Co.Design

Why The Best Brands Eventually Leave Their Names Behind

Branding giant Joe Duffy looks at the world's most powerful brands and how they've evolved to the point of "wordlessness."

In our business, we often have the opportunity to bring a new brand to life. With that comes a question we often hear from clients: “Do you do naming?” And then, “What’s your process?”

It’s a regular part of our process to struggle with naming a new company, product, merger, or acquisition. You might be asking yourself, Did he mean to write "struggle"? Yes, I did. And it’s a bigger struggle today than it was before the onset of the World Wide Web and the ensuing global market that everyone now plays in. Perhaps the biggest aggravation is the difficulty in securing a simple and meaningful URL and trademark/copyright. It’s become a bit of a gamers’ business to buy and hold names today, and so many meaningful options have been taken.

In part, that is why our approach to naming is different than many firms that specialize in naming. Because when you stop and really think about it, how important is it that a name actually explains your product’s unique selling proposition, defines your company, or pegs you into a specific category? And even if any or all of those factors are driving forces behind your naming objective, do you have the luxury of choosing a name that will have only one linguistic meaning? The truth is that naming is about much more than words; it goes beyond linguistics and phonetics.

Think for a moment about some of today’s most famous brands. Consider these names—alone. Apple. Amazon. Target. What do any of these words say about the products they sell? The services offered? The groups that started them, or more important, the companies that they have become?

Not much.

Then stop for a moment and think about the way the world communicates today. Paraphrasing. Colloquialisms. Jargon. Even when you have a brand name that defines your raison d’être, it often gets abbreviated. That’s what happened to Federal Express and Aol.

And then…they embraced it.

These are but a few examples of truly relevant brands. Their true meaning comes from getting to know them, watching them evolve, seeing them for more than the letters that make up the words in their names. So while I won’t say that the name itself is unimportant, I firmly believe that it is so much more than the name alone.

Right now, we happen to be working on an amazing new product that is in need of a brand name. We’ve done the typical research. Studied the category semantics and the competition. We’ve brainstormed new possibilities, many of them names that are quite clever, reinterpret known meanings, present interesting spellings or letterform opportunities, lean into modern vernacular and more. The problem we face now, as is often the case, is in getting everyone on board at this early stage. Finding a word that everyone can agree works best. What we find is that those that are “new” don’t sound quite right. They are unfamiliar. I guess that makes them strange. Those that may seem common in their mere verbal presentation may hold tremendous design potential around letterform, in type, or with the addition of a simple symbol. But at this stage, it’s difficult for the team at large to envision the full potential.

I probably won’t surprise you, but I’ve always believed that making a decision on a name, without the benefit of seeing it in its visual form, puts a person at a significant disadvantage. Done well, the power of the graphic presentation adds significant meaning. The interplay of positive and negative space (the arrow in FedEx); unique logotype (Saks Fifth Ave., Diet Coke); a symbol (I love NY); and color (Tiffany). These are some of the many elements that can work in concert with words to deliver greater meaning to a name. These are the cues that transform a meaningful name from being a mere product descriptor to a brand with differentiation, relevance, and personality.

The development of a successful new brand (in support of a unique product or service concept, of course) is dependent on the creation of an entire “brand language” to surround it. A brand language is composed of multiple communication tools. Words and tone of voice are parts of a brand language on the verbal side. Things like color, type, symbols, icons, illustration and photo styles, materials, and textures are visual components in a brand language. Every element should be uniquely designed for a brand to create an ownable voice, and when used in combination, they provide a proprietary way to execute in a way that can cut through category clutter.



As our world becomes more integrated, with the ability to see many cultures and readily buy and sell goods from multiple nations, as businesses cross borders more consistently, as our interaction with technology and the visual communication of graphic user-interface design increases, and as we are constantly pushed to process more and more information, we’re beginning to see some brands evolve to a place of “wordlessness.” Apple, Levi’s, Starbucks, and Nike are a few of the noteworthy brands that are leading this branding evolution. Perhaps this is because we’ve come to a point where we see new opportunity that can come with transcending the differences and struggles that verbal communication presents.

True power brands have much more than a name in their arsenal of marketing communications weapons. And just like the people we find ourselves attracted to and want to spend time with, they walk, talk, and act in a way that is unique to their character. They’re true to themselves, and you can depend on their meaningful characteristics and actions—even beyond their words—to stand the test of time.

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20 Comments

  • pojmasta

    Agree with a lot of this, but I think that the internet is changing things a bit.

    Specifically, the actual names of companies (particularly new ones which don't have much heritage) are becoming more important as they often have to initially exist within the world's of other, dominant brands - on Facebook, in an app store, a Google search or as a line of text at the top of your browser.

    If anything, names could become more important as brands lose the power to control their presentation and tone of voice within the dominant frames of reference.

    Having a strong, memorable name in these cases is becoming more significant.

  • cadence tan

    great article, in depth insightful concept into what goes into something that has to offer to a multitude of consumers to relate to the company based on synapse judgement.

  • Larry-miller

    Three thoughts occur to me after reading Mr. Duffy's superb treatise:    1. MONEY — All his examples were multi-billion-dollar companies. I wonder if a small company with say $1000 to spend on promotion could prosper with an abstract name using words like amazon. Is cost a factor proscribing naming choices and branding limits? If ya got duh bucks, you can do this and if you do not got duh bucks you can do this but not that?    2. ADVERTISING — To me, second most important topic: Should the design and naming firm hand a fait accompli to the ad agency, which will be responsible for so much of the name and brand exposure? Should the agency, having determined a marketing posture, select the design/naming firm?    3. DUH BOSS — To me, first most important topic: Does the big boss love the name? If he or she does not, then the company and its staffers at all levels will hear, "We have, uhh, a new, umm, name. That's it for now." If she or he LOVES the name, they will all hear, "We have a great new name, a proud name. So, when people hear you work for [new name here], they will ooh and ahh. This is a great day!!! Welcome to [new name]." Well, you get the idea. I do think Duh Boss and his love for vs. mere acceptance of the new name, is not just crucial, but critical.

  • The Outside View Blog

    True: There's the old saying, that applies here as well: 'an image is worth a thousand words'. True: managing to re-invent yourself as time passes is the key to a success for any company, which has to appear, in any form and from any perspective, modern. True; I agree with about 91% of what you said, which is quite much by any standards.

    Still.in the content of a brand you surely cannot get to the 'seemingly no-name state' easily, and even at that state the symbol (logo, a shortened name, etc.) is associated with the previous name. So the name stays there as an image in people's minds. And to build the association for the symbol or for a new brand logo to the previous one, as many here have noted, is no small effort in any form.

    Also it could, as easily as with these few examples,  be also argued that a successful brand never leaves its name behind. They just, with great effort, manage to create a working contextual relationship with the new symbol and the old name. And so, in the process, manage to immortalize the old name.

    There is also a living proof of a situation where a great brand hasn't managed to do this. Even a brand with large resources. And even though the example is of a different world than your examples, it was the first obvious example that came to my mind. That great brand is the man previously marked with a symbol (the artist), the man who previously and now goes by the name of Prince.

    Br,
    Jussi P. / http://theoutsideviewblog.com

  • Literacyofimage

    After centuries of word-based information and knowledge we're returning to images as a dominant form of literacy. 

    Is this a new paganism or just the realities of globalism? 

  • Tara Landes

    Well written. In 1993 "the artist formerly known as prince" aka "the artist" aka "love symbol #2"  aka Prince created a case study of the brand being far more than the name.

  • Derek

    One thing that that isn't mentioned in this article is the hundreds of millions of dollars it took to get people to associate the brand with the word and image that it carries.  If I go out and build a business with a pear on it as a logo or even name I would need to take time to go out there and educate people and some people would not get it and move on others would embrace it.  Our company Next Step China (http://www.nextstepchina.org) was specifically picked because it is to symbolize the next step people would be taking towards china whether it is for business or pleasure.  We also wanted a name that would not be pigeon hold to one product or industry as we were looking long-term.  Nevertheless, I have to spend time to educate my customers upon landing on our website what we do in about 30 seconds if not we will lose them forever.  I wish i has hundreds of millions to be able to just show my logo but I guess this how small businesses all start, right?

  • NextStepChina

    One thing that that isn't mentioned in this article is the hundreds of millions of dollars it took to get people to associate the brand with the word and image that it carries.  If I go out and build a business with a pear on it as a logo or even name I would need to take time to go out there and educate people and some people would not get it and move on others would embrace it.  Our company Next Step China (http://www.nextstepchina.org) was specifically picked because it is to symbolize the next step people would be taking towards china whether it is for business or pleasure.  We also wanted a name that would not be pigeon hold to one product or industry as we were looking long-term.  Nevertheless, I have to spend time to educate my customers upon landing on our website what we do in about 30 seconds if not we will lose them forever.  I wish i has hundreds of millions to be able to just show my logo but I guess this how small businesses all start, right?

  • kpr

    And now we just need to find a way to brainwash all of our clients who may believe otherwise...

  • woreman

    I do feel brands can eventually elevate to not having t0 use a verbal "name" but only through a gradual and absolutely necessary  process of effective brand building 

  • John Andrews

    Great article Joe!  Great brands seem to transcend description.  Porsche sells experiences in the form of cars.  Look froward to reading more from you!

  • Anil NSK

    The Brand is a promise to the consumer. A promise of quality, expected benefits and consistency of experience. I think its a matter of evolution of the brand. But to begin with a relevant name that resonates the promise of very important.

  • Bert Sperling

    This is obvious when you realize that a brand is not about clever wordplay or pretty picture. 
     A brand is created when there is an "emotional connection."
    Think about what that means and everything falls into place.

  • Vaughan Risher

    Impressive analysis... I have a feeling I'll need to know alot of the things you talk about in the near future.  Thank you.

  • Greggory Schwartz

    Very well written. I agree with a lot of what you mentioned. The process of creating a brand identity needs to align with the consumer's cognitive and affective interpretations. I read a very interesting academic journal in my consumer behavior class (I wish I could recall who the author was at the moment) that theorized that consumers relate to products and brands on a relationship level. 

  • Ali_writes

    Well said Joe Duffy. It's more about the brand identity than a simple word or simple.