Branding Visual Merchandising

Why The Best Brands Eventually Leave Their Names Behind

Branding giant Joe Duffy looks at the world’s most powerful brands and how they’ve evolved to the point of “wordlessness.”

In our business, we often have the opportunity to bring a new brand to life. With that comes a question we often hear from clients: “Do you do naming?” And then, “What’s your process?”

Branding Visual Merchandising

It’s a regular part of our process to struggle with naming a new company, product, merger, or acquisition. You might be asking yourself, Did he mean to write “struggle”? Yes, I did. And it’s a bigger struggle today than it was before the onset of the World Wide Web and the ensuing global market that everyone now plays in. Perhaps the biggest aggravation is the difficulty in securing a simple and meaningful URL and trademark/copyright. It’s become a bit of a gamers’ business to buy and hold names today, and so many meaningful options have been taken.

In part, that is why our approach to naming is different than many firms that specialize in naming. Because when you stop and really think about it, how important is it that a name actually explains your product’s unique selling proposition, defines your company, or pegs you into a specific category? And even if any or all of those factors are driving forces behind your naming objective, do you have the luxury of choosing a name that will have only one linguistic meaning? The truth is that naming is about much more than words; it goes beyond linguistics and phonetics.

Think for a moment about some of today’s most famous brands. Consider these names–alone. Apple. Amazon. Target. What do any of these words say about the products they sell? The services offered? The groups that started them, or more important, the companies that they have become?

Not much.

Then stop for a moment and think about the way the world communicates today. Paraphrasing. Colloquialisms. Jargon. Even when you have a brand name that defines your raison d’être, it often gets abbreviated. That’s what happened to Federal Express and Aol.

And then…they embraced it.

These are but a few examples of truly relevant brands. Their true meaning comes from getting to know them, watching them evolve, seeing them for more than the letters that make up the words in their names. So while I won’t say that the name itself is unimportant, I firmly believe that it is so much more than the name alone.

Right now, we happen to be working on an amazing new product that is in need of a brand name. We’ve done the typical research. Studied the category semantics and the competition. We’ve brainstormed new possibilities, many of them names that are quite clever, reinterpret known meanings, present interesting spellings or letterform opportunities, lean into modern vernacular and more. The problem we face now, as is often the case, is in getting everyone on board at this early stage. Finding a word that everyone can agree works best. What we find is that those that are “new” don’t sound quite right. They are unfamiliar. I guess that makes them strange. Those that may seem common in their mere verbal presentation may hold tremendous design potential around letterform, in type, or with the addition of a simple symbol. But at this stage, it’s difficult for the team at large to envision the full potential.

I probably won’t surprise you, but I’ve always believed that making a decision on a name, without the benefit of seeing it in its visual form, puts a person at a significant disadvantage. Done well, the power of the graphic presentation adds significant meaning. The interplay of positive and negative space (the arrow in FedEx); unique logotype (Saks Fifth Ave., Diet Coke); a symbol (I love NY); and color (Tiffany). These are some of the many elements that can work in concert with words to deliver greater meaning to a name. These are the cues that transform a meaningful name from being a mere product descriptor to a brand with differentiation, relevance, and personality.

The development of a successful new brand (in support of a unique product or service concept, of course) is dependent on the creation of an entire “brand language” to surround it. A brand language is composed of multiple communication tools. Words and tone of voice are parts of a brand language on the verbal side. Things like color, type, symbols, icons, illustration and photo styles, materials, and textures are visual components in a brand language. Every element should be uniquely designed for a brand to create an ownable voice, and when used in combination, they provide a proprietary way to execute in a way that can cut through category clutter.

As our world becomes more integrated, with the ability to see many cultures and readily buy and sell goods from multiple nations, as businesses cross borders more consistently, as our interaction with technology and the visual communication of graphic user-interface design increases, and as we are constantly pushed to process more and more information, we’re beginning to see some brands evolve to a place of “wordlessness.” Apple, Levi’s, Starbucks, and Nike are a few of the noteworthy brands that are leading this branding evolution. Perhaps this is because we’ve come to a point where we see new opportunity that can come with transcending the differences and struggles that verbal communication presents.

True power brands have much more than a name in their arsenal of marketing communications weapons. And just like the people we find ourselves attracted to and want to spend time with, they walk, talk, and act in a way that is unique to their character. They’re true to themselves, and you can depend on their meaningful characteristics and actions–even beyond their words–to stand the test of time.


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