The Science of Naming Brands, From iPad to Ice Cream

What's in a name? More than you think.*


In business, a name is the easiest thing to hate. To dispute Facebook's ethics, you have to read about its behavior. To dislike a BlackBerry phone, you have to experience it. But to hate the name "Facebook" or "BlackBerry" requires no more than hearing the word and forming an opinion.

"Naming a brand isn't like naming a baby," says Hayes Roth, chief marketing officer at Landor, which has named hundreds of products, including BlackBerry PlayBook and Delta SkyMiles. Since everybody feels qualified to instantly judge a name, it is all the more important for brands to pay close attention (and a little extra cash) for a name that resonates with their consumers across the world.

There are no universal rules for finding a perfect name. Instead, there is a process. To understand the secrets of naming, The Atlantic gained access to exclusive presentations and documents laying out the exhaustive process undergone at Landor, one of the most prestigious naming firms in the country.


When you're naming a new product, Roth tells me, it often helps to speak with a familiar voice. For example, Apple's mobile products all begin with a lower-case i (iPad, iPod, iPhone). BlackBerry phones are strong one-syllable words (Bold, Storm, Curve). BMW has a numeric system that places every car in its hierarchy, while many Ford cars begin with the letter F (Fiesta, Focus, F-150).

Landor begins with a "creative brief" to set the parameters for each brand. Should the name be long or short? Should it be abstract (like Prius), suggestive (like Flickr), or descriptive (like PlayStation)? Should it it be a real word (like Old Spice Swagger), a compound (like AmeriTech) or a new word (like Kazaa)?

Based on the brief, Landor creates a long list of hundreds of names and concepts, which are narrowed down for legal vetting. The initial recommendation to clients includes the best names that cleared legal, plus some alternatives. To bring the names to life, Landor includes creative elements to provide some relevant context, such as sample product labels or merchandise.

Good names comes in all shapes and sizes as the matrix below indicates. But sometimes the naming process goes horribly awry. For your consideration: Pschitt, a French softdrink; Fartek, a Swedish babywear product; and Cat Crap, a lens cleaner in Japan. Forty years ago, cross-cultural comparisons of names was a smart extra step. Today, Roth says, it's mandatory diligence.

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A brand's name is its face for the world. But a flawless name can't save a flawed product, just like a controversial name won't sink a juggernaut.

"I was interviewed multiple times when iPad was announced because it sounded to everybody like feminine products," Roth says. "I was asked, 'Is this a disaster? Will it sink Apple?' I said it fit with their conventions. A week later, people saw the product and nobody asked the question again."

Now consider the iPad's latest rival, the BlackBerry PlayBook, which is Landor's latest high-profile name. Roth, who did not personally work on the name, said he was proud of the final product, which trades on the company's professional heritage.

"It has the word play, but it's a tool about work," Roth says. "When you want to achieve victory somewhere, you talk about a game plan. A playbook. It reflects the professional nature of the product."

The reviews for BlackBerry PlayBook have been fairly consistent: It's a decent product with a thin selection of apps that doesn't quite live up to the iPad. Some critics have taken issue with the latest ad campaign announcing "Amateur hour is over. The BlackBerry PlayBook is here."

Roth disagrees. "The business world is where they have credibility," he says. "But they have to be visible and aggressive because Apple is already considered an alternative in the business environment."


*Coda: That Shakespeare QuoteIn an article about naming, I feel contractually obligated to quote Juliet: "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

She's right, of course. A rose would smell the same if we called it a sunflower. But as a matter of fact, the word "sunflower" is three syllables long with a strong-weak-weak syllable structure that wouldn't fit in Shakespeare's iambic pentameter. Juliet's speech uses the long "oh" vowel in rose, Romeo and even the exclamation "O" to create a sense of pain and longing. So her question demonstrates precisely what is in a great name: rhythm, evocation, and a sense of belonging to the world around it. These are the same principles that brand managers try to capture when they name everything from toilet paper to fragrances.