Playing the Name Brand Game

Written by Ben Sigrist, Fall Intern

In a recent New Yorker article about the business of branding, founder and C.E.O of Lexicon, David Placek, discusses how good branding works like good poetry, although he avoids this comparison around prospective clients. He is quoted in the article: “you can see people sort of get concerned…Like, ‘This isn’t really about art here. This is about getting things done.’” Despite Lexicon’s many success stories in product naming—Intel’s Pentium processors, Proctor & Gamble’s Swiffer, and Apple’s PowerBook, to name a few—skepticism still exists about the benefits inherent in a name. When the article’s author interviews Intel C.E.O, Andy Grove, and explains Placek’s reasoning for recommending “Pentium” in 1992, Grove responds, “Lexicon is very lucky in not having presented this idea to me.”

This wary attitude toward the supposed value of branding is probably rooted in the basic difficulty of assigning a dollar amount to a name. Of course, such valuation is common in legal battles over trademarks and, accurately quantifiable or not, becomes a very real concern for companies like Netflix that don’t put enough research into naming a new product. In other words, if you’re going to pay for a brand name, it’s hard to get a clear idea of what the ROI is. It’s not rocket science. For executives looking down to the bottom line, it’s much worse: something more like poetry.

But maybe branding doesn’t have to be quite so intangible. While the explosion of high-tech products has provided marketers ample opportunities to push away from product names that sound like model numbers, technology reciprocates with some hard numbers on brand recognition. Granted, this recognition is the kind that exists purely in the digital world: search rankings on Google, likes on Facebook, or hits on a website. Still, these numbers do reflect interest in a product or a brand and, even if this data is mostly limited to the online experience, it’s hard to argue that digital marketing is of insignificant value. Lexicon hires teams of linguists to study what associations consumers commonly produce from certain words, word roots, and sounds. In a similar vein, data from online searches could suggest what words people associate with certain products or brands, or even what expectations they have for the product names they ultimately click on.

As always, the hard work to be done here is to link up the digital markers of consumer interest with actual sales. When we take into account the probable difference between how consumers behave online versus in-store, it seems like the problematic valuation of branding gets even more complicated. For example, a study last year found that only 17% of consumers are more likely to make a purchase after becoming a fan of a brand on Facebook. Nevertheless, we should not overlook the potential for data from the digital world to give us a new perspective on the intangibles of branding. Whether or not you are moved by the poetry in beverage or gadget names, you can still see what brands are moving mouse cursors.

Posted by Hallie Borden on 10/25