ridicule, illustrating the branding-industry rule that how people end up feeling about a name has a lot to do with what it’s naming.
POCARI SWEAT AND ASSE CHOCOLATE: A sports drink and a candy bar, these Japanese products show what can happen when brands don’t think how their names play globally, though Pocari Sweat seems to be doing just fine. The 35-year-old beverage sells across Asia, and parent Otsuka Pharmaceutical plans to make it the subject of the first-ever ad on the moon in October. Asse—named for the town in Belgium—appears to have been discontinued by its maker, Morinaga & Co.