A Brand By Any Other Name

As a New Yorker who lives a fewblocks from Central Park, I spend a lot of time in that emerald oasis, biking, playing sports, catching Summerstage concerts, watching the hustlers do their out-of-tune renditions of “All You Need Is Love” around the John Lennon memorial. The other day, though, as I climbed the Great Hill, it occurred to me – that has got to be the clunkiest brand name. Sure, it’s in the middle of Manhattan, but couldn’t those 1850s designers have done better than “Central Park”? That literal geographic designation offers no romance, no intrigue; on a tourism map, it has no claim to being memorable. Contrast it, for example, to San Francisco’s mesmerizingly named Golden Gate Park. Talk about aspirational branding! And yet, Central Park has proved to be an iconic destination for 150 years. The name seems to conjure magic among millions of people – really, in spite of itself, as I realized the other day.

That seems like a good starting point to talk about brand names. I’ll get right to the point: in two decades of reading branding handbooks and observing marketers’ branding efforts, my conclusion is there ain’t no science to branding. At least where naming is concerned, it seems to be a matter of inspiration, whimsy, luck, improvisation, delusion and what the trademark gods leave unregistered.

OK, maybe there are couple of general rules that might be worth passing on to those playing in beverages — otherwise, this’ll be an uncharacteristically short column. To elaborate on these rules, I reached out to the astute Peter DePasquale of Brooklyn-based Arena Partners, whose comments leaven the rest of this column.

I’ll start by reminding you that, with hundreds of other brands besides yours on the shelf, your brand name and package together have barely an instant to explain the premise to shoppers. As Peter puts it, “If the label can’t answer ‘what this is and why this brand’ clearly and in under 3 seconds, the game is over.” If you opt for a storytelling approach that involves a mystifying or unpronounceable brand name, then the label and ancillary marketing simply will have more work to do. That can work, but you need to be aware that’s what you’ll be up against.

GerryAprilMayImageBy that token, it may be better to resist the temptation to go too far in pursuit of branding magic in favor of a straightforward brand name that fully encompasses the premise of the product. Take vitaminwater. I’ll admit I was skeptical about that name at first: who wants to drink their vitamins, I thought? Where was the appetite appeal? Clearly the communication value of the name – romanced by the brand’s ingenious marketing in its early years – trumped any storytelling limitations in the name. A similar tradeoff has been successfully made by shot maker 5-hour Energy (though if you opt for a name like that, these days you’d better be prepared to prove it delivers five hours of sustained energy). Not quite as literal, but firmly ensconced in Peter’s pantheon, is Sparkling Ice. “The brand name is the brand proposition, which saves time and money,” he tells me. “The beverage label is strikingly executed; telegraphic and beautiful, not one or the other.” To Peter, “ ‘storytelling’ is way overrated. Name-as-proposition is what to focus on.”

Another element to focus on: the product descriptor – the words under the brand name. This needs to carry whatever explanatory load the brand name doesn’t. So while DePasquale isn’t so keen on the obscure Bai as brand name for the coffee-fruit line, he thinks it’s helped crucially by the descriptor “antioxidant infusions.” The idea, he says, “is to create a segment that your brand can be the leader in,” just as Gatorade leads among “thirst quenchers.” Similarly, BodyArmor, in seeking to dethrone Gatorade by putting more into its hydration beverage, has adopted “SuperDrink” as its descriptor.

Beyond that, it seems to get vaguer. Putting a person’s name in the brand – as with GT’s Kombucha – can communicate that it’s from a real person, but as manufactured corporate entries like Caleb’s Kola proliferate, that magic may be waning among skeptical shoppers. Place names may be an effective way to stake a claim, even when the brand has no real connection to the place: AriZona Iced Tea, from a pair of Brooklyn entrepreneurs who’d never set foot in that state, worked because it conjured warm weather and lent itself to a brilliant graphic treatment on the package. But Nantucket Nectars, though it conjured a romantic destination to East Coast denizens, didn’t translate in regions like the Pacific Northwest. South Beach floundered while it was working a Miami art-deco vibe, but succeeded after dropping the place connection and seguing to SoBe, with its vaguely Japanese tenor and twin-lizards yin-yang motif. The name proved to be a good fit with the brand’s use of exotic herbs like yohimbe.

Going for a fun or lifestyle effect seems to work better when it’s harnessed to a basic, well-understood category rather than a functional one, where the name needs to do more basic explanatory work. So I feel Calypso Lemonade is a great name, but I’m still undecided about acai pioneer Sambazon. I’m not sure how many consumers recognize “samba” and “Amazon” as constituent parts of the name, though it’s easy-to-say and resonant, good qualities for an arcane ingredient with polarizing flavor.

Poor brand names? Peter dislikes Vertical Water, for a maple water brand. “The website explains it to a degree (we keep trees ‘vertical’), but there’s no readily understandable answer to ‘what is this and why this brand’ on the label,” he complains. Personally, the brand name that’s irked me the most over the past decade – in part because of how much money was squandered trying to get it to resonate – is FRS, for the quercetin-based drinks. The company spent millions on online advertising – at one point outspending Coke, Pepsi and P&G combined – and yet nobody could remember its name. Once, at a massive FRS rehydration station at New York’s 5 Boro Bike Tour, not a single of the fit, outdoorsy participants showed signs of ever having heard of the brand. There was no question they matched FRS’ demo and frequented sites like ESPN.com that the brand flooded. Even worse, if the letters FRS in themselves were unmemorable, explaining that they were an acronym for “free radical scavenger” didn’t help in the least. I used to suggest to FRS managers that they come up with something catchier for FRS to stand for. The FRS co-founder who’s lately regained ownership of the brand has freely acknowledged to me that, after $100 million invested, the brand name might have to go, at least at retail.

That all said, the undeniable truth seems to be that a fantastic product proposition overcomes all manner of branding limitations. So, again, none of these observations should be regarded as hard and fast. We have 35 million annual visitors to Central Park to prove that point.

Longtime beverage-watcher Gerry Khermouchis executive editor of Beverage Business Insights, a twice-weekly e-newsletter covering the nonalcoholic beverage sector.