Names don’t matter.

April 1, 2010

On my first real job (at General Electric in Schenectady, New York) I noticed a consistent advertiser in the electrical publications with an unusual name.

A company selling wire and cable ]]>

That’s terrible, I thought. Oh no, my more experienced colleagues said, one of the first things you need to learn in this business is that names don’t matter. What matters is the quality of the product.

That’s been a common refrain in my years of marketing work. Whenever I objected to a brand name, I would hear the same thing: Names don’t matter.

For example, a recent column about DDB’s new Budweiser campaign on drew 26 comments. Mostly negative.

Commentators were critical of the music, the superficiality of the idea, the absence of storytelling and the lack of authenticity, among other things.

Nobody bothered to mention the one thing that seems to be driving Budweiser into the ground.

Bud Light.

How can anyone position a brand called “Budweiser” when the entire industry is moving to light beer? Especially when the brand itself has validated the concept by introducing a light version of its regular beer.

Then there’s the fact that the Budweiser regular brand has lost volume every year in a row for the last 20 years.

If you’re going to re-position the Budweiser brand, you going to have to figure out how to get Joe Six-Pack to drink regular beer instead of light beer.

But then, names don’t matter to most marketing people. What matters to most marketing people is the casting, the story line, the emotional involvement, the big idea.

Names are important. Too many marketing campaigns start off with high hopes and an impossible name. That’s like drawing to an inside straight.

Almost every day a large company jumps into the market with a major product launch and an impossible name. Take Dell’s recent announcement that it is developing smartphone products for sale in China and Brazil.

No mention of a new name, of course, and why should anyone expect a new name for the company’s smartphone line? Dell didn’t use a new name for its television sets, its MP3 players and its online music-downloading store, products and services it apparently no longer sells.

Names don’t matter, of course. What matters is how the new product stacks up against competitive products. That’s the conventional wisdom.

A number of years ago, I was working on advertising for Babcock & Wilcox, a company that received the first license from the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission for a nuclear power plant.

That should have been a sure thing, but the company never built a single nuclear power plant. One problem was the name. While General Electric was promoting its “Boiling Water Reactor” and Westinghouse was promoting its “Pressurized Water Reactor,” Babcock & Wilcox was promoting its “Spectral Shift Control Reactor.”

Spectral Shift Control Reactor? I spent the better part of a day arguing about the name with the engineers involved in the project. “Spectral Shift Control Reactor” is going to frighten electric utility executives who were already concerned about the dangers of nuclear power.

Why can’t we give the Babcock & Wilcox design a different name?  Nobody wants their spectrals shifted.

It was a lost cause. Once a name gets circulated in internal memos for a couple of months, the name gets set in concrete and is almost impossible to change.

Category names like Spectral Shift Control Reactor are a particular problem when dealing with people who consider themselves “inventors.” Quite often, an inventor wants a complicated category name to demonstrate how important his or her invention is.

• The first match was called a “sulphuretted peroxide strikable.” • The first lie detector was called a “cardiopneumo psychograph.” • The first computer was called an “electronic numerical integrator and computer.” Have you ever heard of the “Il Giornale” brand? That was a chain of coffee shops started by entrepreneur Howard Schultz in 1985. Two years later, he bought the Starbucks chain from Peet’s Coffee & Tea.

Starbucks or Il Giornale? Names don’t matter, it’s the quality of the coffee, of course.

Fortunately, names did matter to Howard Schultz who had the good sense to rebrand his Il Giornale outlets as Starbucks and the rest is history.

Have you heard of the “College of New Jersey?” Probably not since years ago it changed its name to Princeton University.

College of New Jersey or Princeton University? Names don’t matter, of course, it’s the quality of the faculty and the students.

For some reason, many educational institutions are locked into the idea that their names have to indicate their geographical locations. (It was a lucky break the College of New Jersey was located in the town of Princeton. It could have been located in the town of Hoboken, New Jersey.)

Thirteen years ago, Trenton State College became the College of New Jersey, a second reincarnation of the name. After spending the money for a name change, you might have thought that Trenton State would have picked a more euphonious name.

Then there’s SUNY, the State University of New York with 64 campuses and more than 400,000 students.

The largest university in the SUNY system is the State University of New York at Buffalo. As The New York Times reported, “But even its national reputation, buzz and research dollars put it nowhere near the ranks of the University of California, Berkeley.”

Buffalo or Berkeley? But names don’t matter of course, it’s the quality of the faculty and the students.

To have any power at all, a name must be linked to a positive idea in the prospect’s mind. Just because a name is well known doesn’t mean that it has any marketing value. Newark, New Jersey, is one of the best known cities in America, but the name itself has little marketing value.

I don’t mean to knock Newark which suffers from the curse of the twin city. No matter what it does, the smaller city can never achieve the reputation of the larger one.

• Minneapolis and St. Paul. • Dallas and Ft. Worth. • San Francisco and Oakland. • Philadelphia and Camden. Linking a “positive” idea to a “negative” name is exceedingly difficult. It’s what psychologists call cognitive dissonance.

One place where names really matter is Hollywood. Many movie stars have replaced their birth names with more euphonious names.

• Alphonso D’Abruzzo became Alan Alda. • Tomas Mapother IV became Tom Cruise. • Bernard Schwartz became Tony Curtis. • Doris von Kappelhoff became Doris Day. • Henry Deutschendorf Jr. became John Denver. • Issur Danielovitch became Kirk Douglas. • Roy Schere Jr. became Rock Hudson. • Dino Crocetti became Dean Martin. • Norma Jean Baker became Marilyn Monroe. • Marion Morrison became John Wayne. Over the past few decades, there has been a strong trend from analog to digital. This is the trend that has created a number of incredibly successful high-tech brands: Microsoft, Nokia, Google, Intel, Hewlett-Packard, Cisco, Apple, Oracle, SAP, Dell, Nintendo, Amazon, eBay, BlackBerry and Adobe.

Together these 15 brands are worth, according to Interbrand, $284.5 billion.

But missing from Interbrand’s list of the “100 best global brands” is Kodak, the inventor of the digital camera.

It was 23 years ago that Kodak introduced the DC4800, the world’s first digital camera. Now do you suppose that anyone at Kodak bothered to ask, Why are we using a film-photography name on a digital-photography camera?

Probably not. Logical left-brain thinkers might assume that the move into the digital world would have enhanced the value of the Kodak brand. That’s usually the excuse for hanging onto obsolete name.

As one Kodak executive sai d recently, “It’s probably one of the most iconic companies in the world . . . to be able to work with a brand name like Kodak is a dream come true.”

The numbers tell a different story. In the eight years before the turn of the millennium, Kodak had sales of $119.7 billion, net profits of $7.9 billion and a net profit margin of 6.6 percent.

But in the eight years since the turn of the millennium, Kodak had sales of $100.2 billion and net profits . . .

Well, they didn’t make any money. They actually lost $5 million.

I’ve been on the losing side of “name” arguments with companies like: IBM, Xerox, Western Union, Eastern Airlines, Miller Brewing, Coors, General Electric, Tambrands, Continental Airlines, Scott Kay, Motorola and others.

But, of course, names don’t matter. It’s the quality of the product that counts.