Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Branding: What's in a name ?

Plenty. Often times, it can make or break a business or product. If you MBA wannabees want to test your creative branding skills, i have a fun link for y'all. It's a contest at Inc magazine's website. Their editors have come up with five fictitious businesses that need a name. All you need to do is pick a name for one of them. 
I fancy myself as being a pretty creative type when it comes to names. I make up names for projects, either at work or those I do outside and usually it's a lot of fun. I put some effort into it, because I think a name you choose has to somehow relate to what you are doing, yet be creative enough to make you smile. Tech companies that release multiple versions of products usually have names for each release. Since there are so many products being developed, oftentimes these names are picked just because they are needed. So, you end up with mountains, rivers, trees, animals etc. Boring. Yet, once in a while along come the wickedly cool ones. Like the place my friend works at where their codenames are named for train stops on the Red Line subway in Boston.
A few years ago, when the yahoo's of the world were making their portals more customizable, I was writing a business plan with a bunch of folks for a class. Our idea was to create a network of portals for university students that would link to class notes, schedules, discussion groups, happenings around their college towns etc.  And we had to choose a name. The key to our idea was customization - you could remake your portal your way with information that was relevant to you. As we toyed around with options that would be relevant to our customers across a wide range of schools, I came up with something I thought was simple yet elegant.  Each school would have a website that replaced the U in their school moniker with YOU. So, at Michigan State, for instance, the portal would be called MSyou.com. Michigan would be youMich.com, you get the drift. A customizable portal for each one of you.
We had a mid-term presentation and it was a hit. The professor loved it, and so did the rest of the class. The students connected with the name. A few days later, we see flyers around campus for a new website called - you guessed it ! Someone in the class decided to plagarize our name. We made two cardinal mistakes - we didn't have the foresight to spend (at that time) 50-odd bucks to register the website, though we did check that it was available and that there were no copyright issues. Our professor also chided us for not making the class sign an NDA before we made our presentation.  I was mildly shocked at this input - this was just a class presentation, wasn't an NDA an overkill ? But, I did learn the important lesson that business is brutal, and people will take any opportunity they are given. We also realized how important a good name is for a business - stripped of our original name, we struggled to find a replacement, and never did find one that had the impact of the first one.
So, be warned. The next time you are casual about letting people know about a great name/idea/whatever, bad things can happen.
I think the coolest name I've come up with was for the little startup venture I described in the Tuck essay I posted earlier. It was a project to create a voice-based interface to the internet over the telephone in local Indian languages. We saw a huge population hungry for the information that the Net had to offer, but lacking the means to get that, because of the low penetration, and expense, of internet access at that time.
Our codename : The Sanjaya Project. The what-the, you ask ? Well, in the Indian epic Mahabharata, there is a colossal battle between good and evil. Turns out the principal characters are sons and relatives of a blind king. As the battles started, he was anxious to get information about what was going on, but he lacked the means to watch the proceedings himself. Enter Sanjaya, a charioteer who was blessed with clairvoyant powers. He was the conduit who relayed the battle scenarios and answered the king's questions. I thought it was a relevant yet interesting name for what we were trying to do.
It was yet another time when I saw the impact of a good name. More than once, the people who we talked with were intrigued by the name and our rationale for choosing it, and gave us face time. Of course, an interesting name is just the first step. Ultimately, you better have a solid product to back it up to be successful.
So, if you are in the mood to get them creative juices flowing, check out the link for the contest. the deadline for entries is july 30. go play. 
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