Renaming a product, service or company is one of the most challenging branding assignments there is because of its permanence. Slogans, logos, and brand strategies can shift and evolve, but the name is the anchor. Saying goodbye to an old brand name is extremely difficult. I often compare the difficulty of renaming a brand to what it would be like to rename your child. Brand names become familiar, locked in, and extremely hard to assign to the marketing scrap heap.
But, if the commitment is made by choice or by necessity to rename a brand, often the first dynamic to arise will be the tension between choosing a unique, abstract name that brings little or no instant meaning versus a concrete name that is often descriptive, but less likely to differentiate.
In 1971, after seven years in business, a little company called Blue Ribbon Sports rebranded themselves as Nike. The origin of the name was as unknown then as it is now. Nike is the Greek goddess of victory. But, to all but classics majors and their professors, Nike is the world-class athletic apparel brand and nothing else. And Nike is fine with that.
Of course, Nike has spent, literally, billions of dollars building meaning into their brand name, which is one of the first challenges to using an abstract name (or unknown term) as your brand. The advantage is being able to own a word in the minds of consumers and being able to assign the meaning you choose to it without alternative connotations cropping up. The disadvantage is that uniqueness comes with a price tag for the time and money it will cost to build awareness and recognition. Brands like Exxon, Verizon, or Advil enjoy singular status, but have invested heavily to achieve it.
Which is one reason why concrete or descriptive names have appeal, particularly for less well-funded companies or start-ups that crave instant recognition for what their businesses do. Ask consumers which name appeals to them more in a research setting, and a concrete, descriptive name will typically be the winner over more conceptual options. If Google had tested its name against, say, a brand name like InfoSearch, the latter would likely have scored higher across most measurements. But, for all their practicality, concrete, descriptive brand names can end up being limiting. Any number of local bank brands are examples of this. The small-town name gets them established and well-positioned against a big-bank brand, but then limits their growth beyond the region that the name defines.
One potential solution is to use a more abstract name, but add a descriptive term to it. A name like “Azzuzu” is potentially catchy and could fit a variety of branding situations, but by adding a descriptive term like “IT Services” or “Hair Salon” as a descriptive line, but not part of the actual brand name, a company can bridge the comprehension gap and even change the line as their business evolves.
Take a look at a top 100 brands list and you’ll see a mix of abstract and concrete names. Many brands directly refer to the names of their founders such as Toyota, Disney and Gucci. But for every Subway, which is relatively descriptive, there is a Google. For every Bank of America there is an Adobe. Both approaches have their advantages, but, no matter what, choosing either approach will still be a difficult final decision.
As published in the Central Penn Business Journal.