The Purpose of a Brand Name Is to Play With Familiarity
Introducing: the unfamiliarity principle of branding
During my 25+ years as a professional name developer, I’ve often been called in to salvage foundering attempts at do-it-yourself name creation. One common theme among the misfires: failing to understand the main objective of a product or company name.
The main objective of a brand name is not to define or describe a product or service. In fact, “descriptiveness” will get you into trademark trouble.
Instead, what a brand name needs to do is one of two things:
- Make the unfamiliar seem familiar or
- Make the familiar seem unfamiliar.
Sounds simple, right? If only.
What do I mean by “make the unfamiliar seem familiar”? Let’s look at a real-life example now celebrating 20 successful years in the marketplace.
Before 1999, television viewers could only dream of pausing a live TV show or fast-forwarding through commercials. Then came TiVo, which could do all that and more. As Howard Look, a TiVo vice president from 1998 to 2005, put it in a recent oral history of the company: “People did not understand it. They thought it was black magic. They were like, ‘You can’t pause live television. That’s impossible.’”
Creating a name for this disruptive technology wasn’t easy. Michael Cronan and Karin Hibma, the consultants who worked on the naming project, developed more than 800 name candidates.
What made TiVo succeed where other names on the list, like Bongo and Lasso, failed? It wasn’t because it was shorter. It wasn’t because its URL was more readily available than the others.
It was because it made the unfamiliar familiar.
Look at “TiVo”: It has “TV” — a familiar technology — embedded in its four letters. The name says This is TV … plus. It says, If you already love TV you’ll love it even more with TiVo.
Something new and unfamiliar suddenly seemed friendly, approachable, familiar.
Truly disruptive technologies or services like TiVo are relatively rare. You’re more likely to be naming something in an existing category — a product or service that’s incrementally different from the competition but not a breakthrough.
In other words, something familiar.
Here the challenge — and it’s a big one — is to find a way to make something familiar seem new, distinctive, and unfamiliar.
An airline, for example.
Commercial flight had existed for seven decades by the time Richard Branson — who had founded Virgin Records when he was barely in his 20s — took over British Atlantic Airways in 1984. British Atlantic was a perfectly familiar-sounding name in an already-familiar category. Branson saw an opportunity to shake things up by making the familiar seem unfamiliar, even startling.
In changing the name of British Atlantic Airways to Virgin Atlantic, Branson defied the rule that says a name has to be descriptive, and an airline name has to sound safe. A “virgin” airline? Who wants an inexperienced pilot or ground crew?
Virgin Atlantic immediately stood out, and it immediately made money, turning a profit in its first 12 months of operation — hard to do in any industry, and especially in the competitive, highly regulated airline industry.
A familiar service had been made to seem new, exciting, unfamiliar.
One more example, this one much smaller in scale, from my own experience as a name developer:
Children’s Fairyland, the oldest storybook theme park in the United States, was preparing to launch its first children’s book festival in 2016. Staff members had tried to name the festival but were dissatisfied with their choices: Fairyland Book Festival, Kid Lit Fest, Children’s Book Fair. The names were safe, descriptive, and familiar sounding.
When the project was handed over to me, I looked for ways to make a familiar event — a book festival — seem new and intriguing. Instead of describing it, I explored the emotion of the event. How do children feel when they open a new book? What do they say? I named the event Turn the Page! — a title that suggests discovery, enthusiasm, and excited impatience, and which makes a familiar event seem unexpected and new.
An online name generator couldn’t have come up with Turn the Page! because, so far, naming programs are trained only to look for descriptive, familiar solutions. Nor can an online service solve the challenge of finding the right way to give an unfamiliar product just the right degree of comforting familiarity. It takes an understanding of metaphor and an awareness of the brand landscape to select names that don’t merely check a box, but that resonate emotionally.
What are you naming? Is it familiar or unfamiliar? Answer that question first, then apply the Unfamiliarity Principle: Find a name that makes the unfamiliar familiar, or the familiar unfamiliar.