Is brand success all in your name? We ask the expert

Founder of consulting firm, Eqvarium, discusses the role a name plays in brand building and engagement

What’s in a name?

If you asked employees of the soon-to-be-merged companies, AOL and Yahoo!, apparently there’s quite a lot. Social media has lit up as staff and bystanders have weighed into the parent company’s decision to name the new entity ‘Oath’ (we can only hope its new CEO is named Ken).

But when you are coming from a company named Yahoo!, do you really have a leg to stand on?

Katarina Nilsson has spent her working life assisting companies find their perfect name, through her Stockholm-based consulting firm, Eqvarium. Having graduated university with a Masters in Spanish and English, and having also studied Latin, Classical Greek and German, in 2001 she found herself working work as a naming consultant at an agency, before striking out on her own in 2008.

Since then, Nilsson has helped hundreds of organisations, old and new, find the perfect name for themselves and their products.

“The name is one of the most important identity carriers of your brand,” Nilsson said. “The naming strategy needs to support the brand strategy, to support the business in the end.

“It is all about profitable brand names, to create brand recognition and to create names that you can use in all of your key markets, and that are strong enough to work from a linguistic and cultural – and legal – perspective in all different markets.”

Katarina Nilsson
Katarina Nilsson


According to Nilsson, there are numerous considerations any organisation needs to bring to choosing its name. Primary among these are legal and intellectual property considerations, and whether the name can be protected in all markets where the company might want to operate – especially given the value that is often attributed to brands.

“A strong name that you have protected with the intellectual property rights will increase the value of your company at a potential exit,” Nilsson said.

It is also important to think about the lifecycle of the brand, and the problems that may arise in the future from picking a brand name that is on-trend today.

“It is not a good choice to choose a trendy name, like these tech companies that drop the vowels,” Nilsson said. “I would recommend not doing that, because we don’t know how fresh and cool that will seem in two years’ time.”

Another potential problem arises from choosing a name that describes what the company does. While this might help to convey a message early in the brand’s development, it can limit the name’s effectiveness as the brand offers new products and services beyond its original mission.

“See that it reflects your soul, rather than telling what you do,” Nilsson said. “It is about who, it is not about what. You do need to explain to your target audience what it is that you offer and what you do, but that can change over time.”

Nilsson is currently working alongside numerous startups, many of whom are included ‘VR’ and ‘AR’ in their names to take advantage of trends around virtual and augmented reality.

“There is so much more that they grow into, and I can see already that they have grown out of their names,” she said. “So it is so important to have a wider knowledge about these things, to be able to work with it in a clever way.”

Nilsson said she and her team will also work to ensure that there are not inadvertent cultural and linguistic issues that may impact a brand in certain markets. She recounted an engagement with a Swiss pharmaceutical company where one proposed name could have had significant unintended consequences.

“We were discussing different names for a pharmaceutical product, and I looked down at the list and saw the name proposal ‘mocorex’ – which I immediately recognised as the King of Snot, because rex is King in Latin and moco is ‘snot’ [in Spanish],” Nilsson said. “But this was at a point where we had hundreds of names to work with. And this is what it is about – to spot the challenging names and avoid them.”

Nilsson’s process starts with the convening of a naming group within the client that draws in senior decision makers and deep product and market knowledge.

“What is the tonality, and how would we like this name to sound?” she asked. “Would you like a long name or a short name? Should it be in one word or two words? Should it be a phrase? Also take into consideration what are the brand values and creative ideas. So what could a name convey? And what should it not convey?”

That leads to the creation of hundreds of names, which are then whittled down to find a shortlist.

“And then we present this list to the client in a fun and messy meeting where we play around with the names,” Nilsson said. “And they move attention from their head to their gut, so they can see examples of different kinds of names, and how they could or could not work for them.”

The company must also make a choice as to whether it chooses a common word or a truly unique name.

“Orange is also a common word, and Apple is too, and somehow they work,” she said. “It is also about the communication and branding of course. So if you don’t have a huge budget I would actually go for something more unique.”

But while a new and unique name might take some time to seed into market, familiarity can quickly bring acceptance.

“It may be unfamiliar at first sight, but then you come across it three times or four times or five times, and you remember it,” Nilsson said. “It could actually be a strength, and easier to protect from a legal point of view.”

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