Don Williams, CEO of brand and design consultancy Pi Global discusses the intricacies of brand naming and the importance of getting it right

Legend has it that, in the early 1940s, a bunch of DuPont executives and a gaggle of ’ponytails’ of course they didn’t have ponytails in those days...think ’madmen’ and you’ll be a little closer to the picture were sat around a table brainstorming a name for a new thermoplastic material they had invented. After much coffee, debate, doodling and head-to-wall contact, a weary executive cast his eyes downwards and happened upon a flight tag on a suitcase New York-London or NY-LON. Apocryphal? Yeah, right nice story though.

The real history is that the name was originally going to be ’no-run’, implying that it wouldn’t unravel, but this claim wasn’t defendable, so the first three letters were changed to an abstract ’nyl’ and the last two based on a category generic ending: cott-on, ray-on.

Naming, like most creative exercises, is an imprecise science. I know there are those who believe otherwise, but names can come from a wide variety of sources ranging from Latin derivatives (Hovis comes from the Latin hominis vis, meaning ’the strength of man’), to the descriptive Warburton’s ’Milk Roll’ (it’s a roll and it’s USP is that it contains milk), to phonetic sounds, often used in car-naming (Aygo, Ka), to the development of initials GP (General Purpose vehicle) became Jeep, SO (Standard Oil) became Esso.

Many of the greatest brand names are simply abstract. Names that aren’t linked to a specific attribute are far more flexible in terms of brand stretch and growth. If you tie your brand to a single function, it is incredibly limiting; imagine what would have happened if Richard Branson had called his record label Vinyl instead of Virgin Vinyl Atlantic doesn’t quite have the same ring.

Steve Jobs liked apples, had worked in an orchard and, allegedly, in 1976 while driving along Highway 85, from Palo Alto to Los Altos, announced to his partner Steve Wozniac that he thought ’Apple Computers’ would be a great name; it could have been worse!

What’s vital, like everything in marketing, is that the solution is fit for purpose and, crucially, is right for the brand.

Many, many years ago we were asked to develop names for a brand called ’Nuts’ from KP. I remember vividly sitting in the briefing thinking, "You have a name it’s KP." KP was, and had been for decades, synonymous with nuts, but somehow they’d ended up by highlighting the generic rather than the equity. We explored a range of options, but our strong recommendation was to hero KP, making it clearly the brand name, where it remains today.

I also fondly remember working for many years on Pot Noodle and being briefed to work on a pack design for ’Max Pot Noodle’. At that time, Pot Noodle was incredibly edgy, with a huge personality, and constantly pushed the boundaries of political correctness. We felt the name could work much harder and, more importantly, be more relevant to the brand. So we suggested ’King Pot Noodle’ King being an abbreviation of ’spanking’, which was being used in advertising as a pay-off line ’spanking gorgeous’.

The ’king’ concept was perfect for the brand and quickly developed down avenues that are probably a little inappropriate for the pages of this journal.