What’s in a name?

by Anders Pettersson

Some brand names are more memorable than others, while a few even become synonyms for words, and present in everyday language. Can you come up with the next brand name that will be used as a verb?

Nike. GE. Disney. Google. Some of the most famous brands in the world, with probably the least in common in terms of names. What is it that have made their names stick? Is it the success of their products and services alone, that has made us remember their names, no matter what they would have been called? Or can we attribute a significant part of their success to their names?

Branding consultant Jonathan Bell categorises successful brand names into seven types in the American context. The types include among others Suggestive, like Uber, Associative, like Amazon, Abstract, like Kodak, and Idea and Emotion, like Nike.

Uber’s suggestive name points to the meaning of the word, as something that exceeds the norms or limits of its kind. Amazon wants to associate its vast selection of products with the world’s largest river, and Nike conveys the idea of the ancient Greek goddess of victory. It would be quite difficult to imagine these companies without their names. Just imagine if Nike, with its inspirational association to the goddess of victory, would have kept its original name, Blue Ribbon Sports.

That sounds foreign

In some markets, like the Chinese one, foreign brands often change their name completely, to a name that works better locally. In most countries, however, we limit ourselves to pronouncing the foreign-sounding brand in our own language, creating a local variation. An example is car manufacturer Ferrari in Portuguese-speaking countries. The name is pronounced “Fe-ha-ri”, because of how a double r is pronounced in Portuguese. A Brazilian I once met in Italy was in fact disappointed to hear the original Italian pronunciation, which lacked the soft aspired h of her native Portuguese.

In other cases politics can have a hand in adapting a foreign-sounding name. The Italian department store chain Magazzini Standard had to change its name to “Standa” in the 1930s, because of the fascist regime’s language laws that banned foreign-sounding names. Since the Italian language is not a fan of consonants at the end of words, especially when there are two, the regime probably did the company a favour by dropping the “rd”, making Standa an easily pronounceable household name (“Drop the “The”’, anyone?).

How do you say Kleenex in German? Tempo!

The ultimate success of a brand might be when they become part of our everyday vocabulary. When a brand transforms into a word, especially in the case of a verb, it starts playing a part in how we depict our world. Googling, Skyping, Photoshopping and Hoovering are just some examples of “verbified” brand names that are normal to use in English. A recent Swedish example is the mobile pay app Swish, that just in a few years has made “Swisha” (“to Swish”), a commonly heard verb in Sweden in 2017.

Examples of brands as synonyms for a noun are countless (Jacuzzi, Memory Stick, Jeep, Post-It, Vespa…). In Germany, Tempo is used as a synonym for tissues in Germany, similar to how Kleenex can be used as a generic word for tissues in the US. Mascara, with its name inspired by “mask” in Spanish and Italian (máscara and maschera), is curiously enough called Rímel in Spain, and Rimmel in Italy, after the name of the company that invented the first mascara.

There are, however, significant risks to a brand becoming the generic name for a concept. “Xeroxing” as a synonym for photocopying is so common that it is a problem for Xerox, since it weakens their trademark, and refers more to the paper copies, than the actual printers. In some countries, brand names like Aspirin, Escalator and Thermos have even lost their trademark rights, since they have become such common and generic names for their products.

How do you turn your brand into a verb?

It is impossible to predict what brand name will become the next generically used word, but there are some elements that many of the successful ones have in common. If you can replace a sentence, or a whole concept, with a single word, chances are your brand can make it. “Let’s get an Uber”, is a lot simpler than “Let’s order a car through a taxi app”, as is “I will Photoshop it” compared to “I will edit it with an image editor”. “I can Swish you” is simpler than “I can use a mobile pay app to pay you”. “Don’t tase me, bro” was definitely easier for that protester to say than “Don’t use your electroshock weapon on me, bro” (yes, Taser is a brand).

If you are the first to bring a product to the market, like tech companies often try to do, or if you are providing a new aspect to the product, you generally have a bigger shot. A short name with just a few syllables is also an advantage. Terms that are already widely used, and that just would become more complicated with the new brand name, are of course harder to change. An example is American supermarket chain Kroger’s not so successful attempt to replace “shopping” or “grocery shopping” with “Krogering”.

Our interpretation of the world is dependent to a large extent on the construction of language. When a brand is a part of our language, it becomes one of the elements with which we both describe and shape our world. Your brand still needs to deliver a top quality product or service, since a good name can never be a shortcut to success. With a top notch product, that is perhaps the first of its kind, and with a short name that can replace a complicated sentence, your brand might just become an indispensable part of our vocabulary.

Anders Pettersson
Content Manager
anders.pettersson@river.se