The wasted dollars of product naming

Brands should hold every business to a high standard of eliminating wasteful spending. For example, few industries are worse at spending money on foolish efforts than medical devices. Pick up any corporate brochure from a medical device manufacturer and here’s what you’ll see: Mountains and mountains of individual product brand names.

For some reason, companies are in love with giving every single product they manufacture its own unique brand name. That’s not product naming for any meaningful purpose. That’s reducing preference.

The medical device industry is a $150 billion industry in the US alone. Few industries would tolerate the sheer amount of money wasted in product naming. In fact, the value of a company lies not in its individual products, but in the company brand and its equities. When consumers buy products, they are purchasing the brand.

Product NamingBut medical device manufacturers have gone insane over spending countless dollars that actually hurt the value of the company. No matter if it is a stent, wire or an ICD, it will have some clever brand name that means little to anyone but the company’s own marketers. Doing so does nothing to help define the parent brand or the brands of other products.

Instead, the medical device parent brands are crowded into the same space. They all claim to be forward thinking, innovative and reliable. Yet millions of dollars and countless resources are spent marketing the individual products like they are their own entities. Even when they are using the same language.

That reduces the corporate brand into an afterthought.

Cleverness is the enemy

The overabundance of cleverness is certainly not unique to the medical device industry. Marketing executives, in general, are convinced that a name or theme will be remembered if it’s clever enough.

The opposite is exactly true, which means the money to market them is ill spent. If the name or theme is clever, then it is not believable because it feels like an advertising firm wrote it. It will sound like marketing.

Let’s use an example from the medical device industry. St. Jude Medical, through its acquisition of Thoratec, has a left ventricular assist device called HeartMate. Its meaning is clear. It assists the heart.

But it still sounds like marketing and made up. It has no emotional meaning. Considering the sheer litany of products with made-up names like HeartMate, it won’t be remembered because no one says “Nurse, give me the HeartMate.”

Think about this. These names do nothing to create preference or add to any financial or emotional investment in the company. Just because a device has a clever name does not mean that hospital administrators and doctors will prefer that product. So why do it?

Product naming as an inhibitor to switching

Stealing market share means you must convince your target audience that what you offer is something you do not already have. That’s the definition of a switching trigger.

Product NamingSwitching is often seen as difficult because it means adjusting to something new. It’s a change even if it is a minor one. That means you must reduce the hurdles to switching if you want to attract the customers of your competition.

With so many branded products that have no relation to each other, but operate individually from other products, doctors and hospital administrators are reluctant to switch to them.

The same holds true for any manufacturer. A litany of unique product names creates a hurdle to adoption because audiences are asked to learn something new. That is especially difficult when you consider the entire scope of products.

It is easier for audiences to switch is if they know they are buying the company brand name instead of the product. It is just simpler.

What to do?

The answer to that question should be obvious. Don’t overdo product naming when it comes to individual products. We live in a world in which simplicity and control rule, meaning it’s the customer who is in charge.

Product NamingMedtronic, the giant in this industry that actually does better than most, makes thousands of medical devices. Nobody can remember the sheer litany of branded product names.

A list of its endoscopic suturing accessories lists these products:

  • Endo Stitch Single-Stitch
  • Endo Stitch Tripe-Stitch
  • V-Loc Wound Closure
  • Surgitie Ligating Loop
  • Surgiwip Suture Ligature
  • Endo Slide Single Use Knot Pusher

It would be better if the names were:

  • Medtronic Single-Stitch
  • Medtronic Tripe-Stitch
  • Medtronic Wound Closure
  • Medtronic Ligating Loop
  • Medtronic Suture Ligature
  • Medtronic Single Use Knot Pusher

Now the company is actually investing in the parent brand and not just talking about it. And the sheer amount of wasteful spending has been reduced while market share increases. You’ve asked customers to choose the parent brand. That’s all any brand manager could want.

Should anyone sponsor the Denver Broncos?

When Sports Authority closed its doors due to bankruptcy, that left the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos in a dilemma. What should they re-name Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium?

The Denver Broncos were left without a field sponsor and, now that Sports Authority has gone out of business, the team is igniting talks with potential suitors.

Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos can sponsor its own stadium.

Tops on the list, according to some reports, is Papa Johns, the national pizza chain that has tied its wagon to both the NFL and founder John Schnatter. Considering its overall strategy, it would make some sense.

Or would it?

What would a brand get out of sponsoring the Denver Broncos?

As a brand strategist, I’ve always been wary of stadium naming rights. It can be expensive, for one thing. Costs usually run from $11 million (Levi Stadium near San Francisco) to $20 million (Citi Field in NYC) per year.

In the large scheme of things, especially when you consider how much brands waste on advertising, it’s not that expensive. But what do brands get out of it?

To me, the reason to be the name sponsor of a sports arena is strictly for awareness. There’s no other reason. I can’t fathom how a brand can create preference based on that sponsorship.

Of course, that kind of sponsorship doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It should be part of an entire marketing strategy. And, often, sports sponsorship comes from a local company with nationwide reach. (Such as Sports Authority, which was headquartered in Englewood, Colorado.) Brands consider it part of their community outreach.

What would Papa Johns truly get out of it? It doesn’t have an awareness problem and it already has an official alliance with the NFL. From a brand perspective, sure, it could be the name sponsor for the Denver Broncos without impugning on its brand. But it already has high awareness and reach so there’s no compelling reason for it.

Think about this. What did the sponsorship do for Sports Authority? It probably has less awareness than Papa Johns, but the sponsorship did nothing to create preference for its brand.

Five years into its 10-year deal with the Denver Broncos, Sports Authority closed up shop.

My advice to Papa Johns or any of the other brands considering the sponsorship: Don’t do it. The NFL teams are rich enough to sponsor their own stadiums.

What’s in a name: Denali

On the eve of President Obama’s visit to Alaska, it was announced that Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America, will revert to Denali, its original Inuit name.

I never gave it much thought, but one of our strategists, Michael Van Ausdeln, lived in Alaska for more than a decade and he has a few thoughts about the name change:

The Great One.
The Great One.

To me, this has been a long time coming. Alaskans have long called the mountain Denali. It’s situated in Denali National Park and the word, denali, means “The Great One.” (Not be confused with the nickname of NHL great Wayne Gretzky.)

If you’ve ever seen the mountain, then you know it’s taller than you originally thought. When I first saw it, I thought it was one of the smaller mountains in the park. Then someone pointed to a peak that was ABOVE the clouds, and there stood The Great One.

The importance of Denali to Alaska.

What is interesting to me is that, while changing the name probably means little to those of us who live in the Lower 48, calling it Denali was a stubborn point of pride for many Alaskans. Up there, there is a kind of satisfaction in believing that the rest of the US is not really authentic. That they don’t get Alaska, an enormous state of lakes, rivers and mountains that can test even the hardiest of us.

In a way, by calling the mountain Denali, Alaskans were re-affirming their self-reflecting brand that said we were more authentic than those peons who called it Mount McKinley. I mean, who even remembers what William McKinley actually accomplished? The power of Denali proves the power of naming.

I can hear my Alaskan friends now: “Oh, big deal. We’ve been calling it Denali for years.” Just by saying that, Alaskans (and former Alaskans like myself) are stating who we believe we are when we lived there.


What to call the college football championship game

This is all you need to know why branding companies often get a bad name. On NPR’s Marketplace this morning, the reporter asked a brand strategist what would be a good name for the college football championship being played tonight.

Her answer: The Punch Bowl.

Where do I start? There are many ways to criticize this expert advice, starting with a name so clever that it would never be taken seriously. It’s one of the problems most brand agencies create in naming (and other tactics). They look for the clever, love puns and will come up with anything that makes people laugh in the boardroom, convinced it will be memorable.

Introducing the Punch Bowl Trophy!
Introducing the Punch Bowl Trophy!

Instead, clever means it will be forgotten. It means audiences will see that you don’t take it seriously, so neither will they.

To be fair, another brand strategist – a former player – responded that names such as The Super Bowl and March Madness came organically. That they started with descriptive names, like the AFL-NFL Championship Game, before some other verbiage entered the public lexicon and was adopted.

I except that’s how this playoff championship will go as well and there’s no need for the NCAA to cram some clever name upon us.

And I understand I may be making too much of this because, as far as I know, the first brand strategist could have been joking, although it didn’t sound like it. (Her agency theme line said they create names that are Awesome!)

It points to the reason why so many brands are lost, and not just in naming. So much branding (whether it’s in naming, messaging, brand positioning, etc.) has the stink of clever on it and execs end up going back to the drawing board, hiring another agency that is either looking to please the client or win awards. So that agency either builds the brand on product benefits the company is in love with but don’t matter to the target audience. (Also, in most cases, the competition has the same product benefits.)

Or the agency comes up with something that is clever, punchy if you will. These messages win awards because they seem creative, like Citibank’s “Citi never sleeps.” (Get it? Get it?) But they do nothing to move the needle.

Branding is hard work, digging deep into what audiences respond to emotionally that is straightforward and clear. Anything else just feels like marketing. And, as savvy as audiences have become to marketing, they will just laugh and move on.