-Mark Prus, Principal, NameFlash Name Development

Mark Cuban held a variety of jobs in his youth including selling garbage bags door-to-door and being a bartender, a disco dancing instructor, and a party promoter. But one thing that frustrated him was bank overdraft fees. Now he’s helping to fund an app that claims it can help people avoid them by predicting incoming expenses and comparing them with the person’s spending habits.

The app is called “Dave.”

“We named the company Dave because we wanted people to think of the app as a friend they can turn to when they’re in a financial bind,” said Dave’s CEO, Jason Wilk.

“Dave” is another example of people trying to anthropomorphize their brand. To anthropomorphize means to attribute human form or personality to things not human, and I noted this trend in my 2015 book The Science of Branding. Giving your product a name that enables consumers to attribute human qualities to it can be a very memorable way to develop your branding, and it is proven to be a successful branding technique.

Please note, this is not the same as using the founder’s name in the business name. The name Ben & Jerry’s reflects that name of the founders, not an attempt to attribute human form or personality to things not human. Some people might have a favorable opinion of Ben & Jerry’s because of the use of the founders’ names in the business name, but this was not a deliberate attempt to anthropomorphize the brand.

Alexa, Siri and Cortana are good examples of an attempt to anthropomorphize a brand name in technology. If you are going to launch a digital assistant, shouldn’t the name sound like a real person (albeit with a techie feel)? Wouldn’t you want a user to develop a relationship with the device/service in the same way that you would develop a relationship with a friend?

Of course this naming approach is not without risk. Developing a personal relationship with a consumer requires authenticity that leads to trust and a deeper connection. If “Dave” is able to develop that connection and build on it over time, then the approach can be a success. However, a few missteps along the way can cause Dave users to start thinking of Dave as their goofy brother-in-law rather than as a respected friend they can turn to when they are in a financial bind.

-Mark Prus, Principal, NameFlash Name Development

I sometimes get asked by prospective clients if they should change their name, and I help them evaluate if a change is necessary. But sometimes there are stubborn companies who persist in marketing a name that is not right. Overstock.com is a prime example of this behavior.

In early 1999, Dr. Patrick M. Byrne recognized the potential in liquidating excess inventory through the Internet. He started Overstock.com as a way for consumers to gain easy access to closeout merchandise. Overstock.com is a pretty good name for that business model.

In January 2011, Overstock.com acquired the O.co URL and began incorporating it into its marketing. CEO Dr. Patrick M. Byrne said, “When we first started our business in 1999, we only sold surplus inventory. We are no longer just an online liquidator. Our current offerings span from furniture and home decor to cars. We want an identity that more accurately reflects our company as it has evolved: hence ‘O.co’.”

I’ll admit I’m biased, but the strategy shift provided the prime opportunity to change their name.

However, Overstock.com doubled down and tried to leverage its name through a sexy sell with a campaign about “It’s All About The ‘O’ “(wink, wink added for emphasis). While the Overstock.com name faded into the background it was still the official name of the company.

Fast forward to today. Overstock.com continues to use the name that the CEO admitted didn’t fit six years ago. But now, instead of hiding their name embarrassment, they want to draw attention to it. Their latest campaign uses offensive “name shaming” language to point out that people also look at Overstock.com and think they only sell closeout items.

Dear Overstock.com CEO:



Mark Prus
Principal @NameFlash

Overstock.com has spent years explaining their business model because they continue to use a name that does not fit it. How much further ahead would the company have been if they had just changed their name when given the right opportunity years ago?

We all get attached to things and letting go is hard. But there are times when you need to suck it up and change your name rather than continue to use a name that does not fit your current or future strategy!

-Mark Prus, Principal, NameFlash Name Development

I was largely unimpressed with the crop of Super Bowl ads this year. It seemed to me that advertisers have chased “form over function” and have forgotten that when you spend $5 million for a 30-second ad you should probably sell some product to offset that cost. There were few ads that actually tried to communicate in a strategic way and present a compelling selling message for their brand.

Why have Super Bowl advertisers stopped selling their products?

Here is a prime example of how far we’ve fallen in just a year. Last year Christopher Walken used his unique communication style to decisively deliver the selling message of “don’t be beige, be bold” in a Kia commercial. This was a “Top 10” ad from Super Bowl 2016. Check it out.


This year Christopher Walken again appeared in a Super Bowl ad, and again used his unique delivery style but this time he was reciting song lyrics in an ad for Bai. Many polls have indicated that this was the “Best Super Bowl Ad of 2017.” Check it out here.


The difference is amazing. Walken stayed in character in both ads. However, last year the message was a strategically focused argument for the new Kia Optima. This year the Bai ad reeked of borrowed interest and delivered absolutely no selling message for the brand. OK, there was that tagline that was on the screen for 5 seconds at the end that said “5 Calories, No Artificial Sweeteners, and Tastes Amazing” but that tagline has no relevance to the rest of the ad so it was clearly a band aid that was inserted to appease the Brand Manager.

The makers of Bai were no doubt hoping that using Christopher Walken and Justin Timberlake in an ad would break through the Super Bowl clutter. Alas, they were seduced by the cleverness of their brand name in relation to the “Bye, Bye, Bye” lyrics. What does the NSync song from 2000 have to do with an antioxidant beverage? The only possible outcome that would benefit the brand would be name recognition, which could be important if people do not know how to pronounce Bai.  But in the end, I suspect they were using borrowed interest because they apparently have nothing to say about why I should choose their brand.

I know some Super Bowl ads were making political statements or “feel good” messages to bolster corporate identity. But seriously, if you spend $5 million for a 30-second ad, shouldn’t you attempt to sell something? You can use other tools in the marketing toolbox to bolster your corporate image.

Here is an example. In 2002, Scripps Networks (the company behind HGTV and the Food Network) wanted to announce their newest media property Fine Living. They could have blown their budget on a Super Bowl ad but instead they created a PR event by building a tropical island in New York City’s Hudson River. The island was complete with sand, palm trees, a thatched-roof hut, hammock and hot tub. They towed the island in place at night for the big reveal on Columbus Day. One lucky couple (and their dog) got to enjoy the island for a few days. They romped in the sand, relaxed in the hot tub, and enjoyed the good life…Fine Living indeed! This event cost $300,000 to arrange and generated over $30 million in media exposure, or 100x the original investment.

Can the advertisers in this year’s Super Bowl claim that they got a 100x return on their investment (doing the math: $5 million for a 30-second ad means they would have to get a $500 million payback)? I doubt it.

What do you think? Have we reached a tipping point in terms of Super Bowl advertising? Should we stop calling them ads? Maybe “public service announcements” would be more appropriate!

-Mark Prus, Principal, NameFlash Name Development

Publicis Groupe, the holding company of worldwide marketing agencies, has been restructuring over the past year. In March they announced a major restructuring of their media arm Publicis Media that broke apart longtime media agency ZenithOptimedia. Zenith now operates as a standalone agency, while Optimedia joined forces with Blue 449 to form Optimedia | Blue 449. Publicis has now decided to drop the Optimedia name in favor of Blue 449 on a global basis. The six remaining Optimedia offices and Match Media in Australia will all take the Blue 449 name.
Blue 449

Does this signify a landmark change in naming? Dropping Optimedia and Match Media eliminates two more descriptive names in favor of a more creative arbitrary name. I can only hope that others follow this trend!

OK, as a professional name developer I’m biased, but names like Optimedia are not that hard to generate. Take two key words like “optimal” and “media” and slam them together. How hard is that? But developing names that are arbitrary or coined takes more work (and therefore companies tend to hire name developers for assistance!).

Avoiding generic or descriptive names also makes a lot of sense from a trademark standpoint. I’m not a trademark attorney so please do not consider this to be legal advice. However, Steve Baird, who is a trademark attorney, developed this chart with Minnesota Continuing Legal Education to help explain the role the “Spectrum of Distinctiveness” plays in getting a trademark. You might recall this blog post of Steve’s from the deep archives, here.

arrow name

In general, names on the left-hand side of the spectrum are not immediately eligible for trademark protection, if ever – and, never, if generic. This is because neither generic nor descriptive names are considered to be inherently distinctive and trademark law only provides legal protection to names that are or have become distinctive. In other words, in order to immediately get a trademark the name must be creative or out of the ordinary (inherently distinctive).

There is a complicated loophole for once purely descriptive brand names (immediately descriptive, laudatory, surname, geographic, etc.) that can prove that over time they have become distinctive to the relevant public. This loophole is associated with some significant limbo though and requires that you prove that your descriptive name has acquired “secondary meaning” over time. However, this proof is difficult especially if you are just starting to use the name.

That is why I generally recommend to my clients that they avoid generic or descriptive names and instead select suggestive, arbitrary, or coined/fanciful (created) names. Names on the right-hand side of the spectrum will be easier to trademark and will result in stronger brands over time. In the end, a strong brand name that can be legally protected is the goal of most naming projects!

-Mark Prus, Principal, NameFlash Name Development

Yes, I know the title of this post is incomplete. That is what this post is all about. Marketers know that “unfinished tasks” are the most memorable. Your brain seeks “cognitive closure” and so you will remember unfinished tasks until you complete them. This effect is called the Zeigarnik effect after Bluma Zeigarnik who studied this effect in the early 1900s.

puzzle piece

The first publication of the Zeigarnik effect in 1927 was based on Bluma’s observation of a waiter in the local beer garden who had an uncanny ability to remember the orders of multiple diners all the way through delivery of the meals. However, after the meal (once the waiter’s task was completed), the diners would cover up their plates and the waiter could not come close to recalling what the all the diners had ordered. Zeigarnik postulated that the waiter had extreme cognitive focus on the unfinished task that enhanced his recall, but once the meals were delivered that focus shifted elsewhere.

There are numerous studies validating this effect. My personal favorite is a recall test of advertising in which consumers watched a 30-minute TV show with ads for soft drinks, mouthwash and pain relievers (http://www.acrwebsite.org/search/view-conference-proceedings.aspx?Id=12042). In a crossover design, respondents sometimes saw ads that were full-length and sometimes saw ads that were clipped with the last 5 or 6 seconds missing. Researchers found that consumers remembered specific details about the unfinished ads significantly more than the finished ads in 3 different timeframes: immediately, 2 days later and 2 weeks later. Clearly lack of closure is a powerful tool in marketing!

So how can you use the Zeigarnik effect in your marketing? Well, you can’t just start showing ads that are clipped at the end and hope for the best.

One approach to leverage “the power of the incomplete” is to create “unfinished business” in the minds of your target market by igniting their curiosity. If your messaging causes a consumer to become curious about your product, it is likely that the person’s brain will view your messaging as an incomplete task that requires further investigation, which may lead to a Google search or click on your website. I discussed the science behind this approach in the first chapter of my branding book The Science of Branding: (www.amazon.com/Science-Branding-Proven-Better-Decisions-ebook/dp/B00TBOL6YA).

As an example, consider Buddha Balm Lip Balm. In my case, I was intrigued by the use of a key figure in Buddhism to sell something as trivial as lip balm. Buddha is recognized by Buddhists as an enlightened teacher who shares his insights to help others in their suffering. Turns out the lip balm is “designed to awaken the senses and promote awareness” and to “enhance lives and inspire positive emotional and physical well-being” so once I saw that connection I “completed the task” and was ready to move on. But I will remember Buddha Balm!

lip balm

Unfinished business is something that your brain hates, so leverage the Zeigarnik effect in your marketing to engage your consumers!


Mark Prus is a marketing consultant who offers a name development service NameFlashSM which is based on a strategic approach to name development.


Brent Carlson-Lee

To quote Mark Prus, Principal at NameFlash, Frankenames are “names created by slamming two or more word parts together to make a new name. This would include a name like “Toasterrific” (toaster + terrific).” See full article here.

Despite his warning, the proliferation of Frankenames continues.

In fact, I am an owner of a Frankename trademark, Pretzel’tizers. While I don’t love the name, consumers quickly and easily understood the meaning. It’s an appetizer made out of pretzels. I also tested Pretzioli (Pretzel Ravioli) which was quickly understood by only about 50% of the consumers. The other 50% didn’t grasp the meaning and didn’t put in any effort to do so. And to quote Mark again “no matter how clever you think you are being, consumers really don’t care and won’t work to get the meaning.”

Here are some particularly bad Frankenames I have encountered recently.

If you need to define your name in parentheses, it’s probably not a good name.

I didn’t know frying pans could be organic.


Passing by a roadside billboard recently (below is a miniature version I found in the Minneapolis skyway system), my first thought was, wow, McDonald’s is getting into the juicy lucy business:

Until more focus revealed that State Farm Insurance is the one behind the ad. Look familiar?

No doubt burgers and car insurance are totally different lines of business and seemingly unrelated for any likelihood of confusion analysis, but is State Farm so confident that there is no protectable McDonald’s trade dress here (virtually identical red background color, burger positioned on left portion of ad, and white all lower case letters in copy to the right portion of the ad), and is it so confident that any claimed trade dress is not famous for dilution purposes? Is it even possible that McDonald’s was not contemplated as a possible risk during the preparation of these ads?

A more basic question might be, what on earth is State Farm doing trying to sell car insurance by plastering larger than life size juicy lucy burgers on billboard signs? I’d love to have been a fly on the wall during these brainstorm sessions. I really don’t get it, and I’m doubting Mark Prus will either. Do you suppose the agents who try to sell State Farm health insurance products had any say in these gastrically-stimulated ads? I’ve been loyal to State Farm as customer since I could drive and I didn’t know (until writing this post) that State Farm offers health insurance products.

So, putting aside the notion of a potential trade dress claim, what I’m left wondering is whether McDonald’s thinks State Farm is acting “like a good neighbor” on this one? In other words, would State Farm think McDonald’s is acting like a good neighbor if McDonald’s started offering a “discount double check” burger? Maybe Aaron Rodgers could flip them and help sell them?

What do you think, does McDonald’s have a viable trade dress claim? And, is State Farm acting like a good (trademark) neighbor here?

—Mark Prus, Principal, NameFlashSM Name Development

Häagen-Dazs. Mmmmm. Just the thought of their ice cream makes me feel good. And I know it will taste good because it was born in Scandinavia, right?

Then I learned the brand history. I must say I was disappointed. Häagen-Dazs was born in the Bronx, New York in 1961. Its creators were not Scandinavians but rather two Polish immigrants, Reuben and Rose Mattus. Their first retail store opened in Brooklyn in 1976, and today Häagen-Dazs is sold in 55 countries around the world.

Why did they choose the name Häagen-Dazs? The name was created to look Scandinavian for Americans. This European cachet radiates craftsmanship, tradition, and wholesomeness, thereby justifying the higher price. On early labels they used an outline of Denmark, even though the umlaut is not used in the Danish language.

As Häagen-Dazs succeeded, the copycats emerged. American Richard Smith created Frusen Glädjé using an “almost Swedish” name (without the accent on the final e the word means “frozen joy” or “frozen delight”). Häagen-Dazs actually tried to sue Frusen Glädjé to prevent them from using a Scandinavian marketing theme (thereby demonstrating a new level of audacity).

The umlaut parade continued with the launch of Yogen Früz, a frozen yogurt, and Freshëns frozen yogurt’s “Smoöthies.”

This “foreign branding” implies a superior heritage where none exists, which represents inauthentic branding at its best.

Let’s consider another ice cream brand, Ben & Jerry’s. Go to their website and read their company history.  It’s a scrapbook! And you can see pictures of Ben and Jerry. And you can learn about this remarkable company who has remained true to its roots.

Ben & Jerry’s = AUTHENTIC BRANDING. Häagen-Dazs…not so much.

—Mark Prus, Principal, NameFlashSM Name Development

Naming contests. Sounds like a good idea, right? A company needs a new name and it decides to engage its employees to come up with a new name. What could go wrong?

Well, you could end up with a name like Mondelez.

Just to be clear, I’m a professional name developer, so you might think I am against naming contests because they take dollars out of my wallet. Not true. If you are a small 5 person startup, by all means “talk amongst yourselves” and figure out your name. Chances are you will do a good enough job if you follow some basic rules. I’ll even give you some free advice! And the big company that buys you someday will likely change your name anyway.

But if you are a billion dollar global company, holding an employee naming contest is just about the dumbest thing you can do. And yet, that is what Kraft Foods did to identify a new name for its Snack Division. Mondelez International will be the corporate home for existing brands like Oreo, Cadbury, Nabisco and Trident. Kraft said in a statement that the new name — pronounced “mohn-dah-LEEZ” — comes from a combination of the words “monde,” derived from the Latin for “world,” and “deliz,” short for “delicious.”

I am sure Kraft used the following rationale to sell the idea of a naming contest internally (remember, I was a corporate insider for 25 years so I’ve heard this stuff before):

  1. Holding a naming contest will engage our valuable employees – No it won’t. Kraft said they received over 1700 names from their 1200 employees which is slightly more than one per employee. Typically in naming contests you get a few diehards who submit hundreds of names and the other “99 percent” of people ignore it. I’m willing to bet this happened in this case.
  2. Because the name came from within, our employees will rally behind it – Chances are, the only people who think “Mondelez” is a wonderful name are the two employees who came up with it. The other 1198 employees hate it and think other names were better. One of the other suggested names was “Tfark” and I am pretty sure the person who thought of that still thinks it was a better name than Mondelez.
  3. Nothing says “our Management cares about employees” like holding a naming contest – Actually, I am pretty sure a 10% raise would make everyone feel better than holding a naming contest. The act of holding a naming contest is a sad attempt to demonstrate that Management cares about what the employees think.
  4. Hey, Google came up with its own name and it worked out OK! OK, it is hard to disagree with this rationale and Google is a lot better than their working name for their search engine, which was “BackRub.” But if Google were looking for a new name for their company today, do you think they would hold an employee naming contest? I doubt it.

Developing a great name is hard work. Sometimes you get a stroke of genius (like Apple), and sometimes you spend weeks trying to get to the right combination of creativity, emotional impact, consumer understanding, branding/marketing potential, etc. Done properly, a great name will reflect a clear strategic positioning, a deep consumer understanding, and an ability for the consumer to “get it” without explanation. This is a pretty tall list for the average employee to consider.

There is also a lengthy process involved in checking and validating the name availability. On a typical name development project, I spend hours evaluating the availability of trademarks (working with a trademark attorney), domain names, common law usage and “native language checks” (to ensure a name like Mondelez does not mean something inappropriate in a foreign language). Apparently someone at Kraft forgot to do the latter, as I hear Mondelez has an inappropriate sexual connotation in Russian.

In this instance, I can point to the end result and thank Kraft for making my blogging life easier.

I have a general rule about names. The more you have to explain the name, the worse the name is. Kraft knows this is a lousy name because their explanation is lengthy and contrived. Sorry, Kraft—you could have done so much better. This name change still has to be approved by shareholders on May 23rd. Let’s hope they have more sense than the people who decided to hold a naming contest!

Mark Prus, Principal, NameFlashSM Name Development

If you have kids, you know that they all pass through the “Why Phase,” where they keep asking “Why?” until you ultimately resort to the conversation-ending phrase “Ask your Mother (or Father).” You probably are also familiar with the “5 Whys” technique of asking “Why” at least 5 times to get to the root cause of an issue. So why do most marketers decide on the “What” instead of understanding the “Why” behind the “What?” Why don’t marketers work harder to understand the fundamental consumer insights that are represented by the “Why behind the What?” and use those as a basis for decision-making?

Here is a real world example (names and ingredients changed to protect confidentiality). I recently helped a food company develop and test a multitude of concepts for new flavor combinations on a traditional product line. In consumer testing, flavor combinations that contained a certain ingredient (let’s call it “chocolate”) blew everything else away. The client was happy and quickly said “thanks, now I know what to launch.” But that was deciding on the “What,” and not the “Why.”

They were not interested in conducting additional research to understand why consumers felt this way, but I felt that this was a mistake. The inclusion of “chocolate” in these products was unusual, and I, for one, was curious as to why consumers responded to it so positively. The research I designed captured consumer comments, so we had a little bit of guidance, but I wished we had had the opportunity to learn more.

I did some additional digging on my own and found some “food trend” syndicated research that established “chocolate” as the new hot ingredient, which helped support the case. I also explored some recipe forums and observed that “chocolate” was a hot topic of discussion. However, that was simply additional support for the “What,” not the “Why.”

So what could be the consequences of focusing on the “What” and not the “Why?” Well, we all know the statistics on new product launches–over 80% fail within the first six months. What if “chocolate” was a fad just like those teeny cupcake shops? That could mean that the fad could be over just as your new product shows up on the shelves. What if people liked “chocolate” in these products as a novelty item, i.e., “I’ll buy this once just for fun, but I won’t make this a regular menu item”? That could lead to a quick spike in sales for the novelty effect but a severe drop-off as the
number of repeat purchases approaches zero. What if people were picking the flavors with “chocolate” because they were the “best of the worst” choices that were offered to them? That is an accident waiting to happen!

Deciding on the “What” is dangerous. Understand the “Why” behind the “What,” and you will make better decisions. You need to understand the consumer insights behind the actions, or
you are taking a significant risk!