Throwing the donuts out with the bathwater: in defence of elaborate brand names

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The chief design officer and global principal at Wolff Olins explain why when it comes to brand names, length really does matter.

The origin of the name Christopher roughly translates as "carrier of Christ". Even my mother, one of my more vocal supporters, would have to agree this is a somewhat hyperbolic way to describe her son.

But despite the weight of the Messiah upon my shoulders, I’m unlikely to be changing my name any time soon – it's what I've been known by for nearly four decades and if I’m honest I’ve kinda made it work for me.

Unlike humans, brands do have the option to change or adapt their name as they mature and evolve. Both Dunkin’ Donuts and Sugar Puffs have recently decided to drop their calorific descriptors to show they are moving with the times.

By losing the "Donuts" and the "Sugar" (the cereal is now known as Honey Monster Puffs), both brands are hoping to show shoppers they understand the obesity crisis and, in the case of Dunkin’, say there’s more to them than fat, boiled in oil and tossed in sugar.

All brands should be built on truth, but sometimes heritage and memory transcend that reality. A brand name can sometimes be shorthand for what a company does in the world, it can tell a heritage or provenance story, but it can also add joy and fun.

Truncate the name and sometimes you lose a bit of the spirit at the same time. Yo! Sushi is a glorious name. It transcends category, sounding like an exclamation of joy – so what if only 30% of its menu is raw fish?

Minis aren’t so small anymore but even the fattest of them still have that unique Mini feel.

An expressive name can be a way of adding distinctiveness, lightness and personality. Great names set a brand apart, demand a premium, even set the customer a challenge: do you want a regular bag or do you "WANT Les Essentiels de la vie"?

A well-considered name can also add spirit, vitality and individuality to what could be generic and nondescript.

Over time there is often a gravitational pull towards shortening or creating acronyms of familiar brands. This is to deal with obtuse or outdated terminology and while this sometimes makes sense (losing the specificity of an industry or category can open a brand up to future range extension) it can also result in a beige end product.

For every Amex and FedEx there’s an awkward HuffPost and a hundred more that disappear into blandness.

Sometimes shortening to an acronym takes out the beauty – we can argue until the trains come home about their punctuality, but it’s hard to disagree with the fact that travelling by GWR sounds like an angry moan, whilst hopping aboard the Great Western Railway feels like a glorious leap into the unknown.

This slimming down of existing names is linked closely with identity hyper-rationalisation. Brands such as Mastercard and Instagram have recently stripped down their identities to the bare bones to make sure they are optimised for watch screens as much as widescreens.

Logically, the next step in this process is to take the engineer’s streamlined scalpel to naming and architecture. Every character counts in a restrictive landscape of Twitter handles and app buttons. But this is a shame in that it can restrict the creative arsenal of designers and copywriters.

There was a pub on the corner near my house when I was a kid called The White Bear, but everyone called it the Schooner because that's what it was called years ago.

Even fresh-faced 18-year-old boozehounds (none of whom had ever seen the real Schooner) called it that, because their parents had called it that.

The simple truth was it was just a better name; it rolled off an inebriated tongue far better than its generic "real" name. Its goofy sobriquet fitted the brand far more appropriately than the official ursine badge that hung over the door.

That’s the killer. As much as the creative industry can hypothesise, strategise and visualise a new story behind a tweaked brand name, only the customer will really decide if it sticks or not.

So let’s make more space for the Maison Martin Margiela's, the Lululemons and Pret a Mangers. The public will give them the SunnyD treatment if they want.

As designers and marketers, we live in an unprecedented time when we have more tools at our disposal to do amazing creative things.

Those same tools also provide us with the opportunity to create mediocrity and sameness like never before.

Perhaps it's the creative’s duty to aim for the Schooners, to lay off the LOLs and the WTFs and instead, create some brand names that make people laugh out loud and genuinely say "what the fuck".

Chris Moody is chief design officer and global principal at Wolff Olins