A few years ago I was hired to name an apple. Not an Apple: an apple, the kind that grows on a tree. This particular apple was a new cultivar that needed a name to compete against Golden Delicious and Pippin and Winesap in supermarkets. My client was the growers’ group that had developed the fruit.
I presented several names, including one I thought was an especially strong candidate: Avalon. The name had an excellent and appropriate story, I told the client. It comes from Welsh afal, which means “apple.” (Etymology doesn’t always matter, but in this case it was too perfect to ignore.) In the Arthurian legends, Avalon is the island where Excalibur was forged. (Power, magic, legend: all positive attributes.) Avalon was sometimes called “the Fortunate Isle.” (Happy apples!) Add to that, I said, the fact that the word rolls deliciously off the tongue.
There was silence on the other end of the phone line. Finally, the client’s spokesman spoke:
“Avalon,” he said tentatively. “Isn’t that a car name?”
During my career as a name developer I’ve heard “But it’s a car name!” too many times to enumerate. I’m not alone: My colleagues at Catchword Branding say they have the isn’t-it-the-name-of-a-car conversation once a month.
Car, shmar, I want to say (but don’t).
Yes, I told my apple client, it’s undeniably true that Avalon has been the name of a Toyota sedan since 1994. Avalon is also the name of a hotel in Beverly Hills, an album by Roxy Music, a city on Catalina Island, a novel by Anya Seton, a movie directed by Barry Levinson, and many other things.
But not apples. In that category, the name was completely clear of conflict.
Didn’t matter. To the client, “Avalon” meant only one thing: car. He simply could not get past that association.*
Here’s the thing: There are lots and lots of car names. Many of them are real words with real meaning beyond “car,” like Civic and Dart, Fiesta and Voyager. If what you’re naming isn’t a car—if it’s a soup or a jigsaw puzzle or a hotel or a shopping app—it may be perfectly OK to recycle that car name and make it yours. If we’re given strong branding cues, we consumers manage to surmount the cognitive dissonance effortlessly.
And not only with car names.
There’s Dove soap, for example…
…and Dove ice-cream bars.
No one serves Dove #1 at a picnic or brings Dove #2 into the shower. The categories—legal and conceptual—are so far apart that there’s simply no likelihood of confusion.
Or consider another multiple trademark: Magnum. It’s the name of a photo agency, a gun manufacturer, a condom, an ice-cream bar—and, yes, a station wagon. Different brands, different trademark classes, different shades of meaning. (All of those meanings capitalize on the equivalence of “magnum” with “large,” but in different ways.)
Or how about a new mobile phone introduced last week by Verizon: the Marauder. Leaving aside the question of appropriateness—is one of its apps a crossbow?—the ”Marauder” name isn’t original. It’s the title of a book by Isaac Asimov and the name of a fictional G.I. Joe toy vehicle, a U.S. government nuclear fusion research project, and a Suzuki motorcycle. Oh, and also a Mercury automobile model.
And let’s not forget that before there were Apple computers and phones, there was Apple Records, founded in 1968 by some guys called The Beatles.
Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not advocating for copycatting. (I hope we’ve seen the last of the “new me” clones, for example.) And I would never recommend borrowing a coined name like Yaris or Xterra. A distinctive name is an asset to your brand; a legally available name is essential. But don’t confuse distinctive with unique, and don’t forget that availability is determined by trademark classification. A conflict in one trademark class may not pose a problem in a different class.
The moral: There are hundreds of car names. Don’t let your associations, good or bad, with one of them drive you away from an effective and appropriate name for your non-automotive product or company.
* In the end, the client thanked (and paid) me for my work and used an internally generated name for the apple—a name that had been developed early in the process and had become embedded in the client culture. That’s a different type of naming challenge, the subject—perhaps—of another blog post someday.