Landor & Fitch India MD Lulu Raghavan, and APAC business & marketing director Manil Dodani, on the challenges of naming start-ups and the role AI plays in the process.
Stakes are high when one names something. Be that a child, a pet or a brand. But there's one clear factor that differentiates naming children and pets from naming brands - trademarks.
Susmitas are aplenty in the world. This is something all the Amits, Rahuls and Rajs too grow up to accept. And no matter how common the name, no child demands a trademarked name when they turn 18.
But brands can't do without them; they need to be incepted with a unique name. The struggle with trademarks and all the checkboxes a brand name needs to tick off, is making naming brands a tough task. If you add to this mix the peculiar requirements of founders to insert a Z to make a name stand out, or simply misspell a word to overcome trademarks and sound cool, we have the perfect storm that makes naming an arduous assignment.
Lulu Raghavan, MD, Landor & Fitch - India, says, “Overall, naming is becoming incredibly complex - whether it's for large companies or start-ups. Trademarks are complicated and, therefore, complexity has increased; almost every name you can imagine or generate with human ability, has been taken.”
Clients want a name that will become ubiquitous to the category.Lulu Raghavan
Clients have become more demanding too, she says. Companies now desire names that no one in the world has ever heard. “Before the Internet was so ubiquitous, if we came up with a name and a hotel in Timbuktu had the same name, no one knew and didn't care.”
Desirable brand names
Ever since we began Googling for stuff, Ubering everywhere and Swiggying our lunches, fledgling start-ups have one ask from their agency - a brand name which can become a verb. “Clients want a name that will become ubiquitous to the category. What does that even mean,” wonders Raghavan. Undefined expectations like these that brand custodians are unable to articulate, makes the task harder.
The start-up boom has led to scores of brands being born every quarter, and each seeks a unique name. D2C brands, tech-enabled services, in particular, are experienced by consumers online first. The absence of a physical interaction before the first purchase is made, means brands need to first develop a compelling name and persona.
Eccentric names place a cognitive demand on the consumer to spell the word and understand what it means.Manil Dodani
Online discovery of start-ups, also means consumers need to type a name online or speak the name to look for the brand. Manil Dodani, business and marketing director, Landor & Fitch, has now lost count of the number of founders saying, ‘give us an eccentric-sounding name’.
“Eccentric names place a cognitive demand on the consumer to spell the word and understand what it means. Further, in instances when founders want to overcome the trademark obstacle by misspelling a word, they don't realise that people will default to the correct spelling,” explains Dodani, who named quick-commerce brand Zepto.
When every brand wants its name to be a unique, catchy, verb-like word with two syllables, without a clear reason for the name to be constructed in such a manner, “it stunts the user’s ability to recall and remember a brand name,” he cautions.
House of brand names?
Once brands have zeroed in on a name and registered steady growth, it's time to scale and add more product categories - especially if it's a D2C personal care brand. What’s the most sustainable way to grow brands from a naming perspective?
“In today’s reality, where growth is the mantra, the more broad the name can be and doesn't restrict a brand to specific categories, the better it is. Unless the brand is 100% sure that it's going to be about a single category,” says Raghavan. She asks, imagine if Jeff Bezos had named his website Books.com, instead of Amazon.com. Quickly adding, it's too expensive to own multiple brands and nurture them.
And, this is why Raghavan and Dodani adore the abstract. Broadly, there are three types of brand names - descriptive, suggestiveand abstract. And with every type of name, there are tradeoffs.
“A descriptive name is apparent to consumers, and marketing folks think they don’t have to spend money because consumers will understand the product. But they don’t realise that it's harder to trademark descriptive names. Further, descriptive names can get restrictive,” Raghavan explains.
Dodani adds that descriptive names, in fact, aren't SEO-friendly, because a brand will need to pump in a lot more money to be discovered by a potential customer online.
Remember Lavasa? Initially, when Hindustan Construction Company was building a new town outside of Mumbai, the placeholder name for this town was Lake Town. The name was descriptive and generic, “but one wouldn’t be able to trademark it and could become boring too.” Lavasa, though abstract, had the potential for the company to build equity around the brand. “A brand name can become a distinctive asset,” Raghavan reminds us.
Abstract names, though, aren't a brand’s first choice, they make brand custodians uncomfortable. If Raghavan was asked to advise a brand, she would go with the abstract, because that's where trademarks are the strongest. That explains why lawyers love abstract brand names. “Eventually, suggestive names become a happy compromise.”
All in a day’s work
Naming obstacles seem to crop up from the unlikeliest of places. Google Translate is one such. Dodani was flummoxed when Google translated Apraava, a name he and his team coined for a company that provides electric energy, to immoral. “While Google Translate is very accurate in many areas, some of its submissions are user-generated,” he explains. The team had to consult a linguistics professor to check if it had chosen an actual Sanskrit word that meant immoral. Turned out, Google Translate was wrong.
Social media is unkind to brands; very often brands get trolled for their names and logos. Is social media proofing brand names another tall order now? Raghavan believes “naming and product design critique has become a public sport.”
When Landor & Fitch rebranded Essar Oil to Nayara Energy in 2018, the ridicule was endless. What’s a feminine name doing in a league of HPCL and IOCL, people wondered. “But the CEO stood firm,” recalls Raghavan.
Naming and product design critique has become a public sport.Lulu Raghavan
There is no foolproof method but one can practice stoicism. Dodani has simple advice for teams involved in rebranding and naming brands, “go into a cooling chamber when a brand is being launched because all the trolling is a distraction just for that moment.”
Naming and generative AI
Artificial intelligence and generative AI are making their presence in the world of naming too. Websites like brandroot.com, and namelix.com can spit out hundreds of names on a specific theme with logos in a matter of seconds. In fact, namers have been using tools like these for a few years now. But the ease of use and capabilities of such tools are improving rapidly. Does that threaten Raghavan and Dodani’s jobs?
AI spits out words, not assets.Manil Dodani
Raghavan says the job people like her perform is a tough one. They navigate through levels of complexity to find names that are original and can be turned into a company’s intellectual property. “We too use AI to generate names, but just as a tool. The human curation of a brand name, developing a story around it, connecting a name back to the company’s core business and facilitating differences of opinion is what we as an organisation can do and AI cannot.”
It all comes back to a viable trademark. “AI can jumpstart the creative process and set you rolling down a hill. But to control the process you need human intervention because the drop-off rate on AI-generated names is about 70-80%,” adds Dodani.
Driving the point home he declares, “AI spits out words, not assets”.