—Dave Taylor, Taylor Brand Group

In this age of fiercely defended intellectual property, it’s tough developing even a single new product name.  Registered trademarks guard their brand territory in every industry and fence out their competitors. Launching a new product name can take months or years of name generating, testing, and legal process.

Done well, a sound naming strategy can help establish your brand as the high ground in the marketplace battlefield, where it will be aspired to, imitated and competed against by lesser brands struggling to reach the top.

Done poorly, product names can have awkward connotations, comprehension issues, or nagging legal problems that will cause confusion among your prospects and customers, and pay for new furniture in your attorney’s beach house.

Yet amid the difficulty of getting even one product name right, Honda Motors has gracefully created a whole family of product brands that couldn’t have been better if not a single circle R stood in their way. Consider their two most popular models, the Civic and the Accord. Link them together with other successful models, the Prelude, or the Pilot. Ahhh, do you feel it? There is a reassuring promise of peace and harmony that comes from not just one of those names, but all four of them. The Insight, the Fit and even the quirky Element are equally well integrated into the Honda family of pleasant, calming automobile trademarks. Each name has meaning we instantly understand, but in addition they work seamlessly together as a family of brands.

Contrast the Honda approach with that of their archrival and slightly more successful competitor, Toyota. Most popular models? Camry, Corolla, Prius, Yaris, Avalon. With the exception of Avalon, which for some people suggests connotations of a pleasant resort town or a singer named Frankie, these names are without instant meaning. Toyota has chosen to use names that they can completely own–a common strategy–and has developed a back-story for each one. Camry is described as a translation of the Japanese word for “crown.” Corolla refers to the petal structure of a flower. Prius means “before or ahead” in Latin. And Yaris? Well, according to Toyota, Yaris is a combination of the Greek goddess’ name, Charis, and the German word for agreement, “ya.” They say the combination reflects the global appeal of the vehicle. Quoi? What’s the Japanese phrase for “you’ve got to be kidding me”?

Of course there are infamous examples of brand names that travel poorly such as the once common sub brand seen in many GM vehicles, “Body by Fisher,” which was translated into “Corpse by Fisher” in French. (Wasn’t there a single GM employee who spoke French?) Of course for many less-than-global companies, as long as it makes sense in surrounding states, they’ll be fine.

So Honda and Toyota employ classic examples of two common naming strategies—use words with meaning adapted to your product, or create your own words and ascribe meaning to them. But there is a third strategy demonstrated elegantly by none other than Honda’s successful premium sub brand, Acura.

You may recall (or if you’re as mature as I am, you may have forgotten) that Acura once had a stable of brand names created with a Honda-like approach. Nameplates such as the Legend, Vigor and Integra were another example of nicely integrated trademarks, with a little more of an edge to them than their sibling brands. But Acura made a decision in the mid-nineties to focus attention on the parent brand of the car and developed an alphabetized naming system resembling random code more than anything else. Gone are names with any connotation whatsoever, replaced with the likes of “RL,” “TL,” “RSX,” and “MDX.” This approach forces the potential customer to learn what each abstraction means, but shows that even letters can carry a sub brand when they are tied to a known parent brand. (I do suspect that new purchasers of these cars tell their friends, “I got a new Acura,” and not, “Dude, I just scored an RL.”)

Within one market, these three approaches demonstrate a range of naming strategies and show the relative strengths and weaknesses of each. Deciding which is right could be as simple as a matter of convenience. Acura must have very few naming headaches. Toyota is doing well making it up as they go along. And while the harmonious Honda makes their elegant naming orchestration look easy, it is undoubtedly the most challenging product branding approach of all. Yet, arguably, it is the one with the most reward.