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The Meaning of Brand Names

Neil Gains considers the possibilities and benefits of picking the right brand name

"Products are created in the factory; brands are created in the mind" - Alina Wheeler

Brand design often focuses on visual elements of brands, especially logos, but names are also very important and often the first (and priming) contact that a customer may have with a brand. Names are loaded with meaning, which can shape how a brand is perceived.

The naming of brands goes back to the nineteenth century (although there are a few older examples), when manufacturers became convinced that names could give their products an edge over competitors, and help customers to remember and recognise a particular ‘brand’. In Britain, companies such as Bovril, Hovis, Cadbury and Fry started to use their names as an identifier of origin and quality.

The term “branding” was first used to describe the use of hot irons to produce a scar or mark on livestock so that they could be identified (a practice which has been traced back to ancient Egypt), and it has also been used on humans (for example, prisoners, criminals and slaves). The renaming of “White Soap” as “Ivory Soap” by Harley Proctor in 1882 is probably the first brand name and the origins of modern branding. After this act of naming, there were many soap products available to buy, but only one was called “Ivory Soap”. Proctor also introduced a slogan, “99 and 44/100% pure” to aid memory (and link to the brand name).

Other companies followed, learning that the act of naming had symbolic power, providing meaning and humanising their products. By the end of the nineteenth century, many manufacturers sought to give their products names, and customers increasingly asked for products by name, helping to drive the need to link each name with distinctive qualities. Ivory implies whiteness and purity, communicating a superiority over other soaps. Coca-Cola were among the first to take the concept of identity and build it into a more holistic “brand image”, as by 1900 advertising campaigns became increasingly popular. This ultimately led to the development of the advertising and market research businesses in the 1920s, at the same time as radio became popular and provided an effective way to mass market creating the perfect medium for jingles.

From early on, brand names and brand image were often linked to basic human needs and motivations (such as the purity of Ivory Soap). Many researchers have developed lists of needs and motives, such as this one (Straubhaar and LaRose):

  • Achievement – the need to achieve meaningful objectives in life
  • Affiliation – the need to win acceptance
  • Consistency – the need to ensure order and routine
  • Diversion – the need to enjoy yourself
  • Dominance – the need to exert influence
  • Independence – the need to be self-reliant
  • Novelty – the need to have new things
  • Nurturing – the need to care for others and be cared for by others
  • Popularity – the need to win the attention of others
  • Recognition – the need to be recognised
  • Security – the need to be free from harm and threat
  • Sexuality – the need to express sexuality
  • Stimulation – the need to have one’s senses stimulated
  • Support – the need to receive support
  • Understanding – the need to teach and instruct

Brands are mental constructs, evoking a wide range of meanings, both personal and cultural (explicit and implicit). For example, Amazon.com has associations with the race of warlike women and one of the world’s largest natural and unexplored areas (it is an Explorer brand). Apple suggests the biblical theme of “forbidden knowledge” and “temptation” (even if originally inspired by Isaac Newton). Such imagery works largely at an unconscious level.

A brand name is a sign that works at many levels. Some brand names have the function of descriptors. Cascade, Highland Spring, Mountain Dew and Surf all communicate natural imagery. Many car names communicate the outdoors, and more symbolically the idea of freedom, including Ford Escape, Ford Explorer, Ford Maverick, Jeep Renegade, Land Rover and Range Rover. Other names are more practically oriented such as Easy Wipe, Quick Flow and Wash ‘N Wear. Finally, some names imply that a product is fit for royalty, including Burger King and Coronation.

Many car brands use more figurative names, using animal names, places and musical terms (allegro should be fast?). Here are some animal examples:

  • Beetle is small and quick
  • Colt is fast
  • Cougar is fast and powerful
  • Jaguar is sleek and stealthy
  • Mustang is fast and sexually powerful
  • Pony is young, small and speedy
  • Rabbit is cute and small
  • Ram is strong and tough
  • Taurus is bullish, tough and strong

Other brand names have less direct meanings and are more symbolic (symbolism is often more powerful than literal meanings). Word association games are a good way to dig out other meanings. How much does the name of a zodiac sign (or animal) imply that the user has those traits? Does the use of social ranks (Viscount, Marquis, etc) imply social rank? Do Latin and Greek sounding names imply a classical feel?

Although many brand names act as metaphors, some eventually become generic names for a category, such as Coca-Cola, Hoover, Jell-O, Kleenex, Post-It, Q-Tips, Scotch Tape, Thermos, Vaseline and Xerox. James Bitetto wrote, “Just by naming a process, a level of service, or a new service feature, you are creating a valuable asset that can add to the worth of your business”. Choosing the right name for your product or service will give you a head start over others.

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