What’s in a Brand Name?

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… That which we call a rose by any oth­er name would smell as sweet.”

Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 12)

This is nev­er more so than when asked about a brand or prod­uct tempt­ing us to part with our hard-earned cash. To design a brand, a lot of thought must go into its name. A rose by any oth­er name may smell as sweet, but I doubt many would want to smell it in the first place if it were named, say, “crap­bud.”

It seems to me that there are three broad types of brand name:

  1. It means some­thing (e.g. Apple, Dodge, Google, General Motors, Yahoo!, Facebook) – which may or may not have some­thing to do with the prod­uct on offer.
  2. It looks like it might mean some­thing (e.g. Flickr, Microsoft, FedEx, FCUK, IBM, Kleenex, Coca Cola) – which could be an acronym, a com­pos­ite, or dis­tor­tion of an exist­ing word or phrase.
  3. It means noth­ing (e.g. Pepsi, Boeing, Dell) – which could be a sound or form of ono­matopoeia, a prop­er noun or name, an archa­ic word or phrase, or sim­ply noth­ing at all.

There are numer­ous well-known exam­ples of each type (as there are under­stand­ably many un-known exam­ples of each). Most impor­tant­ly, there are no hard and fast rules gov­ern­ing what will work and what will not, with excep­tions to the rules being more the norm than the rules them­selves. In fact, for once in our recent his­to­ry as con­sumers, there’s no trend-set­ting demo­graph­ic: no baby-boomers born in the after­math of a major inter­na­tion­al cri­sis, no hip­pies revolt­ing against an estab­lish­ment, no yup­pies tac­it­ly realign­ing them­selves with one, no crowd-div­ing mass­es of unwashed Gen-Xers, and no ecsta­sy-pop­ping ravers. Lately even the “blo­gos­phere” of social-net­work­ing neo-geeks seems to be branch­ing off into small­er and small­er sub­groups.

Today we live in the wake of all those cul­tures and sub­cul­tures, mak­ing it extreme­ly chal­leng­ing for a new brand name to deter­mine a tar­get demo­graph­ic. However, it is pre­cise­ly for those rea­sons that it has nev­er been more cru­cial to do so.

This is where the con­cept of niche comes in. Put sim­ply, a niche brand is one that tar­gets a very spe­cif­ic client base with a very spe­cif­ic prod­uct. Essentially, it’s say­ing: “We only do this one thing that only you might need.” What is impor­tant here is not the claim itself, but its sub­text, which emphat­i­cal­ly favors one extreme over the oth­er in a series of dualisms.

  • Deep over broad.
  • Quality over quan­ti­ty -ori­ent­ed.
  • Artistic over com­mer­cial.
  • Emotional over intel­lec­tu­al.
  • Passionate over ratio­nal.
  • Specific over gen­er­al.
  • Idiosyncratic over gener­ic.
  • Personal over cor­po­rate.
  • Crafted over mass-pro­duced.

This flips the com­mon adage of “jack of all trades, mas­ter of none” on its head. Instead, it claims to be a “jack of no trades, a mas­ter of one.” In fact it seems that one is the new many, or even the new zero. Socialism and mul­ti­plic­i­ty (“I belong to every­one.”) have fall­en out of style, but more impor­tant­ly so have nihilism and anar­chy (“I belong to no one.”).

This means that a niche brand aim­ing for that one elu­sive bulls­eye runs the risk of miss­ing it alto­geth­er and sim­ply appeal­ing to no one.

I would love to hear your thoughts. Please share them in the com­ment sec­tion below.

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