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May 1, 2002
6 Myths About Good Names

A good name is golden.

As a Kraft Foods executive says, "Kraft has thousands of trademarks and they are among our most treasured assets. To the outside world, they represent who we are and what we do."

But over the years, lots of false notions and fuzzy thinking have crept into the naming game.

Let's clear up six of the major misconceptions.

Myth #1: There are no words left in the dictionary.

Not true. Your speaking vocabulary may only be 30,000 words, but a hefty dictionary will yield 750,000 words. So dig a little deeper.

Amplify? It's become the name of a haircare product. Hefty? A trash bag. Meridian? A bank. Platinum? A software firm. Tenet? A hospital chain.

You should also consider two-word phrases. Idioms, expressions and figures of speech can make highly evocative names.

Examples: Cover Girl, an aspirational name for makeup. Gold Medal flour and Blue Ribbon margarine, two of many ways to say "best of the breed." City Limits, the name and ambiance of a retro diner. Second Nature, a renewable energy program for consumers.

A phrase is more than the sum of its parts.

Myth #2: Coining a new word is easy.

Sure it is, if you don't give a damn about communicating.

The fancy term for manufacturing a name is a "neologism." Anybody with a computer or a set of Scrabble tiles can crank out a newly-minted word like Anadem or Zixoryn. But as a famous theater critic once observed, "That's not writing. That's typing."

The trick is to create a new name that is meaningful, impactful and starts the positioning process for the brand or company.

Trueste is the name of a perfume from Tiffany. (You can see the foundation of “true.”) Premio is the new name for America’s leading maker of Italian sausages. (It’s the Italian word for prize or reward, and you can see the foundation of “premium.”) These neologisms mean something. They're connected to something. They start the communications process.

Myth #3: Manufactured names are all the same.

Au contraire.

A made-up name might be a simple fusion of two easily recognized words. Examples: Seagate, Bridgestone, Earthgrains.

Or it might be an altered form of a recognizable word.

Examples: The pain reliever Aleve. Or the perfume Trueste.

It might be a foreign word that some people would recognize. Example: Diamante, the Spanish word for "diamond." Or the sausage name Premio.

If you select a foreign term identifiable only to scholars, you start with zero recognition. Examples: Oreo, from the Greek for "small mound." Sanka, from the French words meaning "without caffeine."

Myth #4: Customers will take our name literally.

No, they won't. They're smarter than that.

Does a prospect take the name Century 21 literally, and assume the Realtor wouldn’t sell a house until the new century?

Does the deodorant name No Sweat mean you absolutely, positively won't sweat?

Is a car from Rent A Wreck really a wreck?

Does the perfume name Passion guarantee that -- well, you get the idea.

Good names are suggestive. They are bundles of possible meanings. They are not contractual commitments.

Myth #5: The name we really want is already owned by somebody else, so let's move on.

Not so fast. Names are property, and can be bought and sold or leased like real estate.

Coors licensed the name of its upscale beer Irish Red from a long-defunct brewery. Yves St. Laurent bought the name of its Opium fragrance for only $200 from two elderly perfumers.

The 1999 relaunch of National Airlines came about after the new owners paid $175,000 to buy the name at a bankruptcy sale from defunct Pan Am. (Pan Am had acquired the carrier in 1980.)

Not that long ago, we helped a Fortune 100 company acquire the rights to an automation software name from its Japanese owner. One week of phone calls and faxes produced a letter of agreement.

So if the name you covet is owned by somebody else, go after it. Use an intermediary to open a channel of communications. Have a valuation in mind. Make sure the assignment of rights is perfectly clear. (For which countries, for what period of time are you acquiring the name?)

Myth #6: Initials make good names.

Not true. Names such as TJX, EMC, CNF or SPX (all real companies) are the corporate equivalent of a disguise.

One study found that real or invented words are 40% easier to remember than all-initial names.

Don't believe that? Try this little test. Below are "pairs" of company names taken right out of the brand new Fortune 500 listings. The names are side by side in the tables, just one ranking apart. Which half of each pair is better known? Which is easier to identify? Which stock would you rather own? (Be honest.)

Staples or TJX? General Mills or EMC? Barnes & Noble or CNF? Hormel Foods or SPX?

All-initial names are a one-way trip to oblivion.

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Steve Rivkin, who once worked for branding pioneers Trout & Ries, has probably touched more brands than a bustling stockboy. First with Trout & Ries, and now with Rivkin & Associates, Steve has helped some of the biggest brand names on the planet. Kraft, Monsanto, Pfizer, Seagram, and Tiffany & Co to name a few. Steve is also the co-author of The New Positioning, The Power of Simplicity, Differentiate or Die, and the new IdeaWise. Talent Zoo is honored to present Steve Rivkin as a Guest Columnist. steve@rivkin.net

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