David Placek knew something was off when he met with Microsoft to figure out a brand name for its latest product. Cloud Link? Cloud Pro? None of the names sounded right. The product was a cloud platform, sure, but it did little to spark his imagination. Besides, everyone was already talking about the cloud.
Microsoft's naming debacle wasn't the first Placek had encountered. As founder and president of Lexicon Branding, a Sausalito, California firm that develops and evaluates brand names for companies around the world, Placek has solved such problems for 32 years. He eventually sold Microsoft on naming its product Azure, a brighter name for a platform that promises to help people get working in the cloud quickly.
Two more reasons it works: Azure differentiates Microsoft from competitors like Box and "telegraphs a sort of attitude," says Placek. "Cloud computing is clearly the way of the future, and so it will eventually become so ordinary. You want [a name like] Azure so you can point to the computing technology."
With those principles in mind, I decided to ask Placek what makes a company name flop.
Being Too Clever
"There is always a tendency to be descriptive" among companies, says Placek, who's worked with Verizon and Intel, among others. "Some companies want to be clever," but having worked with so many over the years he's come to realize "you should look at a name as a tool. It doesn't have to be clever, it just has to communicate something."
This one may sound obvious, but consider how many startups whose names end in -ly. The folly with this, says Placek, is that companies "don't consider the longterm, how the marketplace may change, and how what they're using now is going to date them." Going back to Microsoft, a lot of companies have been using the word "cloud" in their products because cloud computing is their category. But as cloud computing evolves, and even becomes expected, among savvy consumers, those names will feel less and less novel. It's the modern-day equivalent of a hotel promoting its color TVs.
Not Going Global
"People don't consider the global nature of the world today," Placek says of companies whose names are too localized. "You may be a startup with a regional marketplace, but once you launch [your product] on the Web, you're a global brand and you should have ambitions to increase your territory." This is partly why Lexicon has added more linguists to its teams in 43 countries. "They help us create solutions," he says, "but more often they help us evaluate solutions in the country against not only the language but the cultures of the marketplace."
Following the Leader
Bit.ly. Markt. BitBite. WriteRack. Ever get the feeling you've heard this name before? Sure, you want to feel comfortable, but imitating others is rarely the path to building a disruptive company and brand. And chances are, prospective employees won't take it seriously. "Just from a very practical standpoint, for someone who graduates from Stanford University and calls their parents to tell them they just got hired at another startup whose name ends in -ly, that doesn't have the sort of confidence that I think people want to hear." The parents will be disappointed. "And if the parents are like that, the prospective candidate will be, too."