May 23, 2005
How To

How to Name (or Rename) Your Company: 3 Steps & Mistakes to Avoid

SUMMARY: Whoops! We wish we'd researched this article before we named MarketingSherpa because turns out we made an obvious naming mistake. What with M&As and new launches, companies are renaming themselves like crazy these days. If you're on the naming committee, check out this quick info before any final decisions are made and good luck.
Developing a name for a company or product takes time. Rush it -- because the letterhead needs to be printed or the Web site is ready to launch -- and you're likely to end up with a lousy name.

And a name that is unlikely to be remembered, or is remembered for the wrong reasons, may be the least of your problems. Skimping on the process of investigating trademark issues, for example, could land you with a lawsuit.

We interviewed Rick Jacobs, Principal of corporate branding consultancy Monigle Associates who have helped rename companies such as WorldCom, to discover the steps behind naming or renaming a company.

Three must-know tips on company names

Tip #1. Avoid initials

"It's a sure road to anonymity," Jacobs says. "We have done a substantial amount of research on it, and we have found that invented words or real words are 40% easier to remember than initialized words."

Yes, there's BMW, AT&T, and IBM -- the three that everyone always mentions. "Just the fact that people can name the same three companies almost every time goes to show that there ain't a lot of them," he jokes.

The exception, he says, might be when initials have a certain connotation: IQ, for example. In that case -- if the connotation is positive in connection with your brand -- it might make sense.

Tip #2. Best letters for names

When reviewing words and made-up words, also consider the letters (and sounds) in them:

--Q is unique and have a strong identity --V, X, and Z are all associated with cutting-edge products --M softens words and gives them an "embracing feeling" --Hard consonants such as K "really get your attention and demand to be remembered."

Tip #3. Shorter is better

One-word brands are most effective. Lengthy, multiple word names lead to truncation. When people abbreviate your name, you lose control over your brand. Don't worry about describing your brand in your name. "Don't describe, distinguish," says Jacobs.

Examples of companies Jacobs helped name, based on these learnings:

--Xcel Energy: Formed when New Century Energy merged with another company -- the X gives the impression of a cutting edge company.

--Maxus: The oil exploration and production unit of Diamond Shamrock wanted a macho name. The "Max" and "us" sounds are both strong. While M is a softening sound, the X keeps the name from becoming too soft.

--Christus: The name for this healthcare organization has "the very strong K sound on the front and the 'us' on the end has a nice connotation."

--TierOne Bank: Originally called Lincoln Federal Savings and Loan, the new name "has a strong consonant in the T, is limited to two pretty strong syllables, and has brevity."

The three-step naming process and timeline

Perhaps the most important thing you must do is involve top executives. "You can't have them say, 'You go develop it and when you get to the right name come and tell us,'" Jacobs says.

"It's so representative of the organization and the people who run it that if you have not been involved in the process of looking at strategies and contenders, when you just see the name out of context it's almost always a sure road to failure."

Step #1. Involve the following four groups

1. The people who can articulate the future vision and strategy of the company; 2. Decision makers -- key board members, key shareholders, the C-suite, etc.; 3. Political people -- influential board members, descendants of the founder, who may be way down the food chain in terms of decisions but have influence on others; 4. All employees (at some point).

Step #2. Track results

This process should be measured, says Jacobs: "Otherwise, why did you spend this money?"

What do you hope to accomplish with the name? "Typically what you'd like to do is go out and have baseline research to see what the problems are, then identify success metrics at that point," says Jacobs. After the process, do research to see if you're turning the dial.

If the dial isn't turning, do you change your name all over again? No.

"If you've gone through the appropriate diagnostics and testing on the front end, at the worst case scenario you find that you need to refine or slightly modify the messaging that you're putting around the name to be sure it's really resonating, or look at the volume of the messaging."

Step #3. Suggested timeline

Here are the key steps that need to happen, based on a 12-month launch. (Smaller organizations may be able to pick a new name in three months; Fortune 500s may require 18 months.)

--Months one and two: Come up with a list of four to six names

--Months two through four: Legal and trademark issues. Have trademark experts run detailed reports on federal trademarks, state trademarks, trademarks in other countries, to render a legal opinion on the level of risk associated with the names. (Hint: they'll never say a name is without risk. The best you'll get is, "This represents no more than a normal business risk.")

At the same time, do linguistics research in the countries in which you'll be doing business to be sure there are no adverse connotations. You'll want to check not just languages, but dialects within those languages: "There's Castilian Spanish, Puerto Rican Spanish, Mexican Spanish. You don't want anything embarrassing or negative or both."

--Months four through six: Develop visual strategy. "Do you have a logo, a separate symbol, what are your subgraphic elements, your color strategy, etc."

Also, prepare a press release and statement in the event of a leak -- it happens.

--Months seven through 10: Translate that design into all touchpoints: print materials, forms, facility signage, fleet graphics, uniforms, environments, Web site, billing statements, etc.

At the same time, begin to engage employees. Bring a few key employees in for focus groups and ask: "If we say we stand for this (the vision the new name is meant to convey), what would our customers expect us to do differently or better? What are some of the obstacles in your ability to do your job and convey that vision?"

--Months 10 through 12: Put resources and tools in place so necessary employees have access to things such as press kits, logos, print collateral, advertising, images, and everything they need to know about the brand.

Take the program to employees and engage them in the process.

"It's not just about sending out a memo, and it can't just be a pep rally. They're your front line, so show them that the process has been meaningful."

Monigle Associates:

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