Mind the name, it may ruin your company

In 1999, one of the most remembered moments in the history of marketing took place. The facts happened during the Tokyo Motor Show, when a small Mazda car was presented under the surprising name of Laputa (The Whore in Spanish). Not happy enough with the burst of laughing the name caused among the Spanish speakers who attended the presentation, the managers of the Japanese brand added more fuel to the fire by using mythical slogans such as “has a body designed to resist frontal impact”, “with improved safety and a widened interior” or, the best of them all “Laputa: your best companion in long journeys”. As expected, its hilarious name made the Mazda Laputa a spectacular failure in Spain and Latin America.

In spite of how hilarious this story may seem, the automobile sector is prone to putting their foot in it. Among the most outstanding cases we find Opel Manta (in Spanish Opel Layabout), Mitsubishi Pajero (in Sp. Mitsubishi Wanker), later substituted by Montero to avoid laughs, Nissan Moco (in Sp. Nissan Snot), Ford Pinto (in Portuguese, Ford Penis), AMC Granlin (which means mischievous goblin), and the most recent Volkswagen Jetta (in Sp. Cheeky Volkswagen).

Its is also easy to find names which do not sound well outside the world of cars, such is the case of a cold meat company called Morte (in Sp. similar to muerte, meaning death), a building company under the abbreviation CAE (in Sp. it falls down), the ballpoint pen range called Sarasa (in Sp. sissy) by the manufacturer Zebra Pen, the toothpaste Colgate (in Argentinean Sp. hang yourself), as well as the recent medicines Ymea (in Sp. and pee, not related to the bladder, but to the menopause), and Allí (in Sp. there, pills meant to help you lose weight, even though the name could relate to basically anything).

As we have seen, no company, whether it’s a SME or a big multinational is free from making errors when it comes to naming a product, which represents a tremendous handicap for some. “No name, no brand”, asserts Francesc Arquimbau, Founding Manager of Nombra, one of the few specialized companies in this sector.

And he’s right. History is full of examples of names that have helped companies succeed. One of them has as protagonist Fernando Beltrán, founder of El Nombre de las Cosas. A few years ago he was hired to name a recently opened place where nobody was going. The place was called Parque Biológico de Madrid (Madrid’s Biological Park), and the people in charge were considering its closure due to lack of visitors. “I went to see it and there was a scale model of the North Pole and a mini-forest with monkeys. The park was awesome but, who would take his small child to a place called Biological Park?”, recalls Beltrán. There is no doubt the problem was in the name, and that is how Faunia was born, still open many years later.

From “Pastas Gallo” to “Bocadelia”

Beyond our frontiers, there are also excellent names, such as Aspirina, Kodak, Nike (which substituted the former name Blue Ribbon Sports), and others which have ended up identifying the type of product they represent. Good examples of this are the Meyba swimming trunks, the Bimbo bread or Tiritas (band-aids), which is not a generic name, but the name that the Hartman Lab gave to some little bands, used for over 60 years and addressed to cure small wounds.“In the past, companies were not aware of the importance of names. They did not even have a budget for that. But things have been changing”, says Beltrán.

And they definitely have. Not so long ago it was possible to succeed by using a name as simple as Pastas Gallo or Argentaria, but nowadays you need expressions such as Bocadelia (sandwich filling by La Piara) or Densia (yoghourt with calcium by Danone) in order to reach the consumer. In fact, the boom of the naming sector has been so big that, focusing just in Spain, we find that nowadays there are over two million registered trademarks whereas only 300,000 words in the dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy.

A pharmaceutical company may pay up to 600,000 Euros in order to find an adequate name

In view of the situation, the task of naming companies has become a real feat. Arquimbau explains: “In order to come upon the adequate name, up to 3000 words are analyzed. 70 of those are selected and presented to the customer. But in order to reach that point, months of search in the registers of different countries are required to know if the words have already been registered. Besides, you need the collaboration of linguistic experts in each language to find out if there are any problems with the meaning of the word”.

As it was expected, this task is not carried out for free. As a general rule, naming companies charge between de 12,000 and 70,000 Euros, depending on the number of markets to which the new brand or company is addressed. In the case of a pharmaceutical company, the invoice may sum up to over 600,000 Euros, due to the legal expenses implied in registering a medicine. In spite of prices, companies know they need a good name and value the difficulty of finding a name that can be adapted to all territories and languages. One of the great names of the last few years is Viagra, created by Interbrand, which exists thanks to he energy and inspiration its creators found in the strength and power of the Niagara Falls. “The pharmaceutical field is very difficult. You cannot name a medicine for the heart Procardia anymore. More abstract names are demanded”, adds Jorge Camman, Interbrand’s Verbal and Visual Identity Manager.

In Spain, there are over two million brands while only 300,000 words in the dictionary. The abstract prevails

But not only the sanitary sector goes for the abstract, consumer brands also seek suggesting words, such as Uterque or Exeo, the Inditex group and SEAT’s latest brands. “There is no dominating trend. In general, companies ask for the usual, a short name, easy to pronounce, not in English, etc. But what a name has to do is sell, when it is a product, or seduce, appeal, captivate, for the rest of things. There are no steady rules for that, but experience, intuition and the work of engineering and poetry of words is vital”, says Beltrán.

Good examples of names that do no follow the guidelines of trends are El Corte Inglés, Cola Cao or Mercedes. In spite of its simplicity, nobody sees a tailor behind the department store (in Sp. The English Cut), or thinks of the product by Nutrexpa as a chocolate drink launched by Coca-Cola, and nobody knows either that behind the exclusive German cars is the name of the founder Mr. Benz’s daughter. With these precedents, it is not surprising that Volkswagen considered the possibility of naming a model with the name María del Carmen. Fortunately for Golf, somebody must have thought it was not such a good idea after all. Those who were right on with the name were companies which sought names against the tide. Examples? Apple in a world full of abbreviations such as IBM or HP, or Amena in telephony.

When it comes to technology , the boom of the Internet has caused a cataclysm in this saturated business. “Hard as it is to find a name that is not being used, particularly the four-letter ones, it is almost impossible that the URL has not been registered”, says the Nombra agency. In view of the situation, some trends arise in certain sectors, like that of using the mother brand to name the product. This happens in the perfume sector, where it is usual to find perfumes named Gucci, Diesel or Boss by Hugo Boss. “A similar trend consists of reducing the brand portfolio. By placing their products under an umbrella brand that works well, they also save money”, says Camman. This is what Acciona did, by substituting names as popular as Transmediterránea by Acciona Transporte, Caja Madrid, with services such as Caja Madrid Banca Privada, or Telefónica, who have changed the name of all their products by the single name Movistar. “The case of the phone operator is different, since their name relates to landline phones, something that any phone user considers part of the past”, points out Camman.

Danone, however, decided to widen their brand portfolio , with Danet or Danonino, despite having the majority of the market. “It makes sense. If a new strong competitor comes up, you cannot defend yourself with a generic name such as Natillas Danone. By changing, the consumer knows Danet is that of Leo Messi”, adds Arquimbau.

By what we have seen until now, it is clear that we have moved from a world like the one Gabriel García Márquez created in One Hundred Years of Solitude, that was “so recent that things did not have a name and, in order to name them, you had to point your finger at them”, to another one narrated by Miguel de Cervantes in The Quixote in which “a good name holds more value than the greatest of fortunes”.

Automobiles: changing the norm

After 20 years of giving their models names of Spanish cities such as Altea, Córdoba, León, Ronda, Toledo, Ibiza or Málaga, it seemed Seat would follow the same path with their latest creation; a safe and elegant big-sized sedan with high-level features. But to everyone’s surprise, the car has received the name Exeo. “We were asked to create a name and decided to break their policy of giving city names, in order to reflect with the word Exeo the size, the excellence and the desire to drive the car”, says Francesc Arquimbau, Nombra ‘s Founding Manager. Seat’s example shows that everything changes, and will do even more upon the arrival of the electric cars. By now, their names are striking, Mitsubishi i-MiEV, Subaru Stella, Think City, Opel Ampera, Zytel Gorila, Aixam Mega City, etc. “They constitute a new challenge, since it is an unknown field for us all”, adds Arquimbau.

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