The case for coining

I argue with myself.

I just can't help it. When a problem needs to be solved -- like which name I should recommend to a client -- I'll look at every angle of each proposed solution in light of its objectives. Each of their strengths and weaknesses grapple tooth and nail for supremacy as The Optimal Answer.

It's a bit like professional wrestling but without the leotards -- or the predetermined outcome.

I take comfort knowing there are others like me who, in their efforts to solve a problem, argue with themselves.

I learned this as part of my participation in a Center for Creative Leadership program, where I was assessed for my Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. This well-established (though sometimes questioned) personality test determines a person's specific personality type. According to the theory of MBTI, all six billion people on the planet Earth fall neatly into sixteen personality types.

Me? I'm an ENTP:
Extroverted (not Introverted)
iNtuition (not Sensing)
Thinking (not Feeling)
Perceiving (not Judging)
ENTPs are The Innovators, The Originators, The Lawyers, The Explorers, and The Visionaries.

They also play The Devil's Advocate.

Although a person's MBTI is codified as a pat, four-letter word (like ENTP or ISFJ), there is actually a continuum along each dimension. A numeric score along this continuum reflects the degree to which one is Extroverted or Introverted, Thinking or Feeling, and so on.

It turns out, I'm unusually compelled to argue and objectively consider all sides of an argument.

My own MBTI test revealed that I am almost 100% Thinking, having scored a 59 out of 60 along the Thinking-Feeling continuum. This reflects that I'm governed by head more than heart. I'll always follow the logical, objective, fact-based path over the one that makes me (or others) just feel good.

And so, here I go again in typical ENTP fashion, arguing with myself.

As I wrote in Real words make better brand names, I believe that real words rich with meaning generally offer advantages over made-up words like Kodak.

I also noted that coined names are not utterly bereft of benefits. In the spirit of devil's advocacy, I'd like to build on that and go further into the benefits of coined names and share what makes for a good coined name.

A coined name is more likely to jump off the page than one that's a product-relevant, real word. Humans are hard-wired to notice things that are different, so a word you've never seen before stands out.

Made-up words are more likely to be available for trademark clearance than a real word.

Domain Availability
Online companies gotta have that dotcom domain name. That's why so many have adopted misspelled real words or entirely made-up ones.

Coined names are less likely to reference a specific feature or function than real-word names. Coined names, being more ambiguous, can withstand changes in a company's or product's features, benefits and positioning.

International Appeal
In non-English speaking markets, they generally prefer non-English names. The projects I've directed throughout Asia, Europe and the Mideast revealed to me that, for those audiences, the sound of a name is more important than what it means. Euphony often trumps semantics in non-English speaking countries.

Consensus Building
It's easier for a group to agree on a name that means nothing. Names that are real words will trigger associations, and those associations can become liabilities when picked apart by a large or risk-averse group.

It's no accident that big branding agencies like Landor and Interbrand have a lot of coined names in their portfolio. They attract large, risk-averse clients that have large decision-making teams. There's often someone in the room who "poisons the well" by sharing their own negative, albeit subjective and idiosyncratic, reaction to a real-word name. Large companies also tend to research names to death by using focus groups.

Like I said, it's easier for a group -- any group -- to agree on a name that means nothing.

Given these benefits of coined names, why do I still generally recommend real, meaningful English words to clients?
  • Real words, especially "arbitrary" ones such as Apple, Amazon and Feather, can be just as distinctive, trademarkable and flexible as coined names.
  • They are more memorable than coined names. Words that trigger emotions or images are particularly memorable.
  • Because they are easier to recall, real-word names are more likely to be shared with others by word-of-mouth.
  • They can inspire marketing campaigns, product and feature naming and messaging. Names that don't mean anything won't do this, unless it's just to clarify how to pronounce their name. Take a bow, Geico and Aflac, for turning your lemon names into lemonade.
  • Thanks to their superior memorability, shareability and campaignability, arbitrary real-word names are cheaper to build than coined names. [I'd love to see those differences quantified. Any ideas?]
Coined names still hold an advantage over real words in their appeal to non-English speaking markets, and they are easier for large and risk-averse companies to stomach.

So, let's pretend you're a Fortune 500 company and you're planning to spin-off a big division that will focus on international markets. I'd suggest you include real-word brand names in your mix of name candidates along with coined names.

Up to now, I've painted coined names with a broad brush. But in truth there are good coined names and bad coined names.

What makes a good coined name? In a word: Naturalness.

A natural coined name is one that follows a language's naturally-occurring phonetics (individual sounds), phonology (how those sounds are organized) and morphology (how words are formed). The trick here is that languages differ in these dimensions. If your brand name is going to be marketed to Chinese, German, Hindi, Japanese, and Arabic speakers, you have to aim for a lowest common denominator, linguistically speaking.

Here are a few tips:
  • Avoid stringing consonants together, as many languages disallow that in their phonology. In Japanese, for example, the name Hasbro is pronounced "ha-su-bu-ro". The brand Adidas, formed from its founder Adi Dassler, will be pronounced the same the world over. It has a universally-natural "open" syllable structure of alternating consonants and vowels.
  • When combining morphemes (salient word parts) to create new words, use the same source language. A Greek morpheme should be paired with another Greek morpheme. Mash together morphemes from different languages and the resulting name might feel contrived. Compare Interbrand (Latin+Anglo-Saxon) to Lenovo (Italian+Italian). Interbrand, who actually created the name Lenovo, served their client better than themselves.
  • Pair prefixes with roots, or roots with suffixes. A name that combines prefixes, roots, or suffixes in ways that don't naturally occur will feel contrived. The name InBev unnaturally combines the prefix "In" with the first part of the word "beverage". There are no English words that have "bev" in the middle, so InBev feels unnatural. Another example: Compare Aricent (unnatural) to Lucent (natural). Aricent is based on "arise" plus "ascent", but "ari-" is not a real prefix. Lucent, on the other hand, is built from the productive Latin root "luc-" (meaning light) and the "-ent" suffix, also from Latin and also a common suffix.
  • Consider your consonants. Brand names with phonemes that don't naturally occur in other languages will be pronounced differently, with an accent. This is not disastrous, but it's something to be mindful of. It's well-known that "l" and "r" are pronounced the same in some Asian countries, so "Red Hat" sounds the same as "Led Hat". In Japanese and Spanish "v" is pronounced "b". The sounds "th" and "sh" are fairly uncommon, so those will change, too.
Here's the story of Lululemon, a brand name that was specifically created to sound foreign to its target audience:
It was thought that a Japanese marketing firm would not try to create a North American sounding brand with the letter “L” because the sound does not exist in Japanese phonetics. By including an “L” in the name it was thought the Japanese consumer would find the name innately North American and authentic. Chip [the company founder] felt that the distributor had paid a premium for the “L” [in their original name, Homless] so he challenged himself to come up with a name that had 3 “L’s” for his new company.
  • Use a real foreign word. Back in the day, I gave the name Kanisa to a "knowledge management" company. The word comes from an African language called Lingala and means "you must think". It has no obvious meaning outside of central Africa, but the story behind the name is relevant and it's easy to say the world over. And Samsung might seem made-up, but it's actually Korean for "three stars". Like the trademark attorneys say, "What's arbitrary to one man is fanciful to another". [OK, they don't really say that, but perhaps they'll start.]
  • Try swapping out just one letter of a known word. Zune came from "tune" and Viagra from "Niagra".
There are other coining techniques you can find here.

Keep in mind the principle of naturalness and your coined brand name might not turn out half-bad.

At least, that's what I'd argue.