Alphabet: Google's name for its holding company sounds nice and friendly, but it has another layer
Alphabet: Google's name for its holding company sounds nice and friendly, but it has another layer
A view from Neil Taylor, The Writer

Jumping on the brandwagon: Is your brand name on trend or so last year?

A creative partner at language consultancy The Writer takes us for a spin through naming trends for brands, reveals some clever techniques, and peels back the layers of meaning behind Google's holding company Alphabet.

When I arrived at university, nigh-on everyone in my year was called Matt. So many, in fact, they needed nicknames: Economics Matt; Freaky Matt; Matt the Cat. Now my friend’s son Harry has another five Harrys in his.

There are fashions in brand naming, just like in child naming. A few years ago, when we thought textspeak was going to kill off final vowels forever, there was Flickr, Razr, Tumblr and Grindr. It’s a miracle Twitter and Tinder have been such modern successes given their defiantly traditionalist approach to spelling.

These waves aren’t new. When I joined Interbrand in 1999, every corporate wanted a cod-Latin name like Invensys or Syngenta. Diageo fused together random bits of Latin and Greek, and finally, luckily, Consignia consigned that to the dustbin.

And when those clients’ agencies were naming themselves, they just plucked any old word from a children’s book. I once walked into the building of the group now called Engine and looked at the names on the wall: Dave; Element; Woo. You get the idea.

Get the look

So the secret to naming a brand is not just finding a decent-sounding word, but how to ride the trend that sends the right signal, without being so achingly "now" that next year you end up sounding like a has-been.

For instance, there’s been a recent trend for businesses to sound less self-consciously solid (which is what all that Latin was about). As the centre of corporate gravity has shifted to California, names – like the clothes of their CEOs – have got more relaxed.

Slightly unexpected combinations of real English words are in: Facebook, LinkedIn, WeWork (and just like you nearly called your child Xander, so Google started off life as BackRub). Or there are more overtly "internetty" names: quirky suffixed names like Spotify, Storify, Bitly and Reach.ly.

Learn the language

If you want to name your brand after a person (yourself?), there are secret codes that have been around for years that still hold true. One person’s name suggests a founder: Ford, Dyson, Sainsbury’s. (You believe there was a Mr or Mrs Bailey, even though there wasn’t and it was invented in 1974). Two names, and we interpret a bit of poshness: Marks & Spencer; Fortnum & Mason; Bang & Olufsen (and yes, Haagen Dazs is made up, too). Three names sound like solicitors: Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer; Berwin Leighton Paisner. Four names and you’re an 80s ad agency: Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper still being my all-time ego-salving favourite.

But you can insulate your name from time-defined naffness by giving them a story. Google have been particularly good at it: a googol is a really big number, which hints at the universe of data it’s rooting through to find the picture you want of a funny cat.

They’ve now renamed their holding company Alphabet, which sounds like a nice, friendly name. But it has another layer – it’s the vehicle for the businesses they’re betting on to create alpha – finance-speak for a return on investment that beats the market.

Names with a bit of a back story work in an age where we’re cynical of marketing spin. It gives the name some weight without having to hit you over the head with it.

Meet the system

But these days, canny brands don’t just think about the big name; they also get you to recognise their products just from the names. Apple stick a boring old "i" in front of fairly descriptive words like Tunes, Photo and Pad, and people get very excited. But their marketing dollars mean they now pretty much own that pattern (and will pay big to shut people up who claim they got there first). And Ikea’s names tell you nothing about their products. You can’t guess what a Liatorp, Hemnes or Lovbacken is, they just sound so delightfully Ikea-ish. (Different ranges are actually named after things like Scandinavian rivers.)

Systems like this often save you a wedge of cash too, by stopping random product managers throwing cash at agencies like mine to come up with something they don’t actually have the market budget to support. Thinking about your naming system is a bandwagon it’s actually worth your brand jumping on.

Neil Taylor is creative partner at The Writer, author of The Name of the Beast and Brilliant Business Writing, and the man who named Ocado.

Topics