What’s in a b(r)and name?


14th December 2022

Most band names aren’t great if you break them down, if you really look at them. The Beatles – hmmm. Cage the Elephant – say what now? Hoobastank – oh no, please say it’s not so. 

Even Bono confessed that he dislikes the name U2. “In our head it was like the spy plane, U-boat, it was futuristic,” Bono said. “As it turned out to imply this kind of acquiescence. No, I don’t like that name.”

But despite Bono’s concern, the listener’s appreciation of a band’s tunes transforms their name into something palatable – in fact, we never really think about the name or its meaning after our first listen.

Whereas band’s can’t change their name, stuck with them forever, brands seem to have the luxury of being able to change theirs as necessary.

To escape past public relations woes, British Petroleum became BP. Kentucky Fried Chicken transformed into KFC to lessen its “heart-attack-inducing” connotation. Brad’s Drink was the name of a soda company for five years before they changed it to Pepsi Cola.

The science behind a name

Learning new words is intrinsic to us. Since we were babies with clean-slate minds, we associated certain words with positive connotations and others with negative ones.

Say you had a nice family pup as a child, you’d likely have pleasant associations with the word “dog.” Had you a version of Cujo around the house who kept biting grandma, however, you’d probably feel differently.

These associations stay with us. And we aren’t aware of many of them.

When a brand invents a new word for their brand – Nike, for example – they have the potential to create meanings to associate with the name in our minds when we hear it for the first time. It gives the company a lot of control in creating their image, colouring our minds with positive shades.

But companies must be careful. Over the past century, the very niche research field of phonetic symbolism has proved that sounds themselves can convey meeting.

In one experiment, for example, scientists showed participants a picture of a curvy object and a picture of a spiky one. Nearly 100% of those asked which of two phoney words, “bouba” or “kiki,” best represented each illustration said that “bouba” described the curvy object and “kiki” the spiky one.

We must admit, then, that in 1888, George Eastman displayed impressive intuition when he conjured up the name Kodak, explaining that“k” was “a strong, incisive sort of letter.”

So what are the lessons here?

Don’t name your new travel solutions company Allegis, like United Airlines tried to do in the 80s when wanting to diversify their business. It sounded like a disease. The name and, needless to say, the idea, tanked.

You might also want to avoid what Mercedes-Benz did when they stepped into the Chinese market with the brand name “Bensi,” which over there translates into “rush to die.”

There are many landmines to avoid when coming up with a name. For bands, it doesn’t seem to matter what they’re called. The Beatles achieved their success despite their name. But could you say the same about brands?

Google was famously Backrub in its early days. Would you use a search engine named that?

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