What is a Brand Name?

Types of brand names, their history, and their impact on language

View of a city street with many brand names on signs.

 

Dong Wenjie / Getty Images

A brand name or trade name is a name (usually a proper noun) applied by a manufacturer or organization to a particular product or service. While a brand name is sometimes simply the name of the founders of a company, such as John Deere or Johnson & Johnson (founded by brothers Robert Wood, James Wood, and Edward Mead Johnson), these days, brand names are most often strategically thought-out marketing tools geared toward establishing consumer awareness and fostering brand loyalty.

What is the Purpose of a Brand Name?

In its simplest form, a brand name is a form of a signature that gives credit to the creator of a particular work or service and sets it apart from those created by others. Two of the main purposes of brand names are:

  • Identification: To differentiate a particular product or service from other like or similar brands.
  • Verification: To authenticate that a product or service is the genuine or desired article (as opposed to a generic or knock-off).

It's the same principle as artists signing their paintings, journalists getting a byline, or designers attaching a brand logo. A brand name is what consumers use to identify the provenance and authenticity of the things they consume—be it a work of art, a film franchise, a TV show, or a cheeseburger.

Fast Facts About Brand Names

  • Brand names are usually capitalized, although in recent years bicapitalized names (such as eBay and iPod) have become increasingly popular. 
  • A brand name may be used and protected as a trademark. In writing, however, it's not usually necessary to identify trademarks with the notations ™ or ®.

The History of Brand Naming

The practice of brand naming is nothing new. Exekias, an Athenian potter working in ancient Greece circa 545 to 530 BCE, actually signed one of his vases: “Exekias made and painted me.” As early as the 1200s, Italian tradesmen were creating watermarked paper to differentiate one maker from another.

During the Second Industrial Revolution, when a man's good name was often synonymous with his reputation (and all that reputation implied: integrity, ingenuity, trustworthiness), companies started branding themselves with the names of their powerful owners. Examples of this trend are the Singer Sewing Machine Company, the Fuller Brush Company, and Hoover vacuum cleaners—all of which are still in use (even if the original company has been sold or absorbed into a larger corporation).

Modern branding as we know it employs sophisticated focus groups combined with data from detailed linguistic and psychological analysis to come up with brand names that are meant to instill confidence and induce the public to buy. These targeted practices started just after the Second World War when a booming consumer market created a proliferation of new products from competing companies and made finding unique, memorable names a necessity.

Types of Brand Names

While some brands are still named for the people behind a product or service, others are created to give consumers a specific idea of what something is or how they might expect it to perform. For example, while Shell Oil has nothing to do with mollusks, a consumer who buys Hefty trashbags infers from the name they are getting a product that will be strong enough to do its intended job.

Likewise, when consumers purchase Mr. Clean, they know the purpose of the product is to eliminate dirt, or when they shop at Whole Foods, they have the expectation that the products they're buying will be healthier and more eco-friendly than those they'd find at grocery chains or box stores.

Other brand names do not identify a specific quality, but rather, evoke a concept or a feeling. Such names have a symbolic rather than literal meaning. For example, Apple computers don't grow on trees and you can't eat them, and yet the name plays perfectly into the mental associations people make with apples.

While Apple founder Steve Jobs didn't go the focus-group route when naming the company (he told his biographer that he was on one of his "fruitarian diets," had recently visited an apple farm, and thought the name sounded “fun, spirited and not intimidating”), apples evoke connections as basic as simplicity and being good for you to more esoteric concepts, such the innovative scientific advances made by Sir Isaac Newton in his experiments with the laws of gravity.

The Evolution of Brand Names in Language

Two of the more interesting ways in which brand names make the transition from names that simply represent a company to becoming integrated into a language in a broader context have to do with their purpose and popularity.

In the facet of grammar known as open class words, language is constantly evolving as words are added or altered. The function of words, including brand names, can change over time. For example, Google in addition to being a search engine (a noun), is also a word that's come to mean what people do while on that site, i.e, search (a verb): "I'll Google it; He Googled it; I'm Googling it now."

Other brand names have such strong consumer identification that they eventually supplant the goods or services they are identified with. When a brand name is in such common usage that it becomes generic, it's known as a proprietary eponym or generic trademark. 

Two examples of this phenomenon are Kleenex and Q-Tips. When the majority of American consumers sneeze, they ask for a Kleenex, not a tissue; when they clean their ears, they want a Q-Tip, not a cotton swab. Other generic trademarks are Band-Aids, ChapStick, Roto-Rooter, and Velcro.

"Jacuzzi is a commercial brand, hot tub is the generic term; i.e., all Jacuzzis are hot tubs, but not all hot tubs are Jacuzzis."—Jim Parsons as Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory

And finally, some brand names don't really mean anything at all. Kodak Camera Company founder George Eastman simply made up something he liked the sound of: "A trademark should be short, vigorous, incapable of being misspelled,” Eastman famously explained. "The letter 'K' had been a favorite of mine. It seems a strong, incisive sort of letter. It became a question of trying out a great number of combinations of letters that made words starting and ending with 'K.'"

Sources

  • Micael Dahlén, Micael; Lange, Fredrik; Smith, Terry. "Marketing Communications: A Brand Narrative Approach." Wiley, 2010
  • Colapinto, John. "Famous Names." The New Yorker. October 3, 2011
  • Elliott, Stuart. "The Verb Treatment for an Investment House." The New York Times. March 14, 2010
  • Rivkin, Steve. "How Did Apple Computer Get its Name?" Branding Strategy Insider. November 17, 2011
  • Gordon, Whitson. "How a Brand Name Becomes Generic: Pass the Kleenex, Please." The New York Times. June 24, 2019