Thursday, June 18, 2009

The eBay Effect -- Names that Grow on You

"eBay" is an extraordinarily valuable brand, yet it's not an intrinsically wonderful name. It's not really evocative of the service offered. It isn't that fun to say. It incorporates a cliché-ed use of "e-". (On the plus side, it is short and has unambiguous spelling.)

Names do grow on you. More precisely, with time and investment of marketing resources, a name can acquire meaning and associations, and usually grows in attractiveness.

Acela now seems inspired.
Freakonomics is now a valuable franchise.
Prius is nearly synonomous with hybrid cars.

(Although the hydronic heating company Wirsbo recently changed its name to Uponor...and I'm not sure either name would grow on anyone.)

There are two practical implications for naming and branding a product, service, or organization.

1. If your name exhibits some basic positive attributes (some combination of short, easy to say, evocative of the right brand associations, and unambiguously spellable) it will eventually seem natural and appropriate.

2. An existing name that has been in use by you or a competitor will almost always test more positively in market research than its intrinsic attributes would warrant. Indeed, the status-quo bias is so strong that "working names" for products and companies often stick and are hard to displace.

I serve on the advisory board of an interesting company that scans, stores, and organizes paper documents. The working name of the company was Pixily. We agonized over alternative names. We had concerns about ease of pronunciation, spelling ambiguity, and about associations with "pixels." Yet, we could never displace the working name with anything that seemed better. It's now grown on us, and customers now seem to think it's pretty natural. So, on the one hand, be careful with working names as they are likely to end up your permanent name. On the other hand, most names will eventually seem just right.

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