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What's in a Name? More Than You Might Think

What's in a Name? More Than You Might Think

December 05, 2013

Names That Were, and Names That Almost Were



When Jeff Bezos called his attorney to discuss his new company, Cadabra, his attorney misunderstood him and thought he said Cadaver. Ugh — not a particularly appealing mistake. Bezos, immediately realizing that others would likely make the same error, changed the name of his company to Amazon.

Years earlier, the convenience store Totem’s (named for the totem poles it sported out front) became known for its long hours of operations, being open from 7:00 am to 11:00 pm. The owners decided to utilize that competitive edge and changed its name to 7-11.  It’s doubtful that a store sporting totem poles would be considered PC today.

“Johnny and the Moondogs”  was a name that John Lennon used at several auditions in the late 1950s for his up-and-coming band. They did not pass the auditions. They did, however, decide to capitalize on the fact that they were a “beat band.” They changed their name to “The Beatles,” with much greater success.  

Yes, the right name matters.

Today, between marketing companies, research firms, and focus groups, naming has become a multi-billion dollar industry.  Lexicon Branding Inc., a California-based company has researched and created many household names including Pentium for Intel, Swiffer for P&G, PowerBook for Apple, and Dasani for Coca-Cola. According to Lexicon’s founder and CEO David Placek, “the best name brands, like poems, work by compressing into a single euphonious word an array of specific, resonant meanings and associations.”

In simple language? The best brands simply sound wonderful.   

Lumpy Mail and Other Fun Names That Work

People are attracted to names that are quirky, unusual, and unique… but mean something.  When I realized that sending mail that was “lumpy," not flat, could dramatically improve direct mail response rates, I named the system Lumpy Mail. Not convinced of the name, I considered changing it, even running a contest to find a better name. But people were sold on it.  It was a system that worked and a name that stuck — and it resulted in millions of dollars in revenue for our clients and for us.   

I believe that naming a process makes it more powerful. I’ve coined other names: Big Zig to describe the “Wow” factor; Hungry Fish to represent your potential customers; Freedom Team and Freedom Systems for the people and processes that enable a business owner to grow; and Harnessing the Magic Dragon for ADD entrepreneurs to actualize the power in their tendencies.  The right names work for our clients too. For example, after 15 years as a practicing dentist, Dr. Robert Spiegel, in an effort to get people to relax during typically anxiety producing visits, created a dinosaur cartoon character and named it Relaxadactyl.  With the help of Lumpy Mail, we found ways to bring the character to life so it could help people relax at the dentist’s office.  Good ol’ Relaxadactyl not only became a star on t-shirt giveaways, but increased the dentist’s patient base by 25% in only 90 days!    

Your goal is to Frame it, Name it, and Claim it. When you frame the issue, and then name it appropriately, you can claim it as your own. As an example, professional landscaper Monique Allen calls her landscaping process “Lifescaping.” It’s a way of landscaping your life, through nurturing and developing. She has framed and named her service well, and it’s been a success.


 Children’s Names - A Word of Warning

Children’s names also give off connotations, for better and for worse. David Figlio of Northwestern University points to research that shows that boys with names usually given to girls (such as Leslie or Shannon) are more likely to misbehave. Having a girl’s name causes self-consciousness and, as an outcome, these boys act out more often.  Of course, you can always go back to the 1969 Johnny Cash song, “A Boy Named Sue,” and reach the same conclusion.

 On a more concerning note, the TV news show “20/20” did a story on racial profiling that focused exclusively on names. They posted identical resumes with black-sounding and white-sounding names.  The resumes with white-sounding names were downloaded 17% more often by job recruiters.

 Multi-Billion-Dollar Names

It’s not only children’s names that are received differently. It’s also true for brands and products. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the pharmaceutical industry.

Abilify — presumably meaning something like ‘gives you the ability to” — is made by Bristol-Myers Squibb to treat psychosis and depression.

It’s the # 1 selling drug in the United States, and it brought in the unbelievable amount of $1,526,228,000 in the first quarter of 2013 alone!




Cymbalta — which sounds upbeat and melodic — was developed by Eli Lilly, and is also used for treating depression as well as anxiety disorders. It earned $1,296,843,000 during the same time period.  


Unlike similar medications with more complex names, these drugs have gorgeous, perfectly engineered names that work. Now, nobody is suggesting that a well-named placebo is going to become a blockbuster medication. And a miracle drug would probably succeed even with a weak name. But these names are carefully developed. They’re beautiful. They’re hopeful. And patients ask for them by name. Who knows how much of a contribution their consumer-friendly names have made to their successes?


Of course, naming a blockbuster drug isn’t cheap. Robert Recobs, the managing director of Brand Institute in New York, estimates that the whole drug-naming process costs a pharma company close to $250,000. That may sound like a lot, but when you consider the astronomical costs of pharmaceutical research and development, it’s actually more like a drop in the bucket. The entire journey of creating a single commercially successful drug — from R&D through the laborious FDA approval process — may cost a pharmaceutical company $800 million.


So if you’re going to name something — whether it’s a billion-dollar drug or your local restaurant’s new recipe for quinoa muffins — you may as well do it right.

Brainstorming and Brandstorming

Finding the perfect brand is a process. It takes time, it takes research, and it takes inspiration. In the Brand Launcher Launch System I published several years ago, I actually developed a wizard called the Brand Salivator. But however you go about it, make sure to do the following:

  1. Allow yourself to dream! Do free association, draw, go for a walk, enlist your business coach. Brainstorming requires time and creative space.
  2. Write down your ideas, good and bad, as you are brainstorming. You will want to refer back to this list.
  3. Whittle the list down to your favorites. Allow the best brand to emerge.
  4. Do your research to make sure the name isn’t easily mispronounced, translates well and will not be deemed offensive.
  5. Sleep on it. Don’t make a final decision without giving yourself some time. 
Next week we’ll provide naming tips in Part II.  


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