Because I’m constantly advising clients having branding challenges to read this old newsletter article, I decided to break my rule against reruns. Based on the feedback I have gotten, this may be one of the most valuable articles I have written in a long time. I hope you think it’s a “keeper” even the second time around.
I’ve been getting rather cheeky lately. I’ve even risked being a little obnoxious and occasionally offending clients. You see, sometimes when I should quietly follow my clients’ orders for legal work, I’ve found myself interrupting, and giving them, well… advice.
Last week I had lunch with a new client. He has some great technology, and a strong foundation for a new business. It was relaxed and informal, and he had along his lovely wife and their toddler, who managed to miss me entirely when he toppled a big glass of lemonade on the table.
So, exactly how to you tell someone their baby is ugly? More importantly, why would I want to tell a new client he had an ugly baby? To be clear, the toddler was adorable, but I took a risk and told my client what I really thought about his new company’s brand name.
He had come to me because he knew he was going to have to drop an old brand as he expanded, because there were too many conflicts out there, and he had never had it searched in the first place. So he picked a brand name that he wanted to be sure would never give him legal headaches. That’s good, and it follows my first rule of branding: Pick something that doesn’t get you sued. It also follows my second rule, which is to pick a brand that you can protect against others copying it. Mediocre brands do just fine for that. So do “ugly” ones.
Anyway, my client’s “solution” to his trademark problem was a word picked from an archaic language that no one speaks anymore. Even most linguistic scholars haven’t heard of it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, because even made-up words can make good brands – though not usually. Besides, the few good made-up ones are the result of extensive and expensive research.
But my client’s “baby” was not only unfamiliar and conveyed nothing about the product or its benefits, it was difficult to spell if you only heard it. Misspellings will kill Internet search performance, and cause plenty of other little problems that a new business shouldn’t have to suffer.
Worse yet, the brand “baby” was difficult to pronounce. At one point my client asked whether it might be better if they decided to pronounce it the “other” way. This is a clear sign you have an ugly baby: when even you can’t be sure how to pronounce your own brand name.
There’s a powerful psychological barrier surrounding difficult-to-pronounce names. I know this personally, because as a “Langlotz” I find many people simply refuse even to attempt to say the name. The customer service person on the phone will stumble and hesitate: “Is this Mr. uh… Lag… uh… Log… uh… uh… Bennet?” Usually, I’ll just help them out and complete the word for them, but I’m amazed at how hard it is for people who spend all day getting paid to say the names of their customers, can’t bring themselves to take the risk of mispronouncing the phonetically simple “LANG-LOTZ” (just like it sounds). Incidentally, in Europe – including non-Germanic countries – no one ever stumbles when saying the name, so maybe it’s a cultural thing.
The psychological principle is that people would rather look like they’re ignorant than to confirm it by making an error. And it’s even worse when gun geeks get together. Pity the poor guy who’s well-read about guns, but doesn’t know how to pronounce your brand name. Do you think he’ll dare to look like a fool in front of the gun shop clerk, or when chatting with his pals at the range? No, he’ll probably simply avoid picking the inscrutable “Brugger & Thonet” and get the “Kel-Tec” instead. Or he might ask for (or brag about) the generic product (“you should see my new scout rifle”), instead of ordering or promoting yours by name (“you should see my Steyr”). Even in conversation, customers that might be confident saying “Glock” might hesitate a second before saying “Vltor” or “Heckler and Koch.”
So, I told my client his “baby” was ugly. I told him that while his proposed brand name was perfectly safe to use, and could easily be protected, it wasn’t going to be much of a help with his marketing. It would create a headwind, not a tailwind. Still, he resisted admitting his baby was ugly. So, I told him a story.
Here’s how to pick good brand names that help your business succeed (the “tailwind” you can’t afford to do without).
Imagine you’re about to launch a company making sound suppressors. You want a core brand name, and you’ll have a wide range of products. At first it’s tempting to follow the path blazed by the best established companies. You want to look and sound like a solid and respectable suppressor company, so you should emulate them, right? And if you do, you’ll be just another small blur that blends into the background.
You wouldn’t wear blotchy green camo if you were trying to be noticed in the woods, would you? So why would you brand your company to sound like all the others?
Conventional wisdom says you should brand your suppressor company with terms that suggest toughness, precision, strength, military, technology, silence and machismo. You’d probably end up with something like Advanced Silencer Solutions (ASS – it’s always three letters). And you’d have missed out on a tailwind that could have helped push you past the competition, and maybe become the upstart on everyone’s lips.
Here’s how I told my new client I would name my suppressor company: I’d run as far away from the competition as possible. The opposite of a tough guy is… a fat lady. The opposite of modern science is… old-fashioned art. The opposite of silence is… noise (that everyone hates). The opposite of BDUs is… tuxes and ball gowns.
Where do artsy people in ball gowns and tuxes hear fat ladies making sounds everyone hates? At the opera, of course. So I brainstormed all the things I associate with opera, and I came up with the name ARIA as the core brad that will be on every product. My out-of-thin-air company name.
“Hmmm… that’s not actually all that bad, Ben…” I know you’re thinking. “I thought you were going to come up with something goofy and stupid to make a point, but I could see that actually working!”
Of course, my suppressor company will have a catalog of a dozen models to start with, with dozens more down the road. It would be very nice for each of these to connect to the core brand wouldn’t it? And to connect to each other. A family of trademarks.
That way, when someone heard nice things about one of our models, they’d know it was ours. Pity the poor company who named their suppressor “Nemesis” or “Predator” or “Operator.” Those could be great brands, but they could fit into the catalog of 90% of suppressor companies. When you hear the name, you don’t associate them with a particular business. What at first seems powerful is actually weak.
It’s also a legal challenge to even find a good tough-sounding brand in the firearms industry any more. Like good dot-com domain names, if it sounds good it’s probably taken.
A few years back a client came to me with the brand TRAILBLAZER for an upcoming firearm product. Before searching I was sure it couldn’t possibly be available, but it was and we got it approved – the exception to the rule.
Typically, if you follow the conventional path and pick a brand that gives you a family of tough product names, you’ll keep running into trademark conflicts. Maybe you want to name your company RAPTOR, and have each model be Hawk, Eagle, Talon, Osprey and such. But that’s a pipe dream, because most of the good raptor names are already registered by other gun companies – all that’s left for you are the dregs. Any other tough-guy category is similarly depleted: snakes, patriotic terms, and powerful animals. So building a good brand family is nearly impossible if you use conventional branding and follow the crowd.
On the other hand, my ARIA® suppressors will have no trouble finding all the best product names. They could be composers like Mozart, or opera names like Aida (maybe too difficult to pronounce – perhaps my biggest challenge – Figaro and The Magic Flute are better). I could use any musical term like Allegro, Baritone, and Cadenza – and those are only the ABCs. And I’ll wager that they’ll all be available to register. Not just now when I register the first batch but for years to come as I need new ones, because no one else in the industry will ever dare to go there. Picking good, protectable brand names that avoid legal entanglements will always be easy.
You’ve probably already noticed how my effort to get as far away as possible from the crowd and their gun industry clichés actually gave me another connection between my brand and products? Suppressors might be about silence, not noise – but there’s a very sweet suggestion that our cans sound better (sweeter?) than the competition. The marketing writes itself: “You can hear a pin drop” in the concert hall… “Finely-tuned instruments…” The ideas come flooding because no one has been in this virgin territory before: Images of suppressors lined up like organ pipes. Viral YouTube videos with suppressors playing music in pitch (like that old recording of dogs barking Jingle Bells), or the 1812 Overture played with the quietest “cannon” ever. And those are my dumb ideas I came up with in a moment.
If going against the grain with your branding means you can have fun with your marketing, then imagine the tailwind you’ll get when your prospective customers are having fun and laughing with you. They’ll be paying attention to you, and you’ll stand out from the crowd. Even your competitors will be talking about you. They’ll try to steal away your marketing department head or ad agency “genius” who they assume did such amazing work, only to find that a genius hobbled by their old boring brands can’t work miracles. And you’ll still have the precious portfolio of brands that no one can ever forget, which will probably prove to be the most valuable assets of your company.
Now, have you noticed one thing I haven’t mentioned about my successful silencer company? The products. I wasn’t naïve enough to try to convince you that my cans will be any better than anyone else’s cans. They might be, but that probably doesn’t matter. Even if I had great ideas and knew my suppressors would be better, no one would believe me anyway. Even if mine were better, customers still can’t tell for sure. And even if mine aren’t anything special, good marketing with a stiff tailwind provided by strong branding will take care of things. Then, I’ll be able to hire away the top inventors, pay them what they deserve, and the innovations will follow the bold branding that built our success. Every one of those innovations will be a “masterwork,” a “magnum opus” that is instantly recognized by customers as being one of ours, because of our distinctive branding.
My sushi was cold by the time I had finished all three acts of my operatic story, and my client looked a little stunned. Even his wife and their (seriously cute) toddler were silent. My client looked at me with a nervous grin, and asked: “Um, now I’m actually thinking maybe we should put our current plans on hold and do that silencer-opera thing. Is that something you were actually gonna do?” I cocked my head a bit and smiled as he came back to reality, and we agreed that maybe it wasn’t the right business for either of us, at least for now.
But after all that, he said that he still wanted me to register the ancient unpronounceable name, just in case. After all, it’s meaning had close connections to the internal philosophy of their business, and even if no one would ever know it, that meant a lot to them.
Finally, I realized the advice he needed – that I had never before found the words for even in 25 years as a trademark attorney:
“Ahhh!” they said in unison as the Light Bulbs Went On.
That’s what it comes down to. Don’t pick brands that inspire only you, or build your self-esteem. Don’t pick brands that are company shorthand or internal codes. Don’t pick brands that lazily describe the product (and then wonder why the brands can’t be protected). Don’t pick brands just because that’s what the boss likes. Don’t pick brands that are abbreviations for your product description.
Pick brands for your customers. Engage them, amuse them, even provoke their curiosity. Run away as far as you can from your competition so you’ll stand out, and so your customers can hear your message loud and clear.
If you’d like to enjoy a strong tailwind, give me a call to talk about a branding strategy that gives your business increased profits and value.