Picking the perfect name for your new product

A horse is a horse, of course. But what should you call your brand-new product or service that is truly new-to-the-world, with no direct competitors and only few and very distant substitutes? By Suvi Nenonen.

Does a rose by any name smell just as sweet, as Shakespeare suggests – rendering the naming-dilemma irrelevant? Or can you give your dog a bad name and thus inadvertently hang the poor fellow?

When it comes to product names, innovators can feel understandably proprietorial. After all, they have created something new, and the lawyers are singing the siren song of IP protection.

Shouldn’t this protection of intellectual property rights extend also to the name that we invent to denote this new widget? Counter-intuitively, the answer seems to be “no”. For brand-new product and service categories it is recommended to use a name that, while ideally catchy, first and foremost is accessible and available to everyone. Including your competitors. 

The perverse fates of trademarks show the risks of trying to corner a market in a name. Trademarking is the ultimate attempt to not only design, but own language. Yet, language’s emergence can bite back. HooverTM, Band-aidTM and VelcroTM are famously now used as generics in practice. But did you know the same goes for Bubble-wrapTM (Sealed Air Corporation, 1960), DumpsterTM (Dempster Brothers, 1936) and ZipperTM (Universal Fastener Company, 1917)? Escalator (Otis, 1900) has even lost its status in the eyes of the law. 

All these trademarks are victims of their own success: if they hadn’t been so popular the vernacular wouldn’t have assimilated them as common nouns, and even rudely “verbed” them.

Perhaps the greater danger, though, is that you paint yourself – and your entire product category – into a forgotten corner with a bad name.

If you don’t supply good, catchy, generic names, and your trademarked name happens not to take off, you’re risking sub-optimal growth for the entire new product category. 

Now consider the generic names that were intended for Bubble-wrapTM, DumpsterTM, Escalator and ZipperTM: air bubble packaging; mobile garbage bin; conveyor transport device or moving stairway; and separable fastener. Ever used them? Would you? They don’t trip off the tongue. These companies should thank their lucky stars that their trademarks were not honoured but breached. 

Unfortunately, what history doesn’t tell us is how many less fortunate innovators doomed great new products or services to become failed or insignificant categories by a misstep in naming.

Finding the right name for your product or service category is just the first step in the naming game. 

If you strike the mother lode with your innovation and the category around it becomes massive, then you most likely must introduce ancillary language to differentiate yourself – and other players like you – from the cheap knock-offs. 

Sometimes, fortune smiles on you and offers linguistic aides that have sprung, undesigned, from sheer emergence – but are perfect to boost your position in the increasingly competitive marketplace. Grab them with both hands. 

Consider the international accountancy market. In 1960 TA Wise, a commentator to Fortune Magazine, coined, or at least popularised, the term “The Big Eight” for the developed world’s eight biggest accounting firms. 

The phrase and the idea stuck in the press. What is even more interesting, the firms themselves wisely embraced the description. They could have disavowed it and competitively struck out for more singular pre-eminence. But instead they self-identified as being “one of the Big Eight”. 

When the Big Eight did shrink to the Big Six in the 1990s, the Big Five in 2002, and – finally? – the Big Four, it wasn’t dispassionate counting based on revenue or other stats that heralded each new number. It was an announcement by an influential source that took hold in, and shaped, our perceptions. 

Today the grip of Deloitte, PWC, EY and KPMG is stronger because many companies are obliged to use these Big Four. And the benefits keep flowing. In a self-fulfilling prophesy, cachet boosts contract volume, lures workers, keeps them as the anointed four. 

So, it seems that sometimes the pen truly is mightier than the sword. The label you select for your product category, or your particular niche in it, can be more powerful than most commercialisation or competitive strategy moves. 

Associate Professor Suvi Nenonen works at the University of Auckland Business School’s Graduate School of Management and teaches in the MBA programmes. Her research focuses on business model innovation and market innovation.


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