What Every Company Should Know about Corporate Naming

Corporate naming creates an important first impression and sets expectations for the organization or people they’re attached to.  For companies of all stripes, selecting a name that resonates with customers, employees, and other audiences can be tricky business.  Companies need a name for not only the organization as a whole, but for products, product lines, divisions, acquisitions, and/or spinoffs as well.  In addition, these entities may be saddled with legacy names that no longer fit the company’s brand or competitive environment.

Despite the challenges corporations face in selecting a suitable name – or names – the stakes are high.  Subpar names can unfairly and negatively influence perceptions of a company’s performance or potential, while thoughtful, strategic names can go a long way towards supporting and strengthening a company’s brand.  What can corporations do to get it right?

What Other Brands Can Teach Us about Corporate Naming  

Through the corporate naming work we’ve done with past clients like GE, Disney, and Adobe, we’ve gained deep insights into branding and identity in today’s economy.  Here are five lessons learned from past and present clients that can help organizations avoid common pitfalls and choose a name that tells a positive, sustainable story:

  1. Use Descriptive Names Carefully: Names that emphasize a company’s location, geographic market, or specific product can be risky, as they signal a limited scope or reach.  As companies grow and expand, they need names that appeal to broader markets, making descriptive names a possible barrier to real or perceived growth and expansion.  To avoid this problem, descriptive names are often better used for products and services within a portfolio that each fulfill part of the corporate brand promise.
  2. Coined Names Provide Extra Choice:  Coined names, such as Telerex or Allergan, which contain made-up words or combinations of real words, offer unique naming options. More easily protectable and free of limiting descriptors, these names are most effective when conveying beneficial qualities or memorable or derivative context (think FedEx).  Coined names should ideally suggest some meaning, as abstract names may leave people wondering what the company does.
  3. Family Names Can Still Get Traction:  Family names such as Ford, Disney, or Marriott, can provide  unique, protectable identities that acquire relevant meaning over time.  Such names convey a strong sense of real individuals standing behind the company, responsible for its actions.  As a result, established brands don’t necessarily need to jettison family names to stay current. However, younger brands with unknown family names may need to invest significant marketing dollars to create market awareness.  
  4. Equity is a Nice-to-Have:  Companies often become consumed with trying to preserve equity in existing names.  Advertising agency Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn was a tongue twister, so it switched to the initials BBDO, just as PricewaterhouseCoopers became PwC.  While these names may satisfy internal needs, they’re either too long-winded or obscure to resonate strongly with external audiences. On the other hand, Bell Atlantic and GTE both shed their equity when they merged and became Verizon.  In short, equity shouldn’t stand in the way of a more strategic or meaningful name.
  5. It’s Critical to Walk the Walk:  It’s not enough to simply adopt a name; companies must continuously strive to fulfill its implied promise.  A name is the outward manifestation of a company’s entire brand promise, which relies upon behaviors and operations to build or extend the name’s meaning. For a name to be truly successful, it must align with other brand elements and be constantly reinforced with action. 

Strategies that Take the Guesswork Out of Corporate Naming 

Incorporating the lessons learned above, read on for several strategies that corporations can employ to select a unique, memorable, and strategic name:

  1. Know What You’re Trying to Say.  Naming can be a highly emotional endeavor and hard to judge objectively.  Before selecting a name, companies must first define what the name intends to convey and ferret out conflicting stakeholder opinions that can muddy the naming waters later on.  Once this foundational work has been completed, companies can then move onto generating possible names for consideration.
  2. Ensure You Can Own It.  Before adopting a name, companies should check patent and trademark offices, common law usages, URLs, and Twitter handles to ensure it’s available.  This work is best done by an experienced intellectual property attorney. It’s also advisable to research regional/cultural sensitivities to ensure the name doesn’t carry an unintended meaning.  If it’s a keeper, make the investment to protect the name so that no one else can swoop in to claim it.
  3. Assess the Impact.  A name affects all brand communications and any established brand equity. As a result, it’s important for companies to conduct a thorough audit to ensure they fully understand how the name under consideration would impact relevant investments, operations, and audiences.
  4. Proceed Decisively. Once a name has been selected, companies should introduce it as part of a value-oriented story that conveys clear benefits to both external and internal audiences. Commitment is one of the biggest success factors in any corporate name. Whether a company is changing its name or announcing a new name right out of the gate, it should implement the name as quickly and efficiently as possible.
  5. Understand the Limitations. Names are powerful tools, but they don’t tell the whole story.  A name alone – without aligned communications and other brand elements – can’t do everything.  Consider how taglines, design, communications, and other context-building tools can together build a name and corresponding story that you can own.

Corporate naming can be a complex and at times, confounding task. However, armed with the right knowledge and experience, companies can eliminate much of the guesswork.

Contact Marshall Strategy learn more about our naming and other branding services.