A brand name is one of the first opportunities for a company to communicate with its customers. Brand names can evoke certain feelings or thoughts, symbolize core organizational concepts or simply describe the brand’s functional role in the lives of its consumers. The right brand name creates meaning, awareness and relevance for its target audiences. 


50,000feet Senior Advisor Ken Carbone shares his perspective on what makes an appropriate and powerful brand name in a recent article for Creative Review. Drawing on more than two decades of experience in the creative industry, Carbone celebrates and critiques modern examples of brand names and discusses how the process behind naming has evolved during his career.


Creative Review is a UK-based publication that has been bringing the creative community together since 1980, delivering opinions, analyses and advice on life in the creative industries.


Read the full article below. 


What Makes A Truly Great Brand Name? 


US branding veteran Ken Carbone examines the challenges of naming at a time when the battle for originality is tougher than ever, and laments the birth of a new breed of brand language ‘doublespeak’.


Competition to stake a claim on a great brand name is fierce, and companies have always mined language for brand names that trigger the best associative meaning. It’s a tried-and-true part of the branding process. Take the holding company Alphabet Inc, for example it’s the first result that comes up when you search ‘alphabet’ online. It concerns me that this is first on the list: can SEO really redefine a word that’s been in use for centuries? 


It’s increasingly challenging to find the right name for a brand: one that not only works, but that’s also legally available. The flood of the double ‘o’ words offers something of an insight into those challenges: we have Google, Zoom, Goop, Zoosk, Xoom, Moo, Noom, Yahoo, and hundreds of similar variations. According to a 2020 New York Times piece, at the time of publication, there were 575 live trademarks that included ‘zoom’ or ‘xoom’, leading the writer to ask, “why does every startup sound fast now?” 


Some letters of the alphabet are visually and aurally attractive to naming experts. Q, Z, K, O and X, for example, add distinction to the sound of the name and design of a logo. To factor in the number of syllables also require careful study, given that most brands can reach a global customer base that speaks over 7,000 languages. 


The general rule is that three syllables or less work best. Think, Shell, Slack, Mars, Twitter, Virgin, Lego, Cadbury, Adobe, Microsoft. But are four syllables a problem? Continental works well for an airline, in this instance. However, from an international perspective things can become more problematic. The popular Italian notebook brand, Moleskine, for example, is pronounced mo-les-kin-a in its native language, but I don’t see this pronunciation adopted worldwide. 


What really boils my blood is when an iconic person, place or entity is sullied by a brand for profit. A current example is Pacaso, the new limited liability model for second home co-ownership. I regret that this venture exploits Pablo Picasso’s celebrated contribution to art and culture. To me, this brand name sounds like nails on a blackboard. A Pacaso executive justifying the verbal/visual misdirection of the artist’s name says: “We are inspired by Pablo Picasso's revolutionary thinking, the way he challenged norms in early 20th-century art… We decided on Pacaso to honour Picasso’s legacy of innovation.” Seriously? 


I champion new verbal constructions such as Verizon, Band-Aid, Venmo, Oxo, Tivo, Ping Pong, Velcro and Jeep. The origin of the Jeep brand name is colourful. One theory refers to the general-purpose, or ‘GP’ vehicle manufactured for battle during WWII. In 1961, Reuben and Rose Mattus, two Jewish-Polish immigrants in the Bronx, imagined a fictional, Swedish-sounding brand name for their new ice cream company. They called it Häagen-Dazs. The innovative eye-wear company Warby Parker resurrected and repurposed fictional characters from the pen of renegade novelist Jack Kerouac. 


Exploring unfamiliar words for a brand identity offers a less hackneyed list of possibilities. Oracle, visa, tinder, equinox, juggernaut and caprice are used effectively and introduced new and ownable brand names into the lexicon without leaning on ‘doublespeak’ around common words. 


As a veteran of the branding profession, I am blessed and cursed with historical perspective I can remember a moderately priced New York restaurant chain called ZumZum offering German food. There was also a pioneering children’s programme on public television called Zoom and the Beatles’ recording label Apple. 


At Carbone Smolan Agency where legacy brands dominated our accounts, we often refreshed an identity while retaining the name. A family name served an enterprise very well in less hectic times. Ford, Gucci, Heinz, Paul Smith, Christie’s, Tiffany, Kellogg, and Ben & Jerry’s still honour their founders many decades later. These pioneers put their names on the line for their business. 


Unlike Pacaso, which force-fits a link to the legendary artist, the Tesla brand name works well for two reasons: it resurrects an obscure historical reference (Nikola Tesla 20th century electrical engineer and inventor), and it perfectly aligns with Elon Musk’s vision for the future of electric transportation. Plus, Tesla sounds much better than Musk!


The naming business continues to be a creatively vital service for companies. However, I hope that commonly used words can rest in peace without fear of being hijacked by the next consumer novelty as naming experts dig deeper into their imagination.