Which is better: a descriptive brand name like Rollerblade, an abstract/emotional brand name like Virgin, or a suggestive brand name that hints at either the function or the benefit like Energizer? The lawyers will tell you to go abstract (they like wildly differentiated names because they’re easier to protect). But marketers need more than just protectability. They need to promote their wares too.

Of course, each of these naming styles has advantages and disadvantages, and each can be used effectively. The two drivers that should dictate your preference are projected ad budget (and likely marketing channel), and how variable your business model is. The more abstract your brand name is, the more you will likely spend on advertising. The more descriptive your name is, the less flexibility you have to adjust your business model under that brand.

Consider three examples from the online job posting arena: Monster.com, TheLadders.com, and CareerBuilder.com. Three different styles of names, all for pretty much the same business.

Monster.com is the most abstract of the names. It doesn’t say anything about employment or personal development (the functional side of the business) nor does it say anything about efficiency or multiplicity of listings (the benefit side of the business). The upside of being so abstract is the company can adjust its business model over time: The brand “Monster” could offer relocation services just as easily as it could offer job hunting services. Furthermore, the name really stands out from the crowd. The downside? Names like this require a more substantial ad budget to make them stick. This company has bought television ad time during the Superbowl, and they constantly have to remind people what service they provide.

TheLadders.com is a more suggestive brand name. Still says nothing about job listings, but the key benefit of the service (climbing up the corporate ladder) is clearly communicated. While this name doesn’t afford quite as much flexibility for the business, it still gives a lot of room to maneuver. And the name stands out without being so abstract that they need to spend a gazillion dollars promoting it.

CareerBuilder.com is the most descriptive name of the three. This name clearly communicates its function: helping you build your career. Easy to promote in any channel (radio, tv, print, online) and easily understood by a wide audience. What this name lacks is charisma; it’s kind of boring (a common affliction of more descriptive names). Perhaps because these guys are competing with the likes of Monster and TheLadders, they too have spent quite a bit on their ad campaigns (including one of my favorite Superbowl commercials of all time).

One final question for readers: is it more important for a name to stand out (a la Monster) or for a name to be intuitive (a la CareerBuilder)?

Burt Alper, Catchword Branding

  • There is no one answer to your question. It depends on the strategic circumstances in which the name is competing, the audience you want to reach, the need for instant understanding and the brand strategy in force. Horses for courses. Same with names. Different every time. mj

  • Hi, Burt.
    We’ve seen low-cost non-traditional advertising be an effective way to promote a unique name like Monster. Lexicon typically recommends a unique name (and strong trademark) that works with all of the client’s branding tools. For example, the name PENTIUM had the intrinsic values of speed, performance, and science. That gave Intel the opportunity to include more human elements in the brand through their advertising campaigns, i.e., the clean-room technicians dancing in bunny suits or The Blue Man Group. Some clients should not shun a unique name because it’s going to cost a lot of money to promote. There are creative ways to work with a unique name that don’t cost an arm and a leg. The payoff of having a great brand name the client can protect is worth it.

  • This discussion would be the same, were it to be about logos and I don’t think there is any doubt about how this works. There are three broad criteria that a brand name/logo should meet. The first is that it should be distinctive. It needs to stand out among the forest of names/logos that we encounter every day. The second is that it should define your business. The third is that it should reflect your corporate culture – businesslike/frivolous, friendly/formal, contemporary/traditional etc.
    Rarely will a name/logo satisfy all of these criteria equally, and all too frequently they won’t meet one or more criteria at all, so award the logo/name options that you have, points in each category. Total the points for each and the one with the highest value is likely to be your best option.