Last week I wrote about Qdoba Mexican Grill, the puzzlingly named national chain I first encountered in Portland. In a postscript, I linked to a story in QSR (= quick-service restaurant) magazine about Terry Heckler, the man responsible for the Qdoba name as well as for Cinnabon, Starbucks, and Panera. (Thanks again to Nancy’s Baby Names for pointing me to the story.)
The article calls Heckler “legendary,” a “guru,” and a “genius.” It provides quite a bit of detail about his naming accomplishments. But I searched the article in vain for an explanation of how Qdoba came to be.
Here’s some background information I gleaned from a Wikipedia entry. Qdoba began life in Denver in 1995 under the name Zuma, possibly taken from the California place name. But there turned out to be other restaurants named Zuma, so the founders were forced to change the name. You’d think that losing “Zuma” would have taught them to thoroughly vet the new name, but you’d be wrong. They chose Z-TECA—possibly a shortening of Zapoteca, an adjective describing the indigenous Zapotec Mexican people—and actually implemented it before learning via a trademark challenge that it was too close for comfort to Z’Tejas Mexican Grill, which had been around since 1989. Whoops.
So it was back to the drawing board, and that’s when Terry Heckler was called in.
Now, Heckler’s name-development process, as he describes it to QSR, is no different from that of any other professional, experienced name developer. His criteria for a successful name are also par for the course: uniqueness (I prefer to call it “distinctiveness,” and so do trademark lawyers), credibility, legibility (i.e., ease of pronunciation and spelling), reproducibility, durability, and compatibility. He and his team of “namesmiths” often generate 2,500 to 3,000 names per assignment—again, that’s not unusual in our business.
Here’s where I beg to differ:
[A]s Heckler points out, some of the best names don't mean anything—look at Qdoba and Starbucks. If a name means something, a chain is more likely to sacrifice flexibility and be hemmed in by the conventional meaning of the word. With an unknown word, the chain creates its own destiny and is able to change more easily over time.
The author expresses it clumsily; the correct term for “an unknown word” is an arbitrary or fanciful name. But here’s the thing: Pure coinages are rare (Kodak is the most famous, and the most successful), and “the best names” are almost never meaningless. The biggest sticking point: it costs a lot of money to market an empty-vessel name.
For example, look at Starbucks. It’s not a coined word at all; Starbuck is the surname of a character in Moby-Dick and of some real people, too. But even if you didn’t know that, you would look at “Starbucks” and recognize “star” and “bucks,” two words with positive meaning.
The same is true of another of Heckler’s successes, Panera Bread. This chain of upscale bakery-cafés was originally called the St. Louis Bread Company, a name with several problems: It’s long, it tended to be truncated inconsistently (SLBC, the bread company, etc.), and it was tied to a specific city. Panera had none of those negative qualities and one big positive one: it’s easy to spell and pronounce. But it isn’t a meaning-free name. Its first syllable, pan, means bread in Spanish and has close cognates in French (pain) and Italian—(pane). Pan- is also a prefix meaning all (as in panorama, pantheon, and panacea). Era means time span.
In fact, Heckler tells QSR that “Panera” translates to “time of bread.” (Panera may also benefit from its similarity to Pandora, a name that’s repeatedly trotted out to signify “good things,” despite its very contrary meaning in Greek myth.) So much for the “meaningless” name.
Likewise with Cinnabon: it’s a coined word, but it clearly says “cinnamon bun” (the chain’s signature item). And bon means “good” in French.
But Qdoba? It’s distinctive, all right, but it violates two of the other naming criteria: it’s hard to spell and pronounce. The /qd/ combination never appears at the beginning of an English word. “Qdoba” looks difficult, not fun and easy. True, the name doesn’t mean anything bad—it just doesn’t mean anything at all. It could be the name of a software company, a jewelry boutique, or a bank in Dubai.
Now, with a big enough marketing budget, a business owner can overcome some of these challenges. He can commission a video that explains how to pronounce the name. He can take out radio and TV ads that repeatedly remind customers of the correct pronunciation. He can create brand extensions, like Qdoba’s Q-Cash card, that reinforce the connection between spelling and pronunciation.
All shrewd moves—and expensive ones. For most businesses, the cost of marketing a name with zero meaning and a nonintuitive spelling will be prohibitive. So: distinctiveness, sí. Confusing the customer, no.