Syllables, Scrabble Letters, and Picking Brand Names

The Completely Ownable, “Made-Up” Consumer Brand Wins Long Term

I wrote this as a private email in 2006 and just refreshed for the blog

“Should we call our site something literal or should we make up a new word?” This is a question I often get asked by consumer product/service entrepreneurs.  In light of Microsoft’s re-launch of Microsoft MSN Live Search as “Bing”, I thought it timely to re-fresh some old thoughts I’ve had about naming, words, and branding.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that I believe it is much more powerful long-term to make up a new word (e.g., Expedia, Zillow, or recently Glassdoor, 3 words that my teams have created) than it is to use a literal word (e.g., Travel.com, RealEstate.com, or Jobreviews.com).  Why?  The short answer is that when you successfully make up a new word and introduce it into everyday language, you own it.  It becomes a major differentiating asset that cannot be confused with anything else or encroached upon by competitors.  At the very best, you end up defining a whole new category – Kleenex, Levis, Polaroids, Nikes, Ebay.  The downside to creating your own brand is that it is hard, and most of the time, very expensive and time consuming to hammer a new word into the consumer vocabulary.

The siren’s song of a literal brand or a brand that is evolved from a literal word is hard to resist.  It doesn’t require much brand marketing spend because not a whole lot of explanation is needed to describe what Photos.com is.  It’s already a word, full of meaning for people.  However, it is for exactly this reason that I do not favor literal brands.  Dreamy brand marketing folks might talk to you about brands as “empty vessels” waiting to be filled up with emotional meaning by creative marketers.  This is how they sell big budget “brand advertising”.  In my experience, they are absolutely right.  If you pick a brand, a vessel, that is already full of meaning for people, your ability to infuse that brand with new meaning is very limited.  You can fool yourself into looking at high “awareness” numbers of your literal brand and think you are doing a great job.  It’s likely that you are not, you just picked a well known word, not a brand.

On the other hand, if you’ve made up a brand new word, and have launched it into the marketplace, it is very likely that your awareness numbers are going to be low for a long time.  It will also take Google a while to figure you out.  It took 8 years for Expedia to achieve unaided awareness numbers of over 50% in its target base of people who travel and who use the web.  Zillow is a few years old, 9 million unique users visited in March of this year, and our awareness numbers are still low single digit numbers.  This may dissuade you from creating a new word, but then I’d argue that you are thinking short term.  If your dream is to really create a consumer product or service that stands the test of time, a brand that your grandchildren will know and love, then it’s almost a requirement to make up a new word.

Homonyms and Branding

I know you have busily been thinking of counter-examples, so I’ll try to head off one of them at the pass:  Homonyms.  Google, Amazon.  These were words before they were brands, right?  Yes, they were.  However, these companies simply used these words and created a new meaning for them.  They created homonyms.  This can work and work very well, as long as the word you pick has little or nothing to do with your use of it.  Each of these words had some meaning to it that the respective companies wanted to be a “brand characteristic” of their new homonym.  Google wanted to communicate the near infinite reach of its spider by referring to the very large number that math geeks know as a “googol” (10 to the 100th power).  Amazon, similarly picked the largest river in the world to communicate Amazon’s vast selection.  So, a completely unrelated use of a pre-existing word is fair game as well.

Acronyms and Branding

IBM, NBC, KFC.  These are Acronyms that, over time, and with lots of marketing spend, have turned into brands in and of themselves.  This generally happens when a company name ends up becoming a brand in its own right.  I do not recommend starting with an acronym, as I think they are less memorable, thus more costly.  I worked at Microsoft for quite some time and had my parents using MSN from the very beginning, but my father still calls it “MNS”.

In addition to acronyms, brands based on names (Golman Sachs, Sullivan & Cromwell, etc) are mostly ownable.  They have the same characteristics as made up words, but they are even less memorable.  They tend to work really well for professional service firms.  The one risk is that you cannot own someone’s name.  Thus Packard Bell (a low quality, consumer PC maker of yore) can start up and borrow brand glow from Hewlett Packard and Ma Bell.  Also, one of the partners can leave and start a competitor of a similar name, stealing customers and encroaching on your brand space.

Creating the Word

Making up a new word can be daunting.  With Expedia we hired a firm called Interbrand to help us, and I think it worked well.  With Zillow we did it ourselves and liked how it was a mashup of Zillions (of data) and Pillow (an emotional icon of a home).  There’s no magic formula, but I do have a few guidelines/starting points:

  1. The fewer syllables the better.  My first son was born on the day of the Expedia IPO in 1999.  My son still couldn’t say “Expedia” very well even when he was 4.  Pick a word that a 4 year old can say.
  2. Use high-point Scrabble letters.  My wife and I love to play Scrabble (a great brand name, btw).  The highest point letters (least often used in English) are Z, Q, X, J, K.  These are memorable letters for people because they are so seldom used.  Use them in your brands.  Xerox, Kodak, Coke…
  3. Palindromes (spells same word backward and forward) and double letters are nice, too, as they are memorable visually and audibly.  (Kellogg’s, Apple, Yahoo, Google, Twitter, Zillow – I couldn’t come up with palindromes, but my instinct is that they would be great.  Near palindromes are XeroX, KodaK,..)
  4. If your service is an active tool of some kind, try to pick a word that people can turn into a verb easily.  Google is the ultimate example here.

I’m sure there are countless counter-examples to my theory that made up words make better consumer brands, but, in general, I’ve found it to be true. When you move out of the consumer branding space, my arguments do not hold as well.  Business brands can much more easily be literal, though, even if I were starting a B2B company, I think I’d make up a word for my product.  Made up words are just more fun, more exciting, and much more memorable in the long run.

So, how does “Bing” do?  Well, it’s one syllable.  There are no high point Scrabble letters, but it is musical/onomonopaic.  It can be made a verb.  Any kid can say it.  I actually think it has legs.  Hopefully, the product is there to support the name, because, in the end, the product and user experience is really what makes the brand.

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  • Jorrit

    great article and well thought out – as usual. ang and i are big into scrabble as well (but i had to look up at least 2 words in your post so i wont play with you). i heard of a variant for you smart guys called grabscrab which sounds really fun (and fast):

    Grabscrab: Also called Attack Scrabble. This is a version of anagrams played with 100 or 200 Scrabble tiles. The tiles start face down. Each player turns the tiles over one at a time until one player is able to form a word. The player with the most words at the end of the game wins. The catch is that players may “steal” a word from another player (or add the letter themselves) by taking additional turned over letters and adding them to words already flipped over. An example would be taking “quit” and making it “quiet”

    source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grabscrab#Grabscrab

  • http://www.coverbrowser.com/image/bestsellers-2007/3142-1.jpg Jeffo

    Hi Rich. I always took you at your word that you invented Zillow…but then i had a kid who took a liking to Dr. Seuss’ “There’s a Wocket in my Pocket!”. (publication date: 1974). As any fan will tell you, the book is about a house in which there’s not only a nureau on the bureau and a jertain behind the curtain, but also a zillow on the pillow. (no reference to bing, however.)

  • http://www.zillow.com/ Rich Barton

    Thx, Jorrit. Attack Scrabble is now queued up for the next family vacation.

  • http://www.zillow.com/ Rich Barton

    James – you make a good point. “Say it” and “spell it” are 2 great games to play with made up words. try it out on the person in the seat next to you on the plane or you mom or whatever. “Say it” is when you write the made up word down on paper and ask the person to pronounce it. “Spell it” is when you say the word and ask the person to spell it. Results, even for the best brands will not be stellar, but if you get over 50% on both you have a winner.

  • http://www.avidian.com/ James

    Great article. having started a few companies, I favor starting a company with the letter “A” and made up words, thus “Avidian”. But I’m not such a big fan now as it’s too hard to spell and pronunciation is subjective. Pronunciation is a huge factor to me now having used two words that I thought were simple “Avidian” and “Foci” but no one knew how to say it. uggghhh.

    If you like scrabble, I’m confident you’ll get addicted to deepleap.org as I have become a complete addict.

  • http://somestartup.com/ Jeff

    I agree that ficticious names have better long-term value, and if you can stay in business long enough, it will pay off. But for a small startup, I’m wondering if it makes more sense to go with a literal word for the bump in SEO. Thoughts?

  • http://www.zillow.com Rich Barton

    Jeff-
    No question you get an SEO bump if you pick a name that happens to be a word people use to search. Over the long haul you can “back into” a real brand this way, but it’s tough. For instance, “Trip Advisor,” a company Expedia owns, is a a literal name. Great for SEO and the founders were SEO ninjas long before anyone had figured it out. For years, no one even knew the name of the site they were landing on, but, over time, Trip Advisor became huge, and SEO visitors began to connect with and remember the Trip Advisor brand. It is now a super valuable asset. However, I’d still argue that they’d rather have a totally ownable name now, rather than a generic term. They can easily be encroached upon by “Travel Advisor” and “Auto Advisor” and “Home Advisor” etc.

  • http://www.doxo.com/ Steve

    doxo agrees wholeheartedly with this blog :)

  • http://www.schwartzgroup.com/ Bob Schwartz

    Rich – fantastic article, love the subject and your explanation. One note, you may recall that Packard Bell was actually a brand before Beny (founder Packard Bell) slapped it on PC’s. It was an old radio Brand name that was acquired by a big company and shelved for many years. Beny and his founding team bought it for ~$100k (if I recall the amount correctly).

    But to your point when Packard Bell acquired our interface company in the early 90′s I was sure it was a corporate blend of ma bell and hewlett packard.

  • http://www.zillow.com Rich Barton

    Interesting article here (http://searchenginewatch.com/3639837) relevant to this post…

    The Relaunch of Syfy: When Search Shapes the Brand

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  • http://spoondate.com Van Nguyen

    Some palindrome company names: Oxo, Soros, Eve (.com or otherwise),

  • http://www.east-west-connect.com/ Tait

    Interesting. I’ll tell you something interesting from the perspective of somebody that creates Chinese-language brand names.

    I think it’s important to note that a lot of English brand names may not be composed of independent English words, but are still a composition of English words that have been mashed up, and/or root words from Latin and Greek, French, etc.

    For example, “Expedia” wasn’t a word on its own, but perhaps it was composed of “expedition” and “encyclopedia”.

    Of course, now all the Western brand names that don’t yet have a killer Chinese brand name need one.

    In Chinese, the characters used are usually more visible to consumers. The reason is that modern Chinese words are composed of Chinese characters that still have identifiable meanings, unlike a lot of English words that are composed of Latin and Greek root words that not many people understand. So, that makes it tougher to create an ‘empty vessel’ Chinese brand name.

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