Twitter Instagram Pinterest Books

It’s all in a name

Naming a product, service or business can be one of the most challenging problems for new brands and startups. Where do you start? Is it best to choose something unique and unheard of, or is it better to go for something familiar?

There are endless variables in what makes a good name, but one of them is concentrating on what the name sounds like:

In 2010 there was a study by Lev-Ari and Keysar1 that involved groups of participants reading dozens of unfamiliar proverbs, one of which was ‘woes unite foes’. A second group read a non rhyming version: ‘woes unite enemies’. Same meaning, different word, and a different sound.

Interestingly, the study found that when proverbs rhymed, they were deemed as more persuasive than proverbs that didn’t. Now we’re not suggesting that every brand name you think of should rhyme, but it shows that thinking about sound and pronunciation is really quite important.

In addition to how it sounds, it’s also important to choose a name that is easy to pronounce. In the same study, participants were asked to evaluate reports on two fictitious Turkish companies. One report was for the company ‘Artan’. The second company name was given the less easily pronounced name (for English speakers at least) ‘Taahhut’.

The participants of the study gave much more weight to the report from Artan, despite the two reports containing identical information. The only variable was the name of the fictitious company.

So, what does this tell us? Firstly, it shows that we judge things by their names, whether consciously or unconsciously (see this recent video2 from ambivalent Katie Hopkins about judging children by their names, and read about the heuristics and biases at play). It also shows the extent of the judgements we can’t help to make: The study demonstrates that if we were in the situation of choosing between buying into two similar brands, the name of the brand, and all the related connotations that gives, is going to be a major deciding factor. Stimuli3 that are easier to process (and therefore more memorable and effective) are perceived as being more familiar, more pleasant, visually clearer, less risky and more truthful.

With Chinese businesses pushing into Western markets, a lot of brands have have to adapt or change their brand name to make them more pronounceable, easier to remember for Americans, and actually less Chinese4 (because of the stigma still attached to ‘Made in China’). Chinese brands also tend to prefer acquiring existing American firms (with their established reputations and resources). A recent survey5 shows that 94% of Americans cannot name a single Chinese brand.

The differences in language and culture between American and Chinese businesses can result in some interesting translations. Some American companies have decided to use literal translations, such as Apple (苹果: Píngguǒ: apple), Microsoft (微软: Wēi: micro. Ruǎn: soft) and Volkswagen (大众汽车: Dàzhòng: public. Qìchē:car). Others have decided to use phonetic translations, such as McDonald’s (麦当劳: Màidāngláo: Mài: general term for wheat, barley, oats, etc. Dāng: to serve as, or to be used as. Láo: to work). Most companies however opt for a combination of both, which means brand names sound more or less the same in Chinese as English, and use Chinese characters that have a positive meaning and can also describe the brand. Examples of this method include: Nestlé (雀巢咖啡: Quècháo kāfēi: Què: sparrow. Cháo: nest. Kāfēi: coffee.), Coca-Cola (可口可乐 : Kěkǒukělè: Kěkǒu: delicious. Kělè: happiness.), and Mercedez Benz (奔驰: Bēnchí: Bēn: run fast. Chí: go quickly). The Hutong School website6 lists more examples of translated brand names.

When names trip off the tongue, whatever language you speak, they’re more memorable, more persuasive and more effective. Whether you’re a startup, or an established multi-national, it pays to think about your brand’s name carefully.