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Naming Psychology


Naming Psychology

Names burrow deep into the human mind. Names are bundles of denotation and connotation. And much more than that, suggests Carol Moog, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and the president of Creative Focus, a consulting firm to advertisers and ad agencies on the communication value and meaning of their messages.

We asked Carol Moog about the meaning of names.

Q: How much of a name’s reception depends on non-verbal factors?

A name without an emotional, non-verbal association is virtually useless – it will not be retained in the mind of the target audience.

There is a symbiotic relationship between a name and its non-verbal correlative. What is evoked emotionally, visually, symbolically, by a particular name? It is on the basis of this cognitive/emotional connection that the most powerful mnemonic device for remembering a person’s name is the deliberate creation of mental pictures relating to it.

The Sears battery brand name DieHard, for instance, is slang for someone who will never give up. A symbiotic relationship is immediately generated, linking the name, its “being” a stubborn, tenacious, “alive” person, and the product.

Q: What happens if a name has no emotional attachment?

A brand name is dead in the water without that emotional connective tissue. If it’s just a word floating out there with nothing attached to it, it will not be remembered. It will not stand for or embody anything.

Q: How important is the visual frame in which the name is perceived?

You cannot separate the visual frame from the name. The mind sees both simultaneously. You cannot separate a word from its non-verbal reference.

Q: Let’s say a product is called Tripod. Is an image of a tripod on which the name is perched stronger than the name itself?

It’s not stronger; it’s part of the same thing. If you understand what the word tripod stands for, you cannot say the word without visualizing its form.

Q: But the consumer may not understand what the word means.

Then the marketer has to create enough specific imagery and enough associative texture and enough visceral experience so that the word will elicit an emotional response. That response and that imagery should link directly and relevantly to the product.

If people don’t know what something is, they will bring in pre-existing meanings and associations. That’s why when you’re creating a new word, it is absolutely crucial that the meanings and associations to that word are studied in order to have as much control as possible over the messages sent. What gets conjured by the word could well be contradictory to the intended message and alienating to the designated target market.

Unless they are completely random fabrications, just letters tossed together, words will always carry emotional associations based on experiences and imagery that are pre-existing. You have to know what those possible associations are before you make a decision on whether you want to use a certain word.

Q: What are some examples of pre-existing meanings and associations?

We are biologically set to respond to the human face. From the earliest phases of development, a smiling face elicits a positive emotional reaction. Bared teeth in a grimacing expression provoke fear and withdrawal. Missing components of faces that break up the visual wholeness trigger anxiety. It is crucial to carefully study non-verbal details in messages to determine if they are completely congruent with accompanying words if a name is to be grasped and accepted.

Even without visual, non-verbal components of names, the words themselves should create an immediate, clear, associatively consistent image in the target’s mind, uncluttered by contradictory interpretations. The name should literally be a stand-in for the product/company itself. “Talon” works for zippers, with the pre-existing “hooked, sharp, gripping” meanings conjured by the name. For exactly the same reason, it would be a terrible way to brand a nighttime moisturizing cream.

You need to know what meanings and associations are intrinsic to verbal and non-verbal language in the name game and either make full, deliberate use of these or discard the name altogether. Do not make the mistake of figuring that a contradictory or negatively charged association would only affect a small minority of your audience. If you pick it up or if your research is sharp enough to point it out, ditch it.

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Gabriel Rossi on December 15th, 2008 said

Nice post Steve!

A well-crafted name can solve a lot of problems and save a lot of money over time, especially for companies who grow large. A poorly crafted name requires much more communication—advertising, design, and so on—to correct its shortcomings. A good name is different, easy to spell, easy to pronounce, a springboard to good graphics and advertising, brief (no more than four syllables), appropriate (but not merely descriptive), and legally defensible.


Gabriel Rossi- Brazil

Steve Rivkin on December 16th, 2008 said

Gabriel: All valid criteria, but even more important — The ideal name starts the positioning process, sets up a communications premise and links directly to a selling proposition. Consider the toothpaste brand name CLOSE-UP. The product has red mouthwash added to the formula; the brand is designed for people who want fresh breath so they can get “close up.”



Gabriel Rossi on December 28th, 2008 said

I couldn’t agree more Steve. A well-crafted name is, at the end of the day, one powerful way of transmitting the promise (hopefully simple and differentiated) you want to put inside the customer’s mind. The same for a catchy and efficient slogan, design, PR, customer service etc…

As Ries and Trout suggested in one of their marvelous books (I think “Positioning”)that brands with poor naming execution should fool their own names as a strategy to fix their positioning inside their target’s minds. What do you think? This strategy, maybe, would work better when Advertising was much more efficient and powerful than today…

Thank you

Gabriel Rossi- Brazil

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