What’s in a name?

By Wally Olins
August 26, 2011

(The views expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not represent those of Reuters)

So, Mamata Banerjee, the new chief minister of what is currently known as West Bengal, is proposing to change its name.

A couple of weeks ago they were thinking of changing from West Bengal to Bengal, a recommendation which we at Saffron made to the previous Communist government a few months ago. Now it appears that the new government is considering a new name, which is likely to be Paschimbanga, apparently pronounced Poschimbongo. Banerjee’s own preference was said to be for Bangabhumi.

The whole point of this exercise is to make people living in Bengal feel good about their state and also to attract investment. Since a significant proportion of people in Bengal don’t speak Bengali, it doesn’t seem to be very helpful to introduce a name which is, first of all, in Bengali and, secondly, sounds like somewhere quite other.

In addition to all that, Bengal has enough problems attracting direct investment without people being confused about where it is. Haven’t they got enough issues to deal with already?

A few years ago — I can’t recall how many — Bombay changed its name to Mumbai; Madras became Chennai and so on. But I still keep on hearing stories about tourists arriving at Chhatrapati Shivaji Airport in Mumbai and thinking they have come to the wrong place.

Names linger. Old ones don’t go away that easily. You can’t just throw Bombay out of the window. It just won’t go. New names don’t get adopted that easily either. Who talks about Bengaluru? Nobody I’ve ever met. I wouldn’t advise anyone to spend any time in Silicon Valley talking about Bangalore in that way. Nobody will know what they’re talking about.

Of course names are very important.   We all know that some companies spend crores of rupees on inventing new names both for their companies and their brands, researching them to check whether they can be confused with anybody else’s name, whether they mean anything rude in French or Arabic or some other language. And yet, despite all that, names develop a life of their own.

If I mention the Taj Mahal in conversation, for example, you will be able to work out in a nano second whether I’m talking about a hotel chain or the heritage site in Agra. That’s because of the context in its broadest sense.

What we are talking about is what the brand looks like in our mind’s eye. Most of the time, even when two names are the same, we don’t get confused. I can tell Apollo tyres from Apollo Healthcare straight away although, I have to confess, I’m still a bit confused about which Reliance is which.

Of course, it’s much better to have a good name than a bad name. It’s better to have a name that’s easy to pronounce rather than a name that’s unpronounceable. It’s better to have a name that means something in a given context than a name that doesn’t. But that doesn’t mean to say that it’s impossible for an organisation with a lousy name to succeed. The great example of this, of course, is Volkswagen, which is an unpronounceable name with deeply unpleasant origins. But who thinks about that now?  It’s just VW.

I’ve been involved in a bit of name creation myself from time to time. I suppose one of the most successful names that has emerged in the last twenty years or so is Orange. Well, all the research that we did on Orange indicated clearly that it was the worst possible name to have chosen. Why not Banana, people said. So there you go.

I’m not saying that names are not an important ingredient in the brand. Of course they are. But they are one ingredient of several. A brand is a strange mix of communication, environment, product and behaviour.   Sometimes one of these vectors dominates, sometimes another. The brand name, together with the logo, represents what the brand as a whole stands for. VW is a symbol — it’s literally a symbol. VW is about — above all — the product. What it looks like, feels like, how the doors clunk-click when you open and shut them.

Of course the name is important but, like the logo itself, it isn’t the brand, it’s just part of the way in which the brand presents itself. It’s worth remembering that when you create a brand you’re doing much more than creating a logo or a name — or both for that matter.

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