There’s one indisputable truth about brand naming: your name is only as good as your company, product, or service. Consumers rarely invest in something based solely on the perceived quality of its name. They invest in a product’s or brand’s reputation. Names can influence purchase decisions, but they don’t unilaterally prevent or guarantee them.
Which leads us to the phenomenon of brand names that go bad.
In the 1950s, a top US automaker decided to elevate one of its existing brands to the level of luxury car, creating room for a new sub-luxury brand. The company did its due diligence and came up with a plan. The brand would represent a new business division. It would place the parent company in a parity position with other major US automakers.
The car launched with significant fanfare. But in just a few short years, the party was over. The company was Ford, and the brand was Edsel—a name that has become synonymous with colossal public failure. Speculation as to why the Edsel failed is endless. But one thing is fairly certain: it wasn’t because of the name alone. If that was the case, then brands like DeSoto, Chrysler, Buick, Cadillac—names that are no more or less odd-sounding than Edsel—would have failed just as quickly.
Consumer research done after the Edsel proved unpopular revealed, among other things, that the name was a problem. That’s a bit of a post-rationalization. What’s more likely is the car was a flop and took its name down with it. If the car had been a popular success, the brand name would be upheld as an example of how an unusual family name (Edsel Ford was the car’s namesake) can have breakthrough brand significance and stimulate record sales.
To this day, innocent brand names can go bad because of product shortcomings. Take the recent example of Microsoft’s operating system. Over the course of just a few decades, the company has achieved record-setting equity in Windows, which today is a household name. It’s a technology standard. No one pointed out that actual windows get stuck, can shatter, and offer a limited view of the world outside. The operating system worked, and so the name worked.
Until Vista came along.
It’s easy to imagine the scene at Microsoft corporate headquarters when the Vista name was under development: “We need a name that families with Windows, but takes it to the next level. This is a technology innovation, not just an operating system. It has to be aspirational yet approachable. It has to convey possibility. It has to accommodate future product developments. The name has to signify the next thing in PC-based computing.”
Fair enough. Vista might be somewhat expected as far as Microsoft brand names go, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with the name. It has positive connotations. It implies expansive view and freedom. It broadens the range of possibility established by Windows. But the product itself has not been the success Microsoft hoped for. In fact, it’s been the source of significant consumer dissatisfaction. And the name Vista has come to stand for the operating system’s shortcomings.
Strangely, part of Microsoft’s strategy to address the problem was to launch a campaign in which the name Vista was replaced with “Mojave” in focus groups. Users were introduced to the capabilities of Mojave, then told it was actually Vista. This was the “Mojave Experiment.” The operating system was, in essence, given a different name to represent its positive qualities. Rather than improve the perception of Vista, the campaign created a two-headed monster, each head with its own name. You never saw the operating system at work in the TV ads, making the situation seem slightly implausible—and adding to the perceptual divide between the names.
The problem is not the product, it’s in users’ heads, according to Microsoft. But Vista/Mojave continues to be unpopular, as evidenced by users who are voluntarily downgrading to the more predictable Windows XP. A bad product by any other name stinks just the same.
In the end, even the best names can suffer the same fate as the products they stand for. No brand name has ever concealed product failure. Consumers just aren’t that naïve. So when it’s time to name your product, remember that success doesn’t just come in linguistic terms. If the product succeeds, the right name will more than likely succeed, too.
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Tom Parrette is Director of Verbal Branding at Addis Creson, a Berkeley-based strategic branding firm dedicated to creating positive change for clients and communities. For more info, see www.addiscreson.com