What’s in a Name? Your Brand’s Mission and Meaning

May 18, 2021 | by David Lemley

A brand name, in and of itself, is meaningless. Think of it as a vessel into which you pour meaning—your capital-B Brand: The promises you make to the world and the ways in which you keep them.

A powerful brand name carries all kinds of weight. It becomes shorthand for everything you stand for. It creates a halo over your product line, even as it expands. It’s a marker that allows people who are in the fan club to identify one another. It’s the single word jotted on a shopping list.

But names have to earn that cred over time. It’s not like Oreo instantly connoted childhood and treats and dunking in milk the moment the brand was launched in 1912. Those associations affixed to the name over many years.

Too, there may come a point in a brand’s life cycle where the name and the mission no longer synchronize. And a change may be needed.

These days, the barriers to entry in the food and beverage space are low, and brands are emerging from the depths of Amazon. If you’re launching or renaming, we’ll share some guidance.

Great (and Not So Great) Brand Names

Let’s explore some examples to demonstrate our thinking here:

What Does This Even Mean?

Some brand names truly are empty vessels: devoid of meaning until marketers—or, more accurately, consumers—give it one.

Apple
Oreo
Chobani

Name = Product Attributes

When brands launch with a singular product, they often adopt the product as the imprimatur for the larger company. (Watch out: As market opportunities arise, the product-as-brand naming convention becomes self-limiting.)

Brad’s Kale Chips
Keto Naturals
Hippeas
IQBAR

Brand as Biography

Other brands associate with a charismatic founder, whose personality represents the mission in the marketplace. These face-of-the-brand names can be successful as long as the person remains in good public standing and as long as the founder doesn’t become an obstacle to the brand’s success.

Newman’s Own
Annie’s
Bob’s Red Mill

Brand Names We Love

The strongest brand names are those that consumers can “get” in a second, yet broad enough that the company can grow logically into new categories.

One of our favorite brand names is Califia. You only need to hear the story of the mythical goddess of California and protector of the environment for whom the brand is named once—and it’s easy to extrapolate from that all of the brand’s values around wellness, quality, and sustainability. Califia started as a juice company; now it’s known as a plant-based dairy alternative company.

Likewise, the inspiration behind the name Nike—the Greek goddess of victory—perfectly encapsulates the brand’s mission to support athletes of all types in pursuit of their highest potential. That mission is laser-focused, yet roomy enough to allow for a huge assortment of products.

KIND, a client of ours, is another superior brand name. The healthy snack brand advocates kindness to body and planet—and to your tastebuds. The name is a no-brainer, and it naturally attracts an audience of fans who identify with the brand’s mission.

Naming/Renaming? Do Strategy First

Notice anything about the three examples above? The brands’ names and value systems perfectly align.

Before you concoct or change a name, you’d better have your mission in place. And if you’re struggling with mission, here’s how to get started on a real, actionable mission (as opposed to a cut-copy-paste mission statement).

There are plenty of business name generators online, and those are fine for jump-starting your research and brainstorming process—but you’ll still have to do the hard work to define a meaningful moniker. If you’re launching a new brand and developing a name from scratch, think big and long-term, as if you’re carving it in stone rather than applying it to a package.

Come up with a word or phrase that’s broad enough to accommodate future stretches to your lineup, channel, or category. If you’re going for a totally made-up word, it has to “read” quickly; you don’t want to look at it a week after you launch and think, “what were we thinking?” From a business standpoint, the name must be defensible and ownable; from a linguistics standpoint, it should be satisfying to pronounce and easy to spell.

In the naturals space, where food and beverage products lean on functional nutrition and specialized, niche-y ingredients, it’s easy for leaders to think a little too “inside the ropes” when developing a name for a new brand. We look at the name Soylent as one that’s too clever for its own good: Those in the know get the reference to the dystopian novel and film, but the ick factor is too much to overcome for consumers just discovering the brand for the first time.

Fixing an unworkable name is far harder than naming a new brand. If consumers just don’t understand it, or it’s holding the business back from larger opportunity, or if there’s some kind of cultural baggage around the name, the problem will eventually show up on the bottom line—loss of traction, retailer discontinuation, increased competition. Marketers think they can spend their way out of the jam—throwing dollars at advertising or repackaging to overcome consumer misperceptions—then come to us for help.

For example, the founding team behind the clean popcorn maker Buddha Bowl tapped into their fondness for yoga when they developed the brand. While the signature buddha character on the bag resonated with Whole Foods shoppers, other retailers shied away because of an implied religious affiliation. We helped them pivot away from the name—and brought forward the parent company name, Lesser Evil. We reimagined the character on the pack and evolved the Lesser Evil brand signature. As a result, the company launched four new product lines and generated 50% topline growth in the first year.

Names keyed to the product category are also problematic, as our client Living Intentions discovered. The maker of raw, living foods rocked it in the raw food section at Whole Foods—but when the retailer decategorized raw foods and shelved products alongside conventional brands, Living Intentions’ velocity suffered. They came to us asking for a packaging upgrade; we realized that only a small segment of shoppers would understand what raw food means. We consolidated their raw and sprouted products under a new nameplate, Activated, which clarified the products’ purpose and benefits. It’s now the dominant brand of activated superfoods at Whole Foods.

If your brand is struggling to find an audience or facing stiff competition, the name may be to blame. How do you know? And what do you do about it? We can help you answer those questions.