On this episode, Kellogg professors Paul Earle and Tim Calkins offer advice on where you might look for naming inspiration, what great names convey, and how to choose a name that’s just right for your brand.
A good place to turn for a strong name is your brand’s purpose. Take the Hello brand of oral care products. While other members of the category are branded as hostile (“Fight plaque! Kill bad breath! Assault cavities!”), Hello is going for friendly. Says Prof. Earle, “‘Hello’ is just a wonderful name and a great way to flip the script in that category completely.”
One podcast name the Kellogg Insight team admires is “Houston, We Have a Podcast,” produced by NASA’s Johnson Space Center. We love that in just five words, the name manages to be fun and memorable, but also conveys that the podcast is produced in Houston, is focused on human spaceflight (as opposed to the many other activities that NASA engages in), and draws on a rich history that has inspired generations.
Sometimes less is more. Prof. Tim Calkins points to Gillette as a brand that sometimes has a tendency to cram too many brands into a single package. For instance, here’s a package that includes the brand names Gillette, Fusion, Proglide, and Duracell (on the battery), as well as the logos for P&G and the Olympic Games. All for a razor!
The first season of Insight Unpacked primarily features Kellogg faculty contributors to the book Kellogg on Branding in a Hyperconnected World. This book is available for purchase here. In addition, you can read three free excerpts on Kellogg Insight.
Prof. Paul Earle Jr.’s chapter on finding the right name for your brand.
Prof. Bobby Calder’s chapter on using design thinking to find a design that appeals to consumers on an unconscious level.
Prof. Mohan Sawhney on transmedia storytelling for brands.
Jessica LOVE: Hi there! The episode you’re about to hear is number TWO of a five-part mini-series. So if you haven’t yet… we recommend you go back and listen to the FIRST episode before this one. You can find it right in our podcast feed…or, you can search for Insight Unpacked wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks!
LOVE: If you ask Paul Earle, he’s been doing branding…
Paul EARLE: …Uhh, my whole life. I think I’ve been branding since birth.
LOVE: And he’s always LOVED coming up with brand NAMES, in particular… even when they didn’t quite make sense.
EARLE: So when I was about five years old I fashioned a weapon out of discarded pieces of plywood and I nailed a bunch of things together and I made like this slingshot device out of it, and I called it the Double Shooter. I don’t know why it was the Double Shooter, it only shot one object at a time.
LOVE: Today, Earle is the principal of Earle & Company, an innovation and branding collective based in Chicago. He’s an adjunct lecturer at Kellogg and regularly contributes to Forbes, Fortune and other publications on the topic of new brand development. And he wrote the chapter on brand names in the book Kellogg on Branding in a Hyperconnected World. Earle has spent his entire career in branding. Over several decades, he’s worked with all kinds of brands… from established mega-brands like McDonald’s and Proctor and Gamble…to new start-ups… like whiskey brand Big Nose Kate…and mac and cheese brand Goodles… So you can trust him when he says that the world of branding… is currently in the midst of a SEISMIC shift.
EARLE: Every single category, and every subset of every single category, is facing or will face a brand new entrant that comes out of nowhere with a new product idea and a new brand. And unlike attempts even five or 10 years ago, these new brands today are gaining traction and they’re gaining traction really quickly. It’s a thrilling time if you’re an entrepreneur creating new brands. It also can be a terrifying time if you’re in charge of running one of the big incumbent brands or companies.
LOVE: So no matter WHAT kind of brand you’re managing, Earle says… if you want to avoid being swept away in this tide of newcomers… you better be prepared to BRING IT with your brand. And that means, among other things, coming up with an amazing NAME. But as Earle knows all too well, amazing names… are NOT as easy as SOME people may think.
EARLE: You know, Shakespeare comes to mind with the famous line, “What’s in a name?” arguing that a rose by any other name would be as sweet. And Shakespeare was a phenomenal writer, props to William—he was totally wrong on this one! What would happen if you named a rose “donkey vomit”? Naming is really hard to get right, and it’s really easy to get wrong.
LOVE: Welcome to Insight Unpacked…a new podcast series from Kellogg Insight. On each season of Insight Unpacked, we go deep on a particular problem that business leaders face, with guidance from our faculty experts at the Kellogg School of Management. The idea is to give you a multidimensional look at a specific area of business…and leave you feeling like you took a crash course in that subject…
This is season one: Extraordinary Brands and How to Build Them. This season we’re going deep into how to craft a powerful brand that cuts through the clutter. My name is Jess Love, and I’ll be your host.
On our last episode, we talked about the three questions you need to answer before you can really start building your brand. But today… the building begins. On this, episode 2, we’re taking a hard look at names. We’ll hear expert advice from Paul Earle and others about where great names come from…. and the naming pitfalls that too many brands fall into. Plus our team here at Kellogg Insight takes the next step in our own podcast branding journey as we debate what we should call our new show… with a little help from outer space.
LOVE: We just heard Paul Earle make the case that names matter. But… why? How, exactly, does a good name stand to benefit a product, from a psychological point of view? This is something that Tim Calkins, a clinical professor of marketing at Kellogg, has thought a lot about. Calkins says… it’s all about the powerful associations that a brand name can instantly convey.
Tim CALKINS: The brand functions very much like a prism. For example, if you look at spirits. Vodka is tasteless, colorless, odorless. There’s really nothing about a vodka in and of itself that is remarkable. But then you put on it the name Gray Goose, and all of a sudden people say, “Well, Gray Goose is this wonderful brand, and premium, and worth paying more for.” And then people just pay a ton of money for it. And again, it’s not the product. It’s that you put the brand on it, and then they say, “Oh, my gosh, that now is a very, very special thing.”
LOVE: Which is why… whenever a company needs to come up with a name… it’s a big deal. Because regardless of whether that name is for a new product or an existing one, it’s going to require you to build new associations rom scratch. Which is a daunting challenge!
So, when you’re trying to create something out of nothing… where do you start? Paul Earle has a few tips.
EARLE: You have to find a spark. You have to have some type of hook to figure out how to create something that is meaningful to people. And that spark could come from a number of places.
LOVE: One of the most obvious places to look… is at the thing we talked a LOT about on the previous episode: your brand’s purpose. For example, Earle thinks about the oral care brand “Hello,” which was created by his friend Craig Dubitsky.
EARLE: So as Craig was assessing the oral care category, he noticed a lot of nomenclatures that were hostile and warring. So, you know, “Fight plaque! Kill bad breath! Assault cavities!” It’s like, you know, there’s a SWAT team on your mouth. Right? And Craig said, “Well, that’s not very friendly. Why don’t I create a line of toothpaste and other oral care products that are actually friendly?”
COMMERCIAL: … Hello uses thoughtful ingredients like coconut oil and aloe vera, and sweeteners made from plants! And it’s free from that bad stuff! …
EARLE: “Hello” is just a wonderful name, and a great way to flip the script in that category completely. So that’s a new brand that is derived from purpose.
LOVE: Other times, Earle says, the spark for a name might come from the product itself. For instance, take “Mush,” a brand of overnight oats that’s been quite successful.
EARLE: The reason it’s called Mush is because the founder, as a kid, she liked to soak her breakfast cereal in milk overnight so that when she got up in the morning it was super mushy. And as she was older, she would take this mushy concoction into work and people tried it and loved it. And so she was thinking, “What do I call this mushy delight?” And she was like “How about Mush?” That’s a great name.
LOVE: One thing to note about names like “Hello” and “Mush”… a customer seeing them for the first time might not necessarily know what the products ARE. So when should you opt for something fun and funky like “Mush”… and when is it better to stick with something simple and straightforward, like “Ashley’s Tasty Overnight Oats”? The answer often comes down to resources. A not-so-obvious brand name is going to take a lot more investment than a simple, clear one. To see why, Tim Calkins says, imagine you’re McDonalds trying to decide what to name your new breakfast sandwich.
CALKINS: You know, do we want to use a model of the Egg McMuffin? Or do we use the model, the bacon, egg, and cheese biscuit? You know, the Egg McMuffin, that’s creating a new brand, right? We love the Egg McMuffin. That is terrific, it’s unique, it’s different, it’s ownable, it’s a brand, clearly. The problem with that, though, is you’ve got to explain to people, what is an Egg McMuffin. What is that? The bacon, egg and cheese biscuit, you know, you don’t have to spend a lot of time explaining it. If you go to a brand that isn’t as descriptive, it’s going to be a lot more investment to let people know, what is that?
LOVE: So, when it comes right down to it… Where do ideas for an amazing name come from? According to Paul Earle… there’s truly no secret formula.
EARLE: There have been firms that have tried to write algorithms to create names and they all suck. I’ve yet to see a really good brand come out of that process. I’m sure there are some. But robots cannot do it. It’s incredibly human, it’s incredibly messy. You know, when I’m on a naming search, every single word I see, whether it’s the safety card of the Airbus I’m in, or a road sign, or something I hear on the radio, every single word I’m exposed to is a possible name that could solve the problem for this brand opportunity. Everything! And it drives my poor wife crazy, because I have to have a notebook with me at all times. I can’t go out to dinner or watch a movie without something to write something down on. Because that could be the word! You know, I have a running list of like a thousand words that I would like to make into a brand one day.
LOVE: Maybe you, too, have a list of cool words and phrases that you think could be a great name for your brand. Maybe you’ve been jotting down names in a notebook, or brainstorming on a whiteboard. That’s a good start! But, now… how do you separate the great ones from the not-so-great ones? The answer isn’t necessarily obvious. After all, “Mush,” “CostCo,” “Tesla” … they are all effective names that use very different playbooks. But, they DO all follow some simple, basic guidelines… rules that Paul Earle thinks of as best practices.
EARLE: Generally speaking, names that are short are better than names that are long. It should be easy to say, easy to spell. It should have a story behind it, it should be relevant to the product.
LOVE: One industry where Earle thinks many brands really succeed in being relevant AND telling a story… is professional sports.
EARLE: The best sports brands are relevant to the home markets. Columbus Blue Jackets in hockey. Ohio had an unusually high number of Civil War soldiers. That’s where Blue Jackets comes from. Um, the Patriots, obviously, New England, home of the American Revolution.
LOVE: Those meaningful tie-ins are what make a brand really resonate, Earle says. And on the flip side… they can be the key to avoiding a really BAD name. One common mistake that brands make is choosing a name that has nothing to do with their product or market! An example that Earle finds especially frustrating again comes from sports. From a relatively young franchise in the National Hockey League.
EARLE The Vegas Golden Knights in hockey. The owner of the team was in the Army and he really liked the Army parachute team called the Golden Knights, and decided that instead of calling his team the Aces or Blackjack, or any number of really cool, relevant names, he called them the Golden Knights. And not only is it completely irrelevant—he got himself into a legal dispute with the Army! So what are you doing, dude? Of all choices, why would you do this? It’s bad and maybe illegal, so why?
LOVE: Hearing all of this, our team at Kellogg Insight began thinking about possible names for our new podcast…the one you’re listening to now…the one that would delve deep into a specific business topic for a season, and then a new topic the next season.
Unfortunately, since we’re NOT veteran branding experts… we didn’t have a ready list of names. So we sat down together and started brainstorming.
KELLOGG INSIGHT MONTAGE: Up to Speed… From the Hub… uhh, The Aperture… The Business Case…
LOVE: We spent many, many hours coming up with words and phrases that evoked the themes of business… or of learning something. “The Portfolio?” “The Big Question?” Neither of those quite captured what OUR podcast was about… as Earle might say, it told a story, but it wasn’t our story.
Emily STONE: I feel like “The Big Question” is like a philosophy podcast. It doesn’t quite say the right thing to me.
LOVE: We tossed around “Field Guide.” But it was clear that this could open us up to the Las Vegas Golden Knights problem… it wasn’t quite relevant to us.
LOVE: “Field Guide” would be great if our—like, if we were the Field Museum.
LOVE: Useful as Earle’s tips are, he emphasizes that you should still take them with a BIG grain of salt. After all, plenty of brands have risen to greatness despite, or maybe because of, breaking these rules. Take the highly successful popcorn brand BOOMCHICKAPOP. It’s kind of hard to spell… It’s a little long… and if you haven’t seen it in the store, you probably don’t know that it’s popcorn.
EARLE: It breaks almost every darn rule there is except for the most important one, and that is it’s fun and engaging. And that’s superior to all other attributes.
LOVE: So rather than thinking about rigid rules, sometimes Earle tries to think about how a brand is going to make someone feel. Of course, lots of companies set out to inspire positive emotions… Huggies evokes parental warmth and love… Pandora signals discovery and excitement. But in some cases, Earle says, NEGATIVE emotions… can be just as effective.
EARLE: Tensions and conflict are interesting and engaging. So earlier in my career I was very fortunate to have been part of the team that created Angel’s Envy, which was a brown spirits brand. So we knew we had a macho, masculine product. But the brand is inherently feminine. You know, when you hear the word “Angel” your mind might go to the Victoria’s Secret’s angels or Charlie’s Angels. We had this clash of masculine and feminine, right? And, of course, envy is one of the deadly sins. And how could a cherubic angel possibly have envy in his or her veins, right?
LOVE: But why IS tension so engaging…so alluring…to consumers? Earle points to a famous film character.
EARLE: You know, look at James Bond, this brilliant character and brand—James Bond is absolutely a brand by any measure of a brand. You know, on the surface of it, James Bond is this suave, debonair, charming British guy. But, guess what? There’s real pain and suffering and anguish that’s not too far beneath the surface of that character. I mean, how many people has he killed, and how many friends has he lost? That’s what makes him interesting.
LOVE: In the hyperconnected world… especially online… names are CRUCIAL to breaking through the clutter. For instance, in the world of podcasting, a show’s name and logo are typically the only things you see when you’re scrolling through the podcast store… meaning, they could be that show’s only chance to get you to hit play. So we wanted to see how successful podcasts… the ones that manage to win lots of new listeners… actually apply our experts’ advice.
Looking at successful shows within a particular category… say, the top 100 Science podcasts… you see all kinds of different approaches to naming. Some shows keep it really straightforward… like “This Week in Cardiology,” or “The American Birding Podcast.” They’re simple, yes, but they follow Calkins’ advice… they’re clear and direct as can be.
Then there are the more clever names… like “Hidden Brain,” about the hidden social and psychological forces that shape our lives… or “Wild Thing,” about the hunt for Bigfoot. Per Earle’s recommendations, both are short, easy to spell, and definitely evoke what the podcast is about. A handful of names even manage to build a bit of tension along the way… like “Bad Science,” or “Everyday Einstein.”
But one of our favorite podcast names… a name that checks a lot of boxes… was produced by NASA. Part of the reason we liked it is… it didn’t sound like other podcasts in its category. Nor did it seem like the kind of name we expected from NASA. It was just… kind of a WEIRD name to be coming from such a serious, venerable institution. But if you ask Paul Earle…
EARLE: Weird is great! Weird is wonderful and magical. All of the great new brands are, quite frankly, a little weird. There’s something a little bit torqued, something a little bit off. And that’s wonderful. That’s great. Embrace the weird.
Gary JORDAN: You should have seen our list for how many names we had for this podcast. It was extensive! …about 25 to 30.
LOVE: That’s Gary Jordan from NASA. Jordan’s the host and co-creator of the wonderfully, kinda WEIRDLY named show… wait for it…
HWHAP CLIP: Houston, We Have a Podcast! Welcome to the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center…
LOVE: Jordan works at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. They’re the ones in charge of human space flight projects, like the space shuttles, the International Space Station, and getting humans to the Moon and Mars. Jordan developed the show several years ago. Just like us, he and some colleagues started throwing out a bunch of possible names for consideration.
JORDAN: We did throw out The NASA Podcast. But there’s so much to NASA, it’s not just human spaceflight, that we didn’t think that would do justice. If there was truly going to be “The NASA Podcast,” it really had to incorporate all parts of NASA. We really wanted to focus on human space exploration.
LOVE: Besides, Jordan and his colleagues realized… a lot of people already have a deep connection to space exploration. And they thought that the right podcast name… would tap into that.
JORDAN: There’s so many TV shows, so many stories, so many books that are based off of space exploration, it’s something that people already have a fascination over. You know, how many people reference Apollo 13 whenever you’re talking about NASA? Both the mission and the movie.
MISSION CONTROL: Say again, please?
Tom HANKS: Houston, we have a problem.
JORDAN: And it’s about using that already existing curiosity as a base, and then branching off to tell our own messaging. Which is, we’re going to the moon and Mars. You know, we are exploring off the planet for the benefit of humankind.
LOVE: And… lest you STILL think it’s just a clever pun… Jordan points out just how much “Houston, We Have a Podcast” really manages to say about the Johnson Space Center and the show. It’s actually pretty impressive!
JORDAN: It reaffirms that we’re from Houston, it says podcast, it says human space flight, all in just five words.
LOVE: Back to our OWN podcast naming process… we’d finally LOVEowed it down to a handful of names that we REALLY liked.
KELLOGG INSIGHT MONTAGE: Business Class… Unpacked… The Delve… InDeep and InDepth were both on my list, you can give them a star…
LOVE: We took those names and some others, and thought about them for a really long time. We sent them around to our friends and colleagues, and got their feedback. We pictured what the logo might look like, and how the name would hold up in the future, if we were to create a new season around ethical decision-making, or family businesses, or artificial intelligence. And eventually… a clear winner emerged… and you already know what it is. Insight Unpacked! A name that (we hope!) conveys that we’ll be taking a deep topic and unpacking it.
LOVE: Once you have the core of your name down… there might still be one more thing to figure out. A lot of brands don’t just exist on their own. They’re tied in with other brands in all kinds of complex ways… and so you may have to decide if your name needs to represent those other brands in some way, too. Take OREOs, for example. The OREO brand is owned by Nabisco. So at some point, OREO’s brand managers had to make the decision… do we just put OREO on the package? Or “Nabisco OREOs”? “OREOs, a Nabisco product”? And even if you figure that out… what do you call the limited release Spongebob Squarepants-themed OREOs? Or what about when Breyer’s starts selling a flavor of ice cream that’s half OREO… and half Chips Ahoy? How do you even think about naming that product?
These are what marketers call “brand portfolio decisions.” A brand portfolio is any group of related brands that intersect somehow. These can be sub-brands, sister brands, endorsed brands, things like that. Tim Calkins says that these brand portfolios are especially useful in today’s cluttered, fast-paced world. The different brands can help an organization take advantage of fast-changing trends, for example, or to reach more diverse consumer segments. But as Calkins knows firsthand… decisions about brand portfolios…
CALKINS: …they’re always really, really difficult. For example, one of the ones I worked on back when I was at Kraft-Heinz: At the time we had these two salad dressing brands. We had Kraft brand salad dressing and we had Seven Seas brand salad dressing. And the question was, well, what’s the model for the portfolio? And should we support both brands, or should we bring them together somehow? And it’s these very difficult decisions to wrestle with, because the numbers are sometimes unclear. So, for example, you say, “Okay, let’s bring them together.” But then you’re like, “What’s going to happen when we do that? How many of the customers will travel with us? How many can we convert to Kraft?” But then you’re like, “Wait a second, no, no, no. Maybe Seven Seas should be a sub-brand underneath Kraft. Maybe that would be a better way.” You’re like, “Maybe it would. What’s going to be the impact of that?” You’re like, “I don’t know.” So one of the things I talk about with companies is the need to really think about these portfolio decisions proactively. You’re always trying to avoid complexity. You’re trying to avoid clutter. You’re trying to avoid overlap. All of these things become really debilitating problems.
LOVE: This was something we experienced with the podcast. It was going to be PART of our publication, Kellogg Insight… which is PART of the Kellogg School of Management… which is PART of Northwestern University! So, how, exactly, should our new name communicate all that? Calkins says that many companies dealing with a brand portfolio try to do too much with their name. He thinks of Gillette razors, for example.
CALKINS: I picked up a package the other day. On the Gillette package, they have the brand Gillette, and then they have the brand Fusion, and then they have the brand ProGlide, and then they have the brand Tracball, and then they have the brand Duracell. And there’s five different brands on that package! You’re like, “What? It’s just a razor!” I mean, the average person, they can’t keep track of all that.
LOVE: In short, when making a brand portfolio decision, decide whether you need to clearly connect your new brand name with the other brands it’s tied to. If you do, just be careful that you’re not confusing consumers.
For our new podcast, we wanted to go simple but connected to our Kellogg Insight brand. Which is why we decided to go with Insight Unpacked.
Hopefully, the advice we heard today will help you think more clearly about how to come up with a great name… and what common naming mistakes to avoid. But of course… even with a fabulous name… your brand can’t do much living just on paper. At its best, a brand is something that customers will see, hear, and feel. And figuring out what, exactly, they should see, hear and feel… is a whole OTHER challenge.
LOVE: Next time on Insight Unpacked… what does it take to design your brand effectively? How do you pick the right images… the right colors… the right sounds? These things may seem small, but they can completely change how your product is received.
Bobby CALDER: Jewelry in a Tiffany blue box will be evaluated totally different than it would be in a brown TJ Maxx box.
LOVE: A Kellogg expert guides us through the deep consumer psychology involved in good brand design. That’s next week on Insight Unpacked.
LOVE: We’ll be back with the next episode of Insight Unpacked in a week… But while you’re waiting, you can check out the ads and brands we mentioned on our website at kell.gg/unpacked. The page has also got related reading if you want to take a deeper dive into the world of branding. Okay, until next week!
This episode of Insight Unpacked was written by Jake Smith, Laura Pavin and Jess Love. It was produced by Laura Pavin, Jess Love, Jake Smith, Emily Stone, Fred Schmalz , Maja Kos Blake Goble, and Kevin Bailey. It was mixed by Andrew Meriwether. Special thanks to Tim Calkins and Paul Earle. As a reminder, you can find us on iTunes, Google Play, or our website. If you like this show, please leave us a review or rating. That helps new listeners find us.