The Right Handle

In 1945, Southwestern College in Memphis, Tennessee changed its name to “Southwestern at Memphis College” to distinguish itself from other schools with the name “Southwestern.” Few people noticed or cared.

In 1984, the school changed its name again—this time to “Rhodes College,” in hopes that the prestige of the renowned Rhodes Scholarship Award would rub off in the minds of prospective students. Boy, did it ever. Since the name change, Rhodes College has grown in reputation from a regional school to a nationally ranked liberal arts college. The student body, which prior to the name change was made up primarily of Tennessee and Mid-South residents, is now comprised of young scholars from almost every state in the nation and a dozen countries.

That’s the power of a really good name.

Many marketers believe that the merits of their product are enough to overcome any obstacles in making the sale. Most branding agencies believe that a big creative concept and a social media component are all you need to win people over. Obviously, these aspects are important. But far too often, the impact of a name gets less attention and scrutiny that it deserves.

In the past, products were often first stuck with a name that came from its inventor (usually a scientist) who wanted to demonstrate how important the product was. Hence, the first match was dubbed a “sulphuretted peroxide strikable.” The first lie detector was called a “cardio-pneumo psychograph.” And the first computer was called an “electronic numerical integrator and computer.”

These cumbersome names can be excused in light of the fact that market appeal was not the highest priority when these products were invented.  But how do you explain “666 Cold Preparation,” a medication for cold and flu symptom relief that’s still available today? Or the appetite suppressant “Ayds?” Even when awareness of the AIDS virus became commonplace by the late 80’s, the makers of Ayds thought that they could save the brand by simply renaming it “Diet Ayds.”

You’d think tech companies would be savvy enough to avoid naming blunders. TrekStor, a German manufacturer of portable storage and audio devices, came up with what it thought was a hip name for its sleek, black MP3 player. However, the name was so cringe-worthy, you couldn’t even say it out loud—the iBeat.Blaxx.

Sometimes even simple ignorance of history can result in a terrible name. Umbro, the British sportswear manufacturer, introduced, and then immediately withdrew, a new sneaker model called the Zyklon. Surely, it wouldn’t have taken long to find out that Zyklon B was the name of the chemical used by the Nazis to murder millions of Jews in concentration camp gas chambers.

There’s a simple rule of thumb to follow when it comes to developing a name with at least a fighting chance of being successful. A good name should convey, or suggest, a positive quality or benefit, either through its spelling or pronunciation.

Here are a few examples of memorable names and the qualities they bring to mind:

  • iPod (personal, small, simple, cute)
  • Walkman (“this thing is portable”)
  • BK Whopper (“this is huge”/”I get a lot for my money”)
  • Ford Mustang (freedom, wind in the hair, open road)
  • Snapple (brisk, refreshing, fruity)
  • Swiffer (fast, easy, smooth)
  • Absolut (the best, the ultimate, clean)

Good names can come from real, composite, or even made-up words. But no matter what form it takes, a strong name helps you instantly see the product in a favorable or unexpected light. Take the time to understand what you want your audience to feel or think upon seeing or hearing your name. It’s the first impression people have of you. And you don’t have to be a Rhodes Scholar to see that it’s usually the most important one.