Why Brand Names Are Like Joe Biden

By Jeff Hirsch
President, The Right Brain Studio

Every four years, pundits from across the political spectrum offer the usual, unsolicited advice to Presidential nominees. “When choosing a Vice Presidential running mate, do no harm.”

People vote for Presidents, not Vice Presidents. Never has an election been carried solely or even partially on the merits of the running mate. However, a VP pick that provides a significant distraction from the top of the ticket can indeed inflict serious damage.

Brand names and Vice Presidents have much in common. We think names are critically important and often deploy an enormous, disproportionate level of resources against them. But how important are they? More and more, visual brand identity, logos and related icons, will trump verbal communication. Most often, companies and brands are named first, which in turn, drives the graphic development process. In fact, it should be just the opposite.

I am called upon frequently to create names for new brands or re-name old ones, often before a brand positioning is finalized. Of all creative marketing tasks, I have always found the naming process to be the most challenging, frustrating, tedious and unrewarding.

For when all is said and done, has a product name ever truly propelled a brand to success on its own?

Brand names are highly subjective and nearly impossible to test, especially with no visual context. Imagine how the names of some of our most iconic brands might have been received in focus groups if they were exposed in the typical fashion, simply words read out loud, projected, or written on a piece of paper: What would consumers say about a computer called Apple or Macintosh, a sneaker called Nike, a coffee house called Starbucks or a drink called Pepsi? They would have died and promptly been buried in the graveyard known as the back rooms of focus group facilities. Those names would have meant nothing in regard to the products they represent, at least not without some explanation.

But when do you ever have time to explain in marketing communications? As my friend Jean Pierre Lacroix, President of Shikatani Lacroix Brand Design, likes to say, packaging and other brand communications that must carry complex, emotionally based ideas, need to communicate to consumers in the “blink of the eye.” How many names of great brands can pass the “Blink Factor” test on their own, especially when they are new?

We laugh, but the “Artist formerly known as Prince” may have had it right many years ago when he wanted to be known simply by a visual mark. While his design never seemed to stand for anything to which people could connect, this is not the case with brands such as Apple or Nike. The Nike “swoosh” was almost instantly recognized as an icon meaning speed, agility and aspiration.

Apple is about access to technology, innovation, “being in,” design, self-expression and more. It is not about fruit, though one could argue that the image of an apple with a bite missing does evoke a range of very basic human feelings including nourishment, temptation and fulfilled desire (the “bite”), truth, nature, education (apples for the teacher) and possibly even American style democracy (All American Apple Pie).

Still, I believe that that any number of innocuous brand names could have accomplished the same goal, for it is the brand experience and cultural context that inform the brand name, not the other way around.

It was product design and bold communications that transformed Apple from a rip-off of a record label or a piece of fruit to stand for something much bigger. In turn, the company has always this leveraged the logo more than the written name to communicate this brand essence. Visit the Apple website today and you won’t even see the company name on the home page. The logo does all the work.

Starting the brand identification process with imagery, not the written word is all the more important now that we are assaulted by so much clutter on a daily basis. Before there were words there were cave paintings, and the power of an image to communicate a powerful message in “the blink of an eye” remains undiminished. Of course, as brands become more global, non-verbal communication is even more essential.

All of this is not to say that great brand names should always be the goal, and in those situations where the name must be descriptive of product function, marketers would do better by considering names first.

But in these times, a picture is worth far more than a thousand words. A rich, evocative image that helps define the emotional benefits of a brand can be worth many millions of dollars.

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