Market Research can ruin any Good New U.S. Name.

Recently we were working with a small international client who thought they had selected a great new name for their US launch. But, to be sure the name was suitable, they tested it and some runner-up ideas against a small audience. Surprise, the US voters came back with the conservative, descriptive almost common name as their favorite instead! Only the European audience understood which name really had class and “legs” for the long haul of creating a sustainable, branded line of products.

Why does this keep happening? Why is the US consumer so conservative – until, that is, the brand has somehow been created without their input in which case they do embrace the quality, name and positioning. But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Any country where the top selling car is the conservative Camry, and the best selling SUV is the boxy Ford Explorer, and where the dominant retail fashion channel is the big box (!) retailers like Walmart and JC Penney, is by self-definition conservative.

Very fashionable people on the West Coast used to bemoan the fact that good fashion took a year to get from Paris to New York, then two or three years to get to California. While that is surely not the case today, and California itself is a bellwether state of new fashion and ideas, new concepts, names, fashions and brands can take many a year until they are fully embraced across the hinterland of this country.

In a famous case back in the late 1970’s a number of airlines with interesting names like Alleghany and Frontier(*) and PSA were merging. The naming team had three great candidate names apparently, but for the sake of the survey, their ad agency threw in a placebo placeholder to measure against. Guess which name won? Today you know them as US Airways (or US Air – especially internationally where they had problems of being perceived as the official state airline of the US). The lesson of this story holds today. In an area where the public does not yet have an actual perception of the name and brand in use, the votes are going to drop to the lowest common denominator. Ironically, US Air has recently merged or as some say been taken over by, America West Airlines, but the West name had even more geographic problems!

Of course, what holds for the public, often holds for the management too, especially in bigger, bureaucratic environments. “Go with the conservative choice, do no wrong,” is the de facto rallying cry. Except in the long term this is a major error. Firstly, lowest common denominator is very similar to generic. Generic names cannot be trademarked. Common marks cannot be easily protected and cannot create unique mindshare. Secondly, common marks seldom have real class, so it is difficult for them to stand for high-class, value, good prices and products. Common marks do not give you the power of a brand to build on and to weather tough times or problems. For example: US Airways is consistently rated the poorest in customer service vs all other airlines in the US. Maybe it is because they have few brand loyalists standing up to defend them.

Motto of this story: Be brave. Select a strong, unique name. Don’t use surveys from a conservative common audience that don’t fully appreciate your dreams and aspirations for the product or services. When they see your execution and delivery on the brand promise, they will embrace the name too.

(*) The Frontier name has since been brought back for a separate new airline.


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