Commentary

What's In A Name?

People tend to think naming is magic, that the “right name” is a secret sauce that will make a product succeed. But the truth is, you can have all the clever word play in the world, and it won’t save your product if it fails to deliver on the promises your name implies. Words have power — the power to paint a picture in the mind. That picture needs to be something your brand or product can live up to. You need to choose a name strategically, and make a strategic plan to support it, launch it, and stick by it.

I was reminded of this during the State of the Union address when President Obama introduced the name “myRA” for a new category of retirement savings accounts. The name has a lot going for it. It is short and easy to remember, repurposing a woman’s name in a way that feels instantly familiar. The lowercase letters give it a modern feel. It rhymes with “IRA,” placing the new offer in the IRA family.  And it draws on our understanding of MySpace, My Verizon, myCigna and all the other “my” names, with their messages of personal customization and accessibility. 

Knowing nothing other than the name, we can conclude that myRA is a friendly, personal type of IRA. This gives it a head start over programs first introduced bearing the number for part of the tax code (401K).

It does have a few downsides, though. The pharmaceutical industry is already using “RA” as catchier way to talk about Rheumatoid Arthritis. And there are pronunciation issues—in fact, the president stumbled on his first mention of name, starting  to call it “My IRA” before correcting to “my-R-A.” These tripping points are easy to predict — we often test for such issues. Once you identify potential sticking points, the next step is to do a realistic analysis. Is the flaw necessarily fatal? Can it be planned for and mitigated? In myRA’s case, minor pronunciation issues seem unlikely to be a problem long-term.

Nike, Google, Ikea, Etsy have taught us how to pronounce their names correctly over time. When the iPad was launched, there was a backlash — to some, the name sounded like a feminine hygiene product. Today, we can’t imagine the word “iPad” meaning anything other than a sleek interactive device. These companies were able to stick to their message, keep repeating their name, and bring us along for the ride. It was a good first step that President Obama repeated the name multiple times, correctly, after his initial mistake.

What might be more of a problem is if myRA doesn’t live up to the promises implied by its name. If it isn’t personal and easy.  If it doesn’t act like an IRA. Names that fail to fulfill their promises often invite ridicule, and this is particularly true in the political area, where Washington tends to jump on awkward monikers (The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act) and spin them into short, pejorative nicknames with sticking power (Obamacare).

The right name can help you take control of the conversation about a new offer. If you choose a name that delivers the tone and message you’re looking for, you get a jumpstart on building meaning in your audience’s mind. But introducing that new name is also an act of leadership. You have to pick the right promises to make. You have to have to look beyond initial reactions. And you need a strategic plan to introduce your name in a way that can survive a few bumps in the road.

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