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Brand name - what role does yours play?

In this second in our series on I’m going to introduce a framework that will help you think about the role you want your brand name to play for your business.

Our names are of course the product of our parent's imagination and not the result of a strategic process - parents don’t usually decide the typology of name to give their child. And whilst in business there is a more strategic approach to naming a brand, it’s still not an exact science, with names being chosen for a myriad of reasons.

These can range from the very strategically grounded (“it captured the Brand Strategy”) to reflecting the things that really matter to the founders (it’s a mix of the first two letters of our children’s first names) to the not grounded at all but it sounded pretty cool. And all that is good. However, if you are planning on creating a new brand name or adapting an existing one, it is helpful to consider the different roles a name can play. Let’s look at the three different approaches.


The first I call Transactional, and its role is threefold. Firstly, it identifies the purpose of the brand - for example, a tool that helps all kinds of teams, especially in sales, perform better. Secondly it provides an idea of a brand’s functional benefits - think PayPal - a trustworthy way of paying for products online. Thirdly, it alludes to the properties of the brand - Coca Cola - named after two of its ingredients, the coca leaves, and kola nuts.

Facebook is a popular transactional brand name, it literally does what the name suggests - a ‘book of faces’ on the Internet that allows the user to share news, connect with friends and join communities. From the business world, LinkedIn is another, where the business community can ‘link’ with each other, exchange contact details, create relationships and share content.


The second type of name is Transformational - names that do not identify a functional benefit, but rather focus on a state of mind that the brand wants to communicate. A good example would be Patagonia, the outdoor clothing brand name evokes the soaring mountains and deep lakes of the South American region, although most of its customers will never hike the trails of Patagonia. Transformational brand names can also express the emotional benefits the brand can deliver. The Virgin brand name for example speaks to the benefits the brand will deliver even before the customer enters the plane, train, gym, bank, etc, etc.

The key to a good transformational brand name is that the intent of the brand is represented in a way that is authentic.The 02 brand (that moved from a very transactional BT Cellnet back in the early ’90’s) has been successful because it has a clear vision of how its name could drive the development of its story. This was not the case unfortunately with the Post Office who in 2001, having moved from state to private control decided to change its name to Consignia, to convey the fact the brand did more than just mail deliveries. However, the new management team did not factor in the affection for, and high trust in, the Post Office name and it was not welcomed by the public, who viewed the new name as confusing and meaningless. 16 months and £2m later Consignia was consigned to the bin and the Post Office brand name was once again a feature of most UK high streets.[i]


The final name typology is what I refer to as Traditional, where the brand name is taken from the founder’s name. Whilst we are surrounded by many long-established brands named after their founders - Ford, Woolworths, MacDonald’s and Hilton to name but a few - with the exception of professional services and fashion, it’s a practise not commonly used now. If you are in a sector that requires you to develop a founder brand, or you are working with an established founder brand then make sure the identity, brand proposition, and imagery all reflect and are consistent with the brand strategy.

However the name turns out, it’s a big deal and so needs to be treated carefully as changing a name means replacing all the materials with the old name and the time and financial resource in communicating the name change. That said, if it’s change that is being communicated - then changing the name of the brand is the biggest signal that can be made!

To end this blog series it's worth acknowledging that strategy can sometimes be muscled out of the room by a forceful character that makes a call and it just clicks. One such example is the name given to a Californian consumer electronics company. The story goes that after a trip to Oregon, a place the founder referred to as an “apple orchard” he recommended the name Apple simply because he loved apples. The founding team, not at all convinced, agreed to a 5 pm deadline to come up with a better sounding, more technical name[ii]. They didn’t manage it, the name stuck and it was not the first time Steve Jobs got his own way!

Bruce M McKinnon is a Brand Strategist and author of the award-winning book ‘What’s Your Point?’ that can be purchased from Amazon. The book explores how brand strategy can fuel business growth, referencing some of the world’s most successful brands as well as sharing case studies from his own global consulting practice. You can work with Bruce in a number of ways, from mentoring to one-day workshops to consultancy, to find out more click here

[i] McIlroy AJ. “Post Office tries a change of name after 350 years”. The Telegraph. 2001. Available at: (Accessed: 16 July 2019) [ii] Rivkin S. “How Did Apple Computer Get Its Brand Name?” Branding Strategy Insider. 2011. Available at: (Accessed: 16 July 2019)

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