How Interbrand names products profitably: Picking a Winner

Launching a new product means spending a fortune in packaging and design, but what about the name? The right brand name or trademark can determine if those development dollars are wisely spent or wasted. Despite their importance, though, most names are chosen on a whim. At least they were until Interbrand appeared. The London-based firm, to date, has helped over 200 customers find the right names for their products and services.
The company was started in 1974 by marketing expert John Murphy and lawyer Mike Grant, both then employed by Dunlop Tires. While working on a new product, they realized there was no way to test names on consumers. “It was all guesswork,” recalls Murphy, “Corporate presidents’ wives thinking up names while soaking in the tub or businessmen naming products after their children. But the brand name is the focal point of the product. Without the right name and the right image, the best product in the world won’t sell.”
Interbrand’s list of corporate clients is impressive. It developed “Dial-A-Lash” for Maybelline, “Anataeus” for Chanel, and “Fiero” for Pontiac. But the principles for choosing a name are the same whether the client is Honda or a one-man operation.
“The first thing a businessman should ask is ‘where do I want to be in ten years’ time,’” says company director Tom Blackett. “The name someone chooses for his business or product should grow with and work effectively for the company as long as it is in business. The name should have equity, value, and reputation.”
The family name, although a source of pride, may not be the best choice if a businessman dreams of franchising. “McDonald’s had trouble in world markets when it first expanded outside the US, because nobody knew what it was.” At the same time, too descriptive a name can be limiting. “Joe’s Pizza is all well and good, but if Joe decides to expand his menu and serve fish, how does he tell his customers?”
The problem of names that are limiting is as much a threat to manufacturers as it is to retailers, according to Blackett. “There’s a painkiller in Britain called ‘Lobak.’ It was originally designed for and aimed at people with low back problems. But it is useful for a wide range of minor pains. The name roped them into a special position in the mind of the consumer, and it is hard to change positioning once it is fixed in the mind.”
Another example of misnaming is Light Days Panty Liner. “The name is an application rather than an attribute,” says Murphy. “It’s called Brevia – a name we developed – all over Europe.”
Most of Interbrand’s clients come to them for the first time out of desperation, when they find that a name they’ve chosen cannot be used. The client usually knows what he wants, although that may not be what he needs, according to Murphy.
“Manufacturers start off wanting a brand name just like their biggest competitor’s. They tend to reject new names and concepts because they are strange. Market research pushes you into banality, although the big successes are those products which are original. It takes courage for companies to try something very different.”
Murphy insists that new concepts are the best chance a product has of getting a toehold in the marketplace. “If you have a product that’s the same as everyone else’s – there’s not much you can do to make a different cola, for example – then you must give it a more interesting name. If it is a genuinely new product, like green shaving cream, it would be lunatic to give it a common name.”
The naming process starts in the minds of sample consumers. Small groups meet at Interbrand’s London offices to toss around ideas and words. The panelists are recruited through want ads placed in The London Times. “We look for people who enjoy the Times crossword,” Murphy laughs. “They are articulate and intelligent, and we usually have a very good time.”
The panel is given a broad outline of the project, a couple of names are suggested, and then the group is off, discussing the current names used for that type of product and talking about what the product, name, or image means to them.
Sometimes the panel makes it clear that that manufacturer’s wants are dead wrong. “For example,” says Blackett, “a few years ago, British breweries were mad about lagers. They all had names with Germanic overtones; lots of umlauts; lots of ‘braus.’ We found that our panels were tired of that image. They felt it was artificial. But the company wanted a German name.”
“We supplied them with two lists. One had all of the Germanic names; the other was a list of alternatives. They finally settled on ‘Kestrel.’ It has a profile of the hawk as its logo. It has all of the attributes the company wanted, but it was still original and honestly British.
“The interesting thing is that ‘Kestrel’ has the lion’s share of the lager market.”
The groups aren’t always told the whole truth about their assignment. “Sometimes, we’ll say we are working on a new car, when we are really looking for ideas for a new pen or luggage or a male fragrance. By staying away from the real product, the group isn’t bringing in preconceived ideas about names.”
In the US, 80 percent of Interbrand’s work is for the domestic market. In the rest of the world, companies want names that will cross international boundaries. “Companies look for existing products that fit their development schemes,” says Murphy. “They import the product and save a fortune on marketing and R&D.” But linguistic problems often appear at the border.
“The Japanese are the worst,” Murphy says. “Japanese is a very literal language, and it doesn’t travel well. The biggest selling after-sport soda is called ‘Sweat.’ There’s a pump-action spray product called ‘Blow-Up.’ Their non-dairy coffee creamer is called ‘Creap.’ It sounds very Western and is very popular in Japan, but it’s disastrous elsewhere.”
One a name has been chosen, the legal staff takes over. The lawyers track down everyone in the world who is using the same or similar name. They check trademarks and registration in 40 countries, each of which has its own laws.
“If a company name is simply registered but the firm is not trading, we can use the name without many problems. There are no enforceable rights until the name is in use and is well-established with a reputation. On the other hand, if the name is a registered trademark, we can be stopped from using it. The most common option in that case is to buy the trademark. We are actually buying freedom from future trouble.”
In practical terms, it means a lot of time spent tracking down ‘mom and pop’ operations with desirable names. Even then, there are times when someone shows up as the product is going on the market and cries foul.
Murphy brags that products named by Interbrand have a higher success rate than those launched without his help although he admits that any firm wise enough to seek his counsel has probably done a thorough job of pre-testing and market research. But it all goes hand-in-hand, he says. If a business cares enough to plan each detail, it can’t help but come up a winner.