(Part of my Naming 101 series.)
As trademark lawyers love to remind us, distinctiveness is a paramount goal of brand naming. A name doesn’t need to be original – consider Dove deodorant and Dove chocolate — but it does need to stand out in its category.
But can a name ever be too distinctive – too much of an outlier to connect with its intended audience?
I recently spoke with a business owner via Clarity, the expert-advice service, who wanted my opinion on a name that was distinctive in the extreme. This person, a graphic designer in the Pacific Northwest, was dissatisfied with her current business name, which combines her initials with “design.” She’d come up with a new name and, she told me in an introductory email, had already bought a couple of domains associated with it. The name she wanted my opinion on: MOZZAFIATO.
It sounded distinctive, all right. It also sounded like nothing I’d ever heard of. Google Translate told me mozzafiato is an Italian word meaning “breathtaking,” which is nice but not helpful. How was this name going to help the designer grow her business?
During our call, I asked how she came to choose this name. Is she Italian? (No.) Italian-American? (No.) Does she speak Italian? (No.) She likes Italian culture, though, and when she found mozzafiato in an Italian dictionary she thought its English translation was an apt description of her design work. She loved the word and its meaning, but wasn’t sure it was right for her business. What did I think?
- While MOZZAFIATO passes the distinctiveness test, it fails two other name-success tests: pronounceability and memorability. English-speakers will stumble over the pronunciation of the word and confuse it with similar, more-familiar words (mozzarella, mezzo-soprano).
- Mozzafiato may mean “breathtaking,” but to an English-speaker it doesn’t sound breathtaking. It sounds like a jumble of tricky consonants.
- Even if most people immediately understood that mozzafiato means “breathtaking,” how would that be relevant to the designer’s audience – career and life coaches? Do her potential clients want to be swept away on a wave of wonderment or do they want names that sell their services to their clients?
This conflict is not uncommon. Several years ago I worked with another solo entrepreneur who wanted my opinion on NACRE as a business name. It was short! It had a wonderful meaning! (I’ll bet most of you have to look it up.) And, she added triumphantly, “It’s easy to pronounce!”
I was able to convince that client that NACRE was, in fact, difficult to pronounce and – in contradiction to its luminous definition – unpleasant sounding. But for a while, her infatuation with an obscure word had led her down a cul de sac.
The moral of both these stories: A name’s literal meaning is not enough. And distinctiveness is not enough. To succeed, a name needs to be meaningful for your business and for your audience, and it needs to be pronounceable, memorable, and appealing as well as legally available. (Don’t be fooled by an available URL.)
A secondary moral: A thorough, honest naming brief can prevent a lot of naming misery.
P.S. The designer in the first example? She came to realize that the source of her dissatisfaction wasn’t her business name but her website design. She’s changing it.