Types of names: structural

There are four primary ways of describing different types of names: structural, legal, creative, and linguistic. We’ll cover each of these ways of describing names in the coming weeks so you can understand how to use these name strategy choices to help guide you to the best naming creative for your offering. In this first article, we’re talking about describing names from a structural perspective. That’s because what structure your name needs should be one of the very first naming decisions you make, long before you start creative development or engage an attorney or linguistic professional.

There’s a major fork in the road that separates names structurally into two camps: primary brand names and portfolio names.

Primary brand names grab attention and make a mark

Typically, a primary brand and a company brand are the same name. For example, Microsoft is the company name, and it is also the primary brand. Less frequently, a company may have primary brand names that are different from or in addition to the company name. For example, Tide is a primary brand, but the company name is Procter & Gamble. Primary brand names are almost always likely to be a legally trademarkable name.

The scope of a primary brand is often large: it may start out selling one product, but quickly grows to sell many different products that do many different things, likely laddering to a high-altitude benefit. An example of this is Nest, which started out with smart smoke detectors, then expanded to offer many other home comfort and home safety products and services. The name, therefore, of a primary brand must have a large scope.

The tone of a primary brand is often a highly important feature of the name. For example, Slack has an irreverent, rebellious, fun tone. That tone is a key differentiator of the brand, the product it offers, and of the name within its respective category. In contrast, the tone of a descriptive name that belongs to a feature or product that sits underneath a primary brand is often not as relevant and can even sometimes be distracting or detracting. For example, AWS has a product called SageMaker, a machine learning product, and Lumberyard, a cross-platform 3D engine, neither of which is named in a way that helps customers find what they’re looking for in a massive portfolio of products.

Portfolio names help facilitate customer understanding and wayfinding

Portfolio names are names that sit within and under a primary brand or company brand. Most portfolio names should be descriptive. If you think of trademarked names as spotlights of equity, with the goal being to have the largest, brightest beam within a dark sky, every additional trademark runs the risk of stealing light, or attention, from the primary trademark. When you’re trying to expand the equity of your trademarked name, it may be necessary to shine a new, tangential beam (trademarked name) into the dark sky, but it takes careful brand management to ensure the new beam doesn’t simply steal attention, but instead actually widens the overall equity.

Within portfolio names, there can be different brand structures, as well as different positions held by names. Check out our whitepaper on Portfolio Naming where we go into much finer detail on this. In portfolio naming, it can often be helpful to disambiguate the term “name” from “brand.” At the portfolio level, we are often simply talking about names, and should avoid using the word “brand” as it can be confusing or vague. We may use the term “brand” if we are talking about a name that is trademarked, and therefore a name that we are intending to build unique equity in.

Generally speaking, the further down the chain of naming in a portfolio you go, the more descriptive, or possibly even generic, a name should be. The reason for this is that typically a customer is comparing benefits and choosing between points of differentiation at either a primary brand or product level, and sometimes at a capability or solution set level. Creative names are best at telegraphing benefits and establishing ownable differentiation. When you get down to features, SKUs, and even some products (depending on the portfolio), the customer is needing names to help them find their way to what they need, and to do the “rational comparison” that is the working of System 2 in the brain, as discussed in our previous article on emotional naming vs. logical naming. Descriptive names, which use industry-standard and widely understood terms and that are limited in scope to describing what something is or what something does, are best at aiding in this kind of way-finding and logical thinking and decision-making.

Brand structures within portfolio names

Portfolio names can also come with additional branding choices. Different brand structures help in delivering different business objectives when introducing a new product or service.

Structural naming choices cannot be made in a vacuum. These choices all have design and brand expression implications that stretch beyond simply choosing a name to ensure clarity for the consumer.

The primary branded structure is when a name carries the primary brand name in front of it, for example, Purell Cotton Soft. Purell is the primary brand name, and the Cotton Soft name always sits after it. This structure is used when the new name needs the trust, credibility, and equity of the primary brand for it to be readily accepted by an existing audience of customers or prospects. The primary brand may be well known and loved for a particular differentiated attribute or a hyper resonant benefit, and the new name will benefit from leveraging those perceptions. Purell Cotton Soft is an example of this at work: Purell stands for purifying, portable cleanliness, and the Cotton Soft name leverages that equity. The work left for the name to do is to simply seat an additional, new benefit (of cottony soft!) for a new form factor: wipes.

The sub-branded structure is when a name sits within a portfolio but is not necessarily locked up with the primary brand name, for example Apple iPhone. It’s typically used when introducing a whole new category of functions and capabilities that attract or speak to a whole new use case or scenario, but not necessarily an entirely different audience as the primary brand. The use of a new name that is not primary branded helps to set the new context and to clean the slate in terms of functional expectations, while other branding elements (such as color or typography) help to link the new offering back to the primary brand so that emotional expectations (like trust, creativity, and other affinities) carry over. If you’ve had a good experience with Gillette razors, and a new, more expensive shaving option carries the Gillette primary brand, you are more likely to try it. If you like and trust Hershey’s chocolate, you are more likely to try  their syrup, Kisses, and other chocolate products.

The ingredient branded structure is when the name indicates a product or capabilities that are within another product or service in a way that cannot be extracted or bought separately. It indicates that the product or service being named is inside, enhancing or powering the experience or functionality of another, separate brand. It’s most often used when the product being enhanced or added to needs the credibility (and functionality) of another brand to compete effectively and win with its audience or within a particular selection process or marketplace. In this case, the ingredient is likely already recognized as owning the functionality being touted. Think Intel in a DELL computer, or a brand of diaper wipes with J&J baby oil, or a Sony TV with Alexa voice control. In every instance, rather than the “host” brand creating its own microchip processor, baby oil, or far-field voice technology, they used the credibility (and capabilities) of another well-known brand, in an effort to ensure competitiveness and possibly even gain new market share. A primary brand may choose to create an ingredient within its own portfolio for the same reasons. Alexa is an example of this with Amazon, or Optum IQ and IBM Watson.

The endorsed branded structure is when the name indicates that the product or service is associated with a parent entity but places more emphasis on the product or service than the parent. For example, Courtyard is the name of a mid-ranged hotel chain; their endorser is “by Marriott.” An endorsed brand architecture links a family of product brands by a shared high-level promise, such as “quality” or “flavor,” in a category where customers value individual product identities or are seeking a unique differentiator vs. the parent brand, but still need reassurance, credibility, and familiarity.

The standalone branded structure is a form of primary branding within a portfolio when the name stands separate from the parent brand. An example of this is Google and Alphabet, or as mentioned earlier the Tide brand among the suite of other Procter & Gamble products. This is typically used when parent brand equity or parent brand credibility is not necessary for credibility or growth, because the parent brand does not carry pre-existing equity with the target audience. This is particularly true in portfolios where there may be multiple products competing against one another, such as in the P&G portfolio.

For more discussion on what kinds of names work best in a portfolio and why, check out our Portfolio Naming whitepaper.

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