Real words make better brand names

Brand names based on familiar, real words -- the kind of words you’d use in everyday speech -- offer advantages over completely made-up names.

In other words, names like Amazon trump names like Kodak.

Two sources provide solid evidence that real-word brand names are more readily adopted and remembered than coined names. One source, an academic paper, features research about brand name memorability. The other source is a book that analyzed the types of new words adopted into English over a fifty-year period; it casts light on the types of names English speakers are predisposed to adopting.

The academic paper (a paid download), Recall and Recognition of Brand Names: A Comparison of Word and Nonword Name Types, demonstrates that real-word brand names are much more likely to be recalled than "nonword" brand names (68.8% recall vs. 38.1%). The authors, Dawn Lerman of Fordham University and Ellen Garbarino of Case Western Reserve University, also found that "irrelevant" names are recalled at about the same rate as "relevant" names, thus validating so-called arbitrary names like Apple and Grey Goose. You don't have to call your online bookstore if you want to be remembered. In fact, you shouldn't.

Nonword brand names are not all bad. If the brand name is a nonword, it will be more distinctive and therefore stand out more. The hypothetical camera brand names in the article, Monit and Parade, do differ in their distinctiveness. Monit stands out because you've never seen it.

But irrelevant real-word names are also more distinctive than relevant real-word names. A small email device named PocketLink would not stand out like one called BlackBerry.

The lesson here is you’re better off with a name that's an arbitrary real word rather than a coined name. Although both will be distinctive, the arbitrary name will be more memorable. Amazon: 2. Kodak: 1.

The other source, Fifty Years Among the New Words (A Dictionary of Neologisms) by John Algeo, catalogs the words introduced into English between 1941 and 1991. Algeo documented new words not brand names. I'll take it as a given that what Algeo observed with words also applies to brand names.1

To Algeo, a “new" word is one “not recorded in general dictionaries.” This includes single words (e.g. guesstimate), multiple words (e.g. sandwich generation) or idiomatic phrases (e.g. out of the loop).

Algeo cites six etymological processes behind new words:
  • borrowing from different languages
  • combining two existing words to create a compound
  • shortening an existing word
  • blending existing words both combined and shortened
  • shifting the meaning of an existing word
  • creating new words not based on existing words, like the "nonwords" cited above
He found that these processes were not equally productive toward generating new words. For example, over 50% of the new words came from the process of combining, in which two known words created a new one. “Moonlighting” and “user-friendly” are good examples.

As it turns out, the least productive process leading to the fewest new words in English is the creation of new words without a clear link to existing language (i.e., nonwords). Algeo observed that very few words are created from nothing and then widely adopted. “To make something out of nothing does not seem to be a human talent,” wrote Algeo.

The reason so few invented words are created and adopted is because our brains follow a path of least resistance. When we need a new word, re-defining something known or combining words in a new way is easier than starting from scratch. When new words are shared, it's easier to recall a known word than to create and remember an entirely new lexical entry. It’s Occam’s Razor as applied to word adoption.

The implications for brand naming are clear: People remember brand names more readily if based on known words rather than made-up ones. But with this generalization come caveats:
  • Not all real words are equally memorable. Another fascinating research paper, Recall and Recognition Effects of Brand Name Imagery, documents that "high imagery" words (ones easily pictured) are more memorable than "low imagery" names that are abstract. So an abstract and undifferentiated real-word name like General Software will be far less memorable than a vivid real-word name like Firefly. Moreover, a coined name can be made unforgettable if it’s euphonious and paired with a good jingle or a mnemonic mascot.
  • Money talks. With enough promotion, any name whether real or coined will be remembered. A spectacular example, and one in which I participated, is the $175 million that transformed the unknown word Accenture into the best-known name in business consulting.
  • Longevity has its rewards. With decades of interaction with customers, brand names like Kodak and Oreo instill a great deal of meaning and associations, even if they began as meaningless words.
  • Algeo’s observations were based on English speakers so it’s possible the results would differ if he researched new words in other languages. A former Landor colleague told me the French are quite fond of coining words. As Steve Martin observed, "They have a different word for everything."
There is abundant and clear evidence that English speakers are more likely to adopt new names if they are based on known, arbitrary words. Marketers pay heed.

Thanks to Matthew Cross for his help.

1. There is evidence (PDF will download) that brand names, like proper nouns, are processed differently than other words, but those differences don't apply here.


OK, that's one naming strategy. Give your website a name that's unpronounceable and doesn't use alphanumeric characters. WTF?

Post impressionism

The New York Post holds a special place in my heart. As a child growing up in Manhattan, I loved reading their funny and often outrageous headlines as I walked to the bus stop in the morning. The Post would just scream from the shelves of my local newsstand. Their headlines could not be ignored.

A recent blog article by Stanley Fish celebrates headlines from the sometimes-lowbrow Post. He illustrates the depth, nuances and allusions that a handful of words can deliver.

I revere the art of headline writing. Great headlines are stripped of anything superfluous. They must grab people by the throat and command their attention. The best headlines elicit an emotional reaction that sells papers.

Great brand names act as headlines. They are minimal. They have stopping power. And the best of them trigger an emotional response that sells.

Traffic and names with stopping power

I recently finished reading Traffic: Why we drive the way we do (and what it says about us). The author, Tom Vanderbilt, makes revelations that are surprising and counterintuitive.

For example, roads in crowded areas that are built as safely as possible are actually more prone to accidents. Populating a roadway with signs warning of children, speed bumps, guardrails, curbs, and so on, free drivers up from paying careful attention. The result is that drivers let their guard down and are more likely to have accidents. The signs themselves, also ironically, distract from actual hazards on the road. If you're looking at a sign that says "hazards ahead" you might not notice the hazards ahead.

On the other hand, if the road seems dangerous and there are obvious hazards, drivers are likely to be ever-alert and drive more cautiously. Children actually playing on the side of the road will do more to reduce the likelihood of accidents than a sign warning us to watch for children playing.

The principle is that if the road doesn't command our attention, we don't pay attention.

It's the same with brand names.

Names similar to others don't command attention; they blend in with their environment.
Descriptive names don't command attention; they fail to engage our minds and imagination.
Names that are initials don't command attention; they have no meaning.

Consumers' autopilot glides right past unremarkable names, going scarcely noticed.

On the other hand, names that commands attention because they are unexpected and violate conventions simply cannot be ignored.

Brand names should have stopping power.

Dot com is today's 800 number

A few years ago, Lexicon Branding, one of the naming firms where I worked, researched perceptions of .com, .net and .biz top-level domain names.

The research found that .coms are, in the abstract, perceived more positively over the lesser-used .biz (et al) domains. This is not surprising: Familiarity breeds trust.

But that's today. The domains will eventually become more widespread and familiar as companies struggle and fail to find great .com names. The roster of today's bad web names goes on and on; companies compromise their name and ultimately their success just to secure a .com.

That's unwise. The Lexicon research also revealed that people's perceptions of an actual website did not differ no matter what its top-level domain. So in the end, the top-level domain doesn't change perceptions.

Dot com is already losing relevance. The strength of search engines like Google makes finding companies by their name, not their domain name, easy. As a name developer, I welcome the day that the tipping point finally comes when .com top-level domains are no more special than .net, .biz, or whatever others ICANN ordains.

There was a time when only a 1-800 indicated a toll-free telephone number. Now, there are many and they are readily accepted.

The same will hold true for top-level domains.