Does a Great Brand Name Even Matter?

I originally wrote this for HuffPost. Find the original here.

What does every (good) marketer do to develop a new brand? They spend time (and lots of it) trying to come up with a brilliant and unforgettable name. But despite all that hard work, great brands often die. Meanwhile, some brands that eschewed the traditional naming process manage to last decades. Is that fair? Not really.

But it raises an important question: Why are some brands so successful even though they didn’t go through a rigorous naming process?

Random Acts of Naming

To find out, I looked at five iconic brands that didn’t come near a marketer when they were conceived: Jeep, Folgers, Dr. Bronners, Maker’s Mark and Nike. First a quick overview of each, and then I’ll share a few reasons why they eventually became so well-loved.

  1. Jeep: The origin of the name “Jeep” is unclear, and that’s the point. Some historians claim it’s from “GP” for “general purpose,” but all we know for sure is that the term was coined during World War II. No marketing team set out to develop the name; it just sort of happened.
  2. Folgers: The name Folgers simply comes from its founder: 37-year-old James A. Folger. It’s the only one of these brands that has altered its name. At some point, the apostrophe was dropped and Folger’s became “Folgers.”
  3. Dr. Bronners: Soapmaker Emmanuel Bronner also bestowed his own name on his product line. But while Folger was a straightforward businessman, Bronner wasn’t just a self-proclaimed doctor and rabbi – he was also an escaped mental patient who held meetings wearing nothing but a swimsuit.
  4. Maker’s Mark: I doubt that Marjorie Samuels was familiar with the term “brand identity” in 1959. After all, the founder’s wife studied chemistry, not marketing. To name her bourbon, Mrs. Samuels borrowed an idea from her pewter collection, in which each piece had its own “maker’s mark.”
  5. Nike: Every marketer aspires to create a name like Nike. Yet, the origins of Nike’s name are more practical than glamorous. The story is simple: With a deadline just hours away, Phil Knight had yet to decide what to call his company’s new shoe. After considering name after name, he went with an employee’s suggestion of Nike because “it fit on the shoes.” He even commented, “I guess we’ll go with the Nike thing… I don’t like any of them, but I guess that’s the best of the bunch.”
NIke_Cortez
When one of the first Nike shoes was launched, the company was still doing business as Blue Ribbon Sports. How’s that for an unoriginal name? (Source: FirstVersions)

Why Did These Brand Names Become So Iconic?

If these brands started out with unremarkable names, why did they succeed? The answer is simple. Your brand’s name is only 1% of the equation.

The other 99 percent comes from what you stand for. The actions your company takes and the values it represents say far more than a name alone ever could.

Your brand’s name is only 1% of the reason it may or may not succeed. Click To Tweet

Here are five behaviors that show what this looks like in practice:

  1. Stand for a Clear Value or Idea: There’s little ambiguity about what these brands represent. For Jeep, it’s adventure and ruggedness. For Folgers, a great beginning to a new day. Maker’s Mark stands for handmade quality, while Dr. Bronner’s espouses unity and love, and Nike, the spirit of athleticism and being your best. When a brand’s values are clear, it allows it to connect with its audience a much deeper level. By purchasing from brands with strong values, consumers get to reinforce their own identity. And that’s ultimately why people choose things in the first place.
  2. Stay True to Your Values Over Time: It’s one thing to connect your brand with a set of values. Consistently demonstrating those values over decades takes a much more concerted effort. That’s what separates authentic brands from flighty ones. All these brands endured changes in social norms, presidents, fashion trends and economic climates. Yet through it all, their core ideals generally remained unchanged.
  3. Don’t Dramatically Alter Your Identity to Chase Trends: Yes, some of these brands have updated their look to stay contemporary. But if you look at their progression over time, none of them jumped ship for a completely new identity. In fact, Maker’s Mark still looks the same as it did half a century ago.
  4. Never Alienate Your Core Audience: Every one of these brands stayed true to its original core audience. For Dr. Bronners, it was environmentally-conscious consumers. For Folgers, suburban families, Nike; runners. Although these brands are now enjoyed by a range of people, they never abandoned the groups that helped get started.
  5. Stand For a Quality Product: By quality, I don’t mean “premium.” Seth Godin put it best when he said, “Quality means delivering to spec.” For a product like Maker’s Mark, sure, it happens to be a high-end bourbon. Folgers, in contrast, promises to deliver a fair product at a low price. When people buy products from these brands, they know what to expect. And because these brands meet that expectation every year, they have no trouble keeping loyal customers.

Does a Great Brand Name Even Matter, Then?

Does this mean you shouldn’t care about developing your brand? That an arbitrary name is as good as a $100,000 one? Yes and no.

Putting thought into developing a great name still matters for three reasons.

First, anything that’s clichéd, causes confusion or carries negative connotations will work against you.

Second, why not give yourself the advantage of a name that you and your team are excited about?

Third, finding a name that stands out (with a matching domain) is much harder than it was just a few decades ago.

But also remember that a great brand name is no guarantee of success. The name is just the start. The real work is in demonstrating your brand’s promise in every action you take: your marketing, your products, your communications, even down to the way you treat employees, suppliers, and partners.

A great brand name is no guarantee of success. Click To Tweet

Consumers have no trouble sniffing out inauthentic companies. Don’t give them a reason to believe you’re any different from who you say you are and you’ll have the foundations of a great brand.