Should You Name It? Brand Juggling for Fun and Profit.

by Jason Ocker
Sep 14, 2020

It’s in our instinct to name things. Often, something doesn’t feel real until it has a name. But in the marketing world, this instinct often gets us into trouble. We’re tempted to name every product, every feature, every service. After all, how do we sell something without a name?

The problem is that, in marketing, names aren’t just names. Names are brands. Or at least they can turn into brands really fast. And brands need commitment and a whole phalanx of resources behind them to be successful—everything from brand guidelines to the full range of collateral to stories to campaign initiatives to all the personnel that makes all that possible.

So before you name that baby, and especially before you logo that baby, here are a few questions to ask, as well as some possible solutions to avoid black eyes from your brands.

Will It Beat Up Your Other Brand?

You’re in a company. So you have one brand automatically. But what about your product? It needs a brand, right? Maybe. But the second your offering has a brand separate from the corporate brand, you have to start juggling. What are you selling to the market, your company or the product? What story are you telling? Both? It’s possible to do. But even more possible is the risk of splitting resources, watering down market share, and sowing confusion.

A simple way to see if this works is to mock up a piece of collateral. A one sheet, say, or a small booth. Where does the corporate logo go? Where does the product logo? Do the two logos or names together make the collateral look co-branded, like the brands are partners instead of a company and a product? Are you forced to deemphasize one over the other every single time?

IBM Watson is a good case study here. You couldn’t have a stronger brand than IBM. But when they named and logo’d Watson and gave it its own story, so many resources went into the Watson brand it became stronger than the IBM brand in this case. Over the years, their collateral and message struggled with the opposition of these two brands. Even today, on the front page of the Watson site, you see offerings advertised as: “IBM Research” “Watson for Health” “Watson Assistant” “IBM Security with Watson.”

Do You Have the Resources for Multiple Brands?

The only reason IBM and Watson work at all is because IBM has large reserves of cash for both brands. The IBM brand has a century of investment, and when they started pushing Watson, they invested Bob Dylan and Stephen King levels of money into the Watson brand. And if it’s still confusing once you start getting into what IBM and Watson are actually selling, then smaller organizations have much less of a chance of successfully juggling multiple brands.

Every brand needs its own life. A new brand is never a simple add-on to the old brand. It’s double the work, double the resources. Probably more than double because in addition to pushing both brands you’re also trying to keep each brand from pushing against each other. And if both dogs are eating out of the same bowl and running around the same yard, that’s really difficult to manage.

What Does Your Future Look Like?

What does your product roadmap look like? What does your company roadmap look like? What is your story? Will that really cool product name suddenly become a problem when you have to replicate it two more times for two more products? Or when the business changes as a whole? Are you keeping one product and then just adding features and capabilities to that product? Depending on the plan, you can inadvertently back yourself into a corner just by naming something. And that means when you should be busy marketing, you’ll be busy going through the travails and possible equity loss of a rebrand.

Keeping Your Brands in the Air.

1. Unify the Company and Product Under One Name: This option isn’t for every company, but it is simple and clean. You have one brand. One story. You are what you sell. Maybe you release features for what you sell, add some capabilities, but you’re always selling the one brand.

2. Divorce the Company and Product: Go all in on two different brands by keeping them separate. There is still a resources issue here because you’re basically running two companies, and this really only works if the company and product are completely different or in different industries. Otherwise you’re possibly competing with yourself. But you can at least avoid market and customer confusion.

3. Create a Hierarchy: Usually two brands are difficult and three brands are difficult, but once you get to four brands, it gets easier. Now you can create a real, nicely defined hierarchy (you can’t have a hierarchy of two, and three is a trinity). Now you have the umbrella of a corporate brand and underneath a series of equal but different sub-brands. You still need to stay vigilant to keep those brands equal and in line with the corporate brand (and to avoid sub-sub-brands), but it's more easily organized.

4. Start a Flexible Branding System: Instead of naming your first product, create a flexible branding and naming system. That way as products need names, you have a consistent taxonomy and design. You still have to get over the hump of one company brand and one to three product brands, but if that’s where your roadmap is going, follow it well.

5. Treat Things Like Things: How about not naming anything? When Apple put out its watch, they named More importantly, they named it Apple Watch. This way, there’s no confusion about the product and every dollar of brand investment goes to the same place: Apple. If the iPhone came out today, it would be the Apple phone. Facebook adding a messaging app? Facebook Messenger. Google Maps sells Google just as much as Google Search does.

In the end, whatever path you go down with your brand slate, do it with discipline. Institute design and strategy rules. Document those rules. Follow those rules. An organized approach will go a long way to solving the challenges of brand juggling.

Photo Credit by Sebastian on flickr.

Jason writes. Tells stories. Develops strategies. He oversees a wide range of creative and technical projects. He’s also an award-winning author of half a dozen books and has been featured on or in CNN, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The Guardian, The New York Times, and TIME.

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