What’s In A Name?

Originally published August 14, 2005

Name Tag

"Hello, my name is" sticker

Thirty years ago a pair of researchers, Herbert Harari and John W. McDavid gave eighty experienced teachers papers to grade. Eight essays, all of comparable quality were supposedly by boys named David, Elmer, Hubert, and Michael, and by girls named Adelle, Bertha, Karen, and Lisa.

The names were rotated through the eight essays, so that some teachers believed David wrote the essay on Tarzan, while others noted that David wrote the essay on kites.

Result? When credited to names with positive stereotypes the papers got better grades than when credited to names with negative stereotypes. Michael always got a better grade than Elmer, for instance.


Names Make a Difference in People’s Expectations

That would lead a curious person to wonder if George W. Bush could have been elected had his name been Pépé LePetomaine. Would John Kerry have been his party’s choice of candidate were he named Percy Arbuthnot? Would our fellow citizens be supportive of sending troops into combat if the initiative had been named something other than the “War On Terror?”

Those who are very talented often make things look easy. When talented people are articulate, they make things sound easy, too. I think that’s the case with a post Chris Gloede authored on his Rants on Modern Marketing blog titled Product: Naming Isn’t Really That Important. It’s what started me thinking about names.

I don’t disagree with Chris often. No matter how simple he makes it sound, I don’t believe that he would choose anything but a great name. Like I said, talented people just “do it,” while others are wondering what to do. And I certainly agree with him when he says “having a good product supported by good marketing” is more important than the name of the business.

Still, I think names are important.

Everything in our world has a name. Every sound, every color, everything you touch, and every business you deal with.

Some Names Have Positive Connotations

Others much less so.

It’s not likely anyone today would name a baby Francis, Edgar, Agatha, or Mabel. And yet, we see companies deliberately choosing such names as Vapid Software. (I’ll save you the trouble of looking it up. Vapid is a Latin adjective meaning “flat tasting, lacking liveliness, dull”).

There wasn’t much of a market for Chinese gooseberries. Say it out loud and listen to the sound of that name – gooseberries. It’s so much more attractive now that it’s been renamed “Kiwi fruit.”

Crazy Eddie®, “with prices so low we must be insane,” sold massive amounts of stereo gear in New York in the 70s. It was a memorable name with a memorable advantage to consumers. But how likely are you to seek out an accountant doing business as Crazy Henry’s Income Tax Service? Would you make an appointment with a proctologist who calls himself Crazy Norman?

Names are important. A businesses name is the foundation upon which it’s image is built. Are you more likely to purchase:

DieHard®, or Gulf Star® batteries?
Intensive Care®, or Cornhuskers® lotion?
Craftsman®, or Imperial® hand tools?

Care to guess which name in each pair sells more? Names are important.

Overstock Dot Com has a problem in trying to market themselves as a high end retailer. The television image of opulance and the good life clashes with the name. Go to their web site and decide which of those images is a lie. Either way, their name becomes the limiting factor.
Does The Body Shop® repair cars or sell scented bath products? This one sells bath products, and the name works. By association with the other image of a body shop, the implication is that you’ll find products to fix your body.

My Great Names List

My Great Names List is heavily populated by Sears® brands. In addition to Craftsman® and DieHard®, Sears names are such gems as Silvertone®, Coldspot®, Toughskins®, and the now defunct Roadtalker® CB radios. Sears understands naming

Other names on my Great Names List include Right To Life Society®, Bank of America®, Sports Illustrated®, and Pay Less Drugs® (Yeah, I know. They’re Rite Aid®, now. Pity. I understand Pay Less Drugs. Wanna explain to me what a Rite Aid is? Or how to spell it?)

A British energy company named Powergen? I like it. The Italian subsidiary of that company? Powergenitalia. That wouldn’t be such a good name.

What do you think about Phartronics Engineering or Ascend Communications. (Try them out loud. It makes a difference).

Also featured on my You’ve Gotta Be Kidding Me names list are such gems as Badcock Furniture, Boozer Shopping Center, Beaver Cleaners, Dick Cleaners & Drapery Service, and Bea’s Ho-Made Products.

I want to see the workers on Bea’s assembly line.

For the record, I didn’t invent these names to make my point. I’m not that clever. These are very real businesses. Well, except for Powergenitalia.

Why Names Are Important

Names establish the foundation of image. Names make a difference in people’s expectations. Your child’s name is important to his future success, and so is your business’ name important to its future success.

In each case we use the name to affect public perception. Perception is reality.

And what is marketing, if not an attempt to alter perception? The right perception can only help as you’re fishing for customers.

Your Guide,
Chuck McKay

Marketing consultant Chuck McKayYour Fishing for Customers guide, Chuck McKay, gets people to buy more of what you sell.

Need some help creating a great name for your company? Drop Chuck a note at [email protected] and start a conversation.  Or call him at 760-813-5474.

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Bar Bands and Chicken Sandwiches: Protecting Your Brand in an Age of Social Conscience

Scott is a musician. Scott’s band isn’t getting enough paying gigs. He thinks he has a marketing problem, but he’s wrong. He has a focus problem.

Scott came to me to help him sell his band’s services to club owners. I pointed out that 40 years ago bands got $700 a night; 20 years ago the going rate was $500. Today, a local band playing a local club can expect $275-$300 a night. I wondered if competing for a greater share in this dwindling market was a wise move.

A Critical Question

I asked, “Do you get enough personal satisfaction from performing songs you like in small venues that you’re willing to do it for free?

Scott opined that he’d prefer to be properly compensated for all the years invested in refining his musicianship.

This is a key factor. If a musician’s desire is to play his music his way is his most important consideration, how much money he makes becomes secondary. But, if he wishes to run his band as a real business, he’d be better served to examine the market.

Customer Focus Is Good Strategy for Musicians (and Every Other Business)

Any service provider can study the market and provide services people are willing to pay more for. Alternatively, should he not consider the desires of his customers, he can provide the services he wishes to offer.  Of course, he’ll then be forced to accept whatever engagements come his way.

Satisfy his own desires?  Satisfy his customers? Common sense, and thousands of case studies indicate that customer-focused businesses make more money.

Scott’s next step will be to identify well-paying niche markets, and to explore the kinds of music most wanted by that niche.  Will it be private parties for local businesses? Grand openings and customer events? Events hosted by fraternities and sororities? Meetings and conventions?  In that order, each pays progressively more money.

Which Market has the Greatest Number of Profitable Opportunities?

How will he know what to choose? Through their previous purchases his potential niche will have indicated their willingness to pay a premium.  If he stays focused on delivering exactly what his customers want, I predict he’s going to do well. In fact, the longer his focus remains unwavering, the resulting word-of-mouth will make it progressively easier to sell his services.

In this era of YouTube, the 24-hour news cycle, and this country’s current political climate it isn’t only musicians who need to keep fulfillment of their personal gratifications secondary to unwavering customer focus. It’s also critical to companies that produce ice cream, chicken sandwiches, coffee, snacks, clothing, and even fitness services and cancer treatment.

Social Responsibility Complicates the Messaging

Some socially responsible actions reinforce a company’s brand.

Starbucks commitment to Fair Trade coffees complements their image as a producer of high priced gourmet coffees.

And Patagonia’s insistence on selling only eco-friendly products rings true with the company’s obvious love of nature.

These are the core values each of those companies has communicated to its customers, and upon which each company has grown.  Every successful brand is built upon principles. Those it stands for.  Those it stands against.

Not everyone will care about a company’s passions (or even its products), but there’s no better way to attract a loyal customer base than to say, “The values you believe to be important are our values, too.”

Ben and Jerry’s support of Occupy Wall Street seems to be a natural outgrowth of their well established counter-culture values. Customers will likely understand, and may even approve.

Merck and Company’s development and free distribution of Mectizan to treat river blindness in Africa, Asia, and South America is a brilliant positioning of Merck as a developer of drugs to help people.

But what about Pagagonia’s contributions to Planned Parenthood? The tie in isn’t so obvious. Customers may see the connection when the company explains that slowing population growth is completely in line with its commitment to preserving the planet, but without the explanation, it’s less likely.

Not all social values resonate in harmony with others which the company, or its customers embrace, and as a marketer I can tell you how difficult it is to make a simple message stick in people’s minds.

Two messages? Too confusing. A second message which requires explanation? Waaaay too confusing.

In my experience, a confused mind always says, “NO.”

Confused Marketing is Bad Marketing

It’s also bad business practice.

The list of advertisers that seem to have let social issues divert their attention from focus on their own customers is long, and growing. A handful of examples of this discontinuity include:

  • Starbucks support of Washington State’s proposed Marriage Equality law does not reinforce its image as a producer of high priced gourmet coffees.
  • Chick Fil A’s contributions to groups which oppose that law have nothing to do with serving fried chicken sandwiches.
  • Nabisco’s creation of the Rainbow Stuffed Oreo could be considered a natural outgrowth of their other recent creamy center options. Not making it available in stores makes it clearly about something other than manufacturing snacks.
  • At best, these moves confuse the message. Worse is the danger they alienate customers who embrace different values.

    The Greatest Danger is Damage to the Brand

    Susan B Komen For the Cure‘s withdrawal of funds for Planned Parenthood’s cancer screenings contradicted it’s brand image of being for women and against cancer. The public uproar which resulted wasn’t assuaged by the restoration of those funds.  In hopes of mitigating the damage, founder Nancy Brinker has stepped down as CEO.

    GoDaddy’s support of the Stop Online Piracy Act, which would have allowed Internet service providers to shut down sites accused of infringing intellectual property (and do so without a trial) looks suspiciously like censorship to small website owners. Amid the backlash, GoDaddy withdrew its support.

    Should Companies Take Positions on Social Issues?

    Absolutely. When the issue is aligned with the company’s core values, it will resonate with the beliefs of like minded consumers. If taking a side reinforces the company’s brand, responsible companies take sides.

    But when that social issue contradicts those core values, or confuses the messaging, there will be negative repercussions. And a CEO who uses his company to promote contentious social issues instead of focusing on the products and services his customers expect is as foolish as musicians performing for their own enjoyment. They each send a clear message that what’s important to customers doesn’t matter. What matters is what the company wants.

    These Are Potentially Big Decisions

    Many of these issues are tied to current politics. Conventional political wisdom is one third of this country will consistently vote Conservative, one third will always vote Liberal or Progressive, and the final third (the “Undecideds”) will choose on an issue-by-issue basis. So, for political issues brought to the front by companies such as Starbucks or Chick Fil A, one third of potential customers will automatically embrace their values, and another third won’t care.

    Of that final third, not many will feel strongly enough about the issue to discontinue shopping with them.  Perhaps that number is only one out of three.  That works out to one third of one third (roughly 11 percent) of existing customers and potential customers avoiding future business with those companies.

    Eleven percent.  That’s a lot. In some markets its the difference between the top seller and number two or three.  In this economy it could be the difference between profitability and cutbacks.

    If I were a shareholder in your company, I’d want you to protect and nurture my investment. Act like a musician who only wants to play his favorite songs, pissing off 11 percent of our customers in the process, and you’ll find me working to get you fired at the next shareholders meeting.

    Your focus has to be unwaveringly on what customers want.

    So, Companies Should Avoid Controversy?

    Hardly. Controversy is an easy way to promote top-of-mind awareness, and share of market is closely aligned with share of mind.  A controversy which reaffirms the company’s image may well create more, and even more loyal, customers.

    However, when the CEO’s social conscience doesn’t align with the core values upon which his brand has been built, he should contribute directly, and leave the company out of it.

  • The late Carl Karcher’s donations to the anti-abortion group, Operation Rescue, came from his checkbook, not from Carl’s Jr.
  • Curves founder, Gary Heavin, has given generously of his personal money to organizations which promote abstinence-only programs for teens.  No bad feelings among Curves members.
  • Jeff Bezos’ recent $2.5 million contribution to Washington’s Marriage Equality law came from his own pocket rather than from Amazon.
  • All followed their consciences, while never wavering in their respective customer focus.  None experienced any negative customer backlash.  Whether or not we agree with their positions, business people who separate their companies’ actions  from their personal agendas tend to be admired for their integrity.

    The Issue isn’t Abortion, Abstinence, or Marriage

    The issue is branding.

    Your company’s brand is it’s professional reputation. It’s the sum of customers impressions, and the feelings they get when they use your products or services. Your core values drive your brand, because at its core, your brand is a promise to consumers that their realistic expectations of your company will be met at every dealing.

    The CEO’s job is to make that promise simple. His job is to make sure that every communication and every interaction with customers and potential customers delivers on that brand promise.

    When the very things customers admire about your company are the reason you’re taking a political stand, they will proudly recommend you to their friends.

    But, if you gained loyalty by providing great products or services while remaining socially neutral, do not change your brand promise. That only confuses customers, and makes them angry.  When a customer buys ice cream, or coffee, or chicken sandwiches, she wants the best tasting ice cream, or coffee, or chicken sandwich available. When she opens her purse for a book or a cookie, or she donates money to your cancer research fund, she wants to buy your products, your services.  To support a cause she believes worthy

    She doesn’t want to be forced into a situation in which your recently announced ideology doesn’t align with her values.

    You shouldn’t want that either, when you’re fishing for customers.

    Your Guide,
    Chuck McKay

    Marketing consultant Chuck McKay</a>Your Fishing for Customers guide, Chuck McKay, gets people to buy more of what you sell.

    Could aligning with a social issue benefit your company? Drop Chuck a note at [email protected] and start a conversation.  Or call him at 760-813-5474.

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    Accelerate Your Advertising and PR – Surviving the Recession – Part 3 of 7

    This is a photo of a Boeing 747-200. This aircraft requires 219,000 foot pounds of thrust to get airborne, but only 100,000 foot pounds to cruise at altitude.

    Think of your ads as the jet engines which power your company.

    As soon as you remove the thrust, you’ve grounded your campaign. And that’s a shame, since it typically takes four to six months for a campaign to start producing solid results.

    Conclusion: Do not interrupt your advertising during tough economic times.

    Study after study has delivered the same results: companies who pull in their resources and hunker down to ride out the economic uncertainties fall way behind when things get better.

    Those same studies show that companies who aggressively pursue revenue in good times and bad leapfrog over their competitors in the following years.

    This may take a certain amount of faith, because the evidence that your plan is working won’t be available for months. If you’re getting a bigger share of a shrunken pie, it may appear that you’re standing still. At least, for now. When the pie grows, your share will grow, too.

    Think of it as buying market share at a discount.

    There are two reasons your dollars go further in slow times.

    First, when you’re one of the few voices still speaking to the market, your share of mind increases.

    Second, when you’re one of the few active voices, all of your media representatives will suddenly become VERY negotiable when it comes to rates.

    The average recession in the U.S. has historically lasted eleven months. We’re half way into this one, so during your negotiation be sure to lock in those new, lower rates for a full year. (Longer if the media will allow it).

    What does advertising do?

    No matter what the economy, aggressive advertising can:

  • Generate immediate sales
  • Upsell current customers
  • Provide new leads and prospects
  • And, don’t overlook the long-term benefit: the more people feel familiar with you, the more likely they are to choose to do business with you.

    The strength of your advertising, and the revenue which results from it, will depend largely on your focus up to this point.

    Direct response will be less effected by the economy than will image advertising. The more transactional your messages have been (full of facts and details), the more you can expect business to continue.

    But, if you’ve been using brand-oriented messages (service and commitment based), don’t change them, since they tend to pay off better the longer you use them. (Remember, only 100,000 foot pounds of thrust to remain airborne). You will, however, want to create an additional transactional package to generate immediate cash, and to cover today’s operational costs.

    Focus on Value – and on family values.

    At times of economic uncertainty, people tend to “cave.” They spend much more time at home with their families.

    Consider using family scenes in your ads where possible. Dump the rugged individual image. Extreme sports and adventure are bad images during a recession.

    Do your ads cultivate a trust factor?

    Is the ad about you, or about your customer?

    Are you talking directly to your customer?

    Are your claims credible, or full of hype and sensationalism?

    Do you make a claim with full intention of backing it up, or do you know you’ll have to explain that claim because people will not understand the weasel clauses?

    Can you use someone else’s credibility?

    The concept is known as endorsed mailing. You send a letter endorsing another business to your customers, and he does the same for you with his. Select your endorsement partners with care. If the other business is trusted by his customers, you’ll be perceived as trustworthy, too.

    Or, work out deals with other businesses to stuff their flyers into your merchandise bags. Of course, you’ll reciprocate.

    Or, get three or four other reputable companies together and share the cost of printing individual offers on card stock, then mailing them all to your own lists. This one is known as “marriage mail.”

    Focus on your existing customers.

    Focus on media that you’ve proven will provide a sufficient return on your investment. This is not the time to experiment with ideas that might work to attract new customers. New customers are more expensive.

    Instead, apply the 80/20 rule, and invest whatever you need to keep your 20 percenters very happy with you.

    Cut money out of any project that you can’t prove return on investment (like trade shows, for instance), and use those funds to increase direct marketing to every customer in your database.

    PR is golden.

    Got positive quarterly results to report? Won any industry awards? Have a fabulous customer service story? Call your local media and share the news.

    What’s interesting about your story? If it’s positive growth during a recession, financial editors will want to know how you did it. If winning your national award draws attention to your local business, most editors will want to play up local pride. And human interest stories always make great content – especially on a slow news days.

    Public relations has two wonderful benefits: it’s much more credible than advertising, and it’s free (other than the investment of your time, and a few postage stamps or phone calls).

    In summary:

    When times are good, you should advertise. When times are bad, you must. But, don’t be reckless about it. Make every dollar count, now, to pay off in multiple dollars over the next few years.


    Chuck McKay is a marketing consultant who helps customers discover you, and choose your business. Questions about helping your business thrive during an economic recession may be directed to [email protected].

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