Research findings at the time showed that customers didn’t understand what FedEx’s services were because the service names weren’t explicitly helpful. “In some cases they were using acronyms that didn’t mean anything,” says Dave Hurlbert, then director of naming at Landor. “Even some of the people at FedEx didn’t know what they were. We made everything into plain English.”
Gayle Christensen, global brand management director of FedEx, agrees that the names were all over the map and needed to be modernized. The company implemented a nomenclature system that relies solely upon the FedEx brand married with real English words to describe the operating company, product or service clearly. The result is services and products with names like FedEx Freight, FedEx Box, and FedEx 2Day. The names still work a decade later.
“[Twenty years ago] the world was much simpler than it is today. It really paid off that we developed this system in the world [today] where we have a lot of operating companies and products and services,” says Christensen.
Whether a house of brands or a branded house, many companies find themselves in an interesting mish mash of proprietary and non-proprietary brands that may or may not be related to the parent company brand. The situation increases exponentially the more complex the company is in terms of divisions and operating companies.
Armed with the quest to be different and to break through the sea of brands vying for attention, many companies fall into the trap of finding new and “clever” ways of naming a product or service. Whether it’s the case of overzealous sales and marketing managers, an unmanaged brand system or a senior executive’s pet project, unintelligible or irrelevant names with little or no relationship to one another can pile up, ultimately costing companies thousands of dollars each year.
“The crux of the problem with nomenclature is how many of the products and services deserve to be promoted through proprietary brands, and how many do not? How are they all related? Do you have the money to support them? Every time you brand a product with a proprietary name, you’re going to spend a lot of time and money educating, promoting and protecting the new brand. If you can’t support a new name, then don’t do it,” suggests Hurlbert.
“I personally think proprietary names get in the way. If you can have a system that relies on your brand and from the get-go you know what your philosophy is, then you can come up with those systems. When you have proprietary names, often what happens is some senior product manager has a pet name that they like, and it may not be on-brand,” cautions Fedex’s Christensen.
Other companies such as Procter & Gamble and Viacom are famous for their massive portfolio of proprietary brands. Viacom owns dozens of proprietary corporate brands that range from MTV and Nickelodeon to Infinity Radio and Paramount Parks. The difference is in how they are organized. Even with a parent company brand that is invisible (or barely visible) to the consumer, the brands are intentionally organized so that a stockholder or internal employee can easily understand the range and depth of offerings.
Viacom for instance has its many brands organized under the descriptive headers of “broadcast television, cable television, motion pictures, radio and outdoor, retail and recreation” and so on. The easy-to-understand classification system appears on everything from the corporate website to brochures.
GE, started by Thomas Edison in 1890, takes a similar approach. While the company has a large portfolio of proprietary brands that range from B2B industrial products to financial services to kitchen appliances, they are all neatly organized under descriptive product-, service- and business-line names.
On the other hand, the Disney portfolio comprises a mix of brands under the Disney name and a series of standalone brands such as ABC, Baby Einstein and Miramax. The organization of all its companies, products and services, and how they relate back to the parent company brand is not terribly clear and consistent, especially when compared to similar a diversified global entertainment company like Viacom. (Additionally, Disney has taken a big hit on Wall Street since 2000. Stock is trading at about US$ 24 a share as of April 27, 2004, down from over $42 a share in 2000.)
While most brand consultants are reticent to publicly cite companies with abysmal nomenclature systems, a few agree that the worst offenders are the now-defunct dot coms. During the mid to late 1990s, dotcom companies emerged on practically every Silicon corner, flush with cash and ready to spend. Each had roughly the same branding tactics: say it loud and proud, use cool names and flashy designs; audience comprehension seemed to be optional.
Unfortunately, most of the dot coms learned branding lessons the hard way: through collapse.
“The dot coms were launching [what were] features as stupendous new products. As a result, the white noise was deafening – there was no way to break through. Every dot com insisted that everything they did had to be branded and broadcasted. It was too much,” says Hurlbert.
Adds Trish Striglos, brand strategist for Striglos Branding, “Lots of online entities had tons of cash and were acquiring companies rather than growing organically. They did not have time while they were acquiring companies to assess what their brand strategy was […] and it was very confusing to consumers.”
As the dot com tragedies illustrate, it’s never too soon in a company’s lifecycle to consider nomenclature strategies.
Striglos advises, "Think ahead. Understand who you are, what you mean and where you're going. Develop a brand and nomenclature strategy that maps to that definition and plan, and stick to your strategy.”