It’s all in the name


  • Columns
  • Monday, 11 Jul 2016

illustration for brand name.

Choose something that will easily be recognised and remembered.

Q: I’m a 21-year-old Brazilian student studying management in Portugal. I’m also working on a business project that I hope to launch when I return to Brazil. I want to create my own men’s clothing brand for the luxury market, starting with shirts and accessories such as ties, then perhaps expanding to pants, shoes and coats. My eventual goal is to have my own store — and maybe later to have stores all over the world.

But I’m having trouble dealing with a very important part of the business: Naming the brand! My target customers are stylish, masculine men. What sort of advice would you give me about coming up with a winning name? — Humberto Leal Filho, Portugal

I’ve founded many companies, but I don’t consider myself an expert on naming them. My branding experience centres primarily on two enterprises: Student and Virgin. Both experiences gave me some insights that you might find helpful.

As I’ve noted before, Student was my first business venture – a magazine I started with a group of friends while we were in high school. The magazine was dedicated to giving young people a voice by focusing on the issues they cared about the most. The name was self-explanatory: Student summed up what we were all about, which made pitching ideas to contributors, advertisers and interview subjects relatively easy.

Back then, I felt that the magazine was just the beginning for our brand. We could take it in so many directions: Student conferences, a Student travel company, or even Student apartments. I didn’t see Student as an end in itself, a noun; I saw it as the beginning of a whole range of services, an adjective. As a brand, Student was flexible – and the name alone would be immediately recognised and bring key values to mind.

So we branched out. From Student magazine we launched the Student Advisory Centre – a hotline that young people could call for advice on physical and mental health. But our team’s dream of going into other industries didn’t take off until a bit later.

While we were running the magazine, we spotted another interesting business opportunity. Almost everyone we knew spent a lot of time listening to music and a lot of money buying records. We rarely turned the record player off at our offices, and everyone would always rush out to buy the latest album from the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan or Jefferson Airplane on the day it was released. I thought about the high cost of records and about our audience, and decided that we should sell records for a lower price by creating a mail-order service and advertising it in the magazine. There would be little overhead, and no advertising costs.

Soon, the records brought in more cash than our magazine ads, so we decided to come up with another name for the mail-order business – a name that would be eye-catching, could stand alone and would appeal to everyone, instead of just students. So our team all sat around trying to think of a good name (Slipped Disc was one of the favourites).

We toyed with it for a while, until one of the girls on our team leaned forward and said: “What about ‘Virgin’? We’re complete virgins at business.” We all loved it, and it stuck – and it turned out to be a great name. (I’m not sure that Slipped Disc Airways or Slipped Disc Hotels would have had quite the same appeal!)

So in a nutshell, I’ve found that there are four crucial things to consider when naming a brand:

1. Know your audience: Think about the type of people you want to attract, and what appeals to them. You’ve already outlined that your customer is masculine and classy, so choose a name that best reflects that aesthetic.

2. Keep it simple: Ensure that your brand name demonstrates what you’re all about. Remember that it doesn’t always have to be obvious: The name can be made up, or left of centre. Just look at names like Google, Apple, Facebook, Nike – and Virgin! Unlike Student, Virgin wasn’t self-explanatory, but it was simple enough that the word has become synonymous with the brand.

3. Choose something striking: If you hope to grow your business into other products and industries, it’s important to come up with a name that can be recognised far and wide.

4. Have fun! We created the Virgin brand in the 1970s, so you can imagine how people responded to the name. On one hand, it was the age of free love; on the other, much of society was still very conservative. By naming our brand Virgin, we challenged the status quo and had a hell of a lot of fun doing it. (And it served us well in terms of generating publicity!)

There you have it: four simple tips for branding a business. So get on with it, and get going. Good luck! — Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate

Questions from readers will be answered in future columns. Please send them to Richard.Branson@nytimes.com. Please include your name, country, e-mail address and the name of the website or publication where you read the column.

Sir Richard Charles Nicholas Branson is founder of the Virgin Group. He became an entrepreneur at 16 and made his first million at the age of 25.

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