Monday, February 11, 2008

What's in a name in the digital era?

There was a time when those of involved in naming brands or products would spent a lot of time trying to think up names with the perfect mix of descriptive clarity (so people would know what the thing was) and evocative power (so it sounded desirable and cool). We’d swing back and forth between names that sounded like post-punk rock bands (Manatee) and entries in an office-supplies catalog (Net-2-Phone). (Many of course still do and some naming firms, like Lexicon, have developed interesting creative methodologies though I'm not sure it matters as much as it used to)

At some point a decade or so ago, the whole branding world seemed to turn to neologisms derived from roots of various indo-european languages and the world became filed with Corollas and Accentures, not to mention Viagras and Cialis's The reasons for this shift seems obvious, particularly for global brands: if the word doesn’t exist, you don’t have worry about it being owned already. And made-up words have a better chance of working across a variety of international markets. I’m not sure who exactly started the practice, but I know Interbrand was involved in a lot of high profile coinages.

In general, the packages good’s world tends to be more conservative, sticking to a made-up words with recognizable semantic elements: Swiffer is a primes example of P&G’s latest near-billion dollar brand.

Online, of course, brand names have long erred on the side of goofy and distinctive. Amazon with its suggestions of abundance sounds positively old-fashioned compared to Squidoo or Ovoo or Veoh to pick three from the emerging web video space. And there are thousands more of course. Do these names work? Are they good or simply available in this world where domain names are now traded like currency? (One almost hear William Blake's lament. The chartered thames was bad enough. Now, we’re selling words on the open market!)

As an endless supply of these invented words flood the ether, I’ve been wondering how to evaluate the quality? How would we know if they were good or not beyond a purely subjective impression. Squidoo! Love it! (Though apparently Squidoo is actually more descriptive than silly, intended describe the way the service draws in packets of info like a squid draws in it’s tentacles.)

But in this era of total access, it might not matter at all. I just came out of some research, exploring some naming options for an internet service and frankly, we had a really hard time getting the younger consumers to care at all. The most characteristic response: “Eh, it’s distinctive, I can find it.” Beyond that, it didn’t really matter. Or, “I don’t really think about it. I’ve bookmarked it.” In the era of ambient findability, all that careful crafting of a great brand name might be becoming irrelevant, especially if it’s easy to spell and turns up on the first google page and you don't have to buy it.

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