The Name Game

Selecting a good name is one of those things that many people think is an easy thing. Whether the name is for a product, or a company, or a service or a building, there’s more to the process than meets the eye.  The problem is that too often naming exercises are done without consideration for the world that surrounds the name.  Is it being used anywhere else?  Are there permutations of the name that could be confusingly similar?  And what about ownership?  Aside from registered trademark rights – who else might “own” the name?

Let’s take a trip down Route 9 in Natick, Massachsetts.  There is a shopping mall that has been there for 40 years, engagingly named “The Natick Mall.”  My first after-school job was in a restaurant there, back in the dark ages.  The mall has recently undergone a major expansion:  500,000 square feet of new stores, restaurants.  With a new and improved mall, it makes sense to embark on some new marketing and positioning.  All of that begs for a new name. Something that denotes the new status of the mall, creates some new buzz, describes what the mall is today.  Right?

The marketers of the mall labored over a new potential name.  End result:  the owners of the mall, General Growth Properties, selected “Natick” for the new name.  Of all the potential names that were generated, they decided to appropriate the town of Natick‘s name.  Besides displaying a singular lack of originality, thinking that it would be a good idea to use the name of a town as a trademark for a local mall seems naive. However, they went ahead and filed a trademark application for the name “Natick.”   Needless to say, the town of Natick objected.  Ultimately, the mall was renamed “Natick Collection.”  Funnily enough, this was on the list of names to begin with and it was rejected in favor of just “Natick.”  Granted, I’ve sat in my share of branding meetings over the years where weak names, copied ideas, and just plain silliness was bandied about as serious marketing, but this one struck me as one of the most short-sighted branding decisions I’ve seen in awhile.

The main point of a brand name is to differentiate the product or service from all the other alternatives.  At the same time, you want to connect to your audience’s preferences, recollections, memories, or sensibilities. You also want to consider your customer audience.  What will resonate for them? It seems like it would be a tad confusing for a resident of Natick to call a friend and say, “Let’s go shopping at Natick.”  Uh, where in Natick?   “You know, the mall, Natick.”  “Yeah, but WHERE in Natick?” Seems a bit like Abbott & Costello’s bit about “Who’s on First?”

So when you’re playing the name game, really think hard about the customers you’re trying to entice to your offering.  Will they be upset by the name?  Confused  by it? Oblivous to it?  Rule number one:  don’t use another entity’s name!  The customer you offend or confuse may be your own!

–Lisa Dennis

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