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What’s in a Name?

June 22, 2011

Brad Svrluga

It was an exciting day Monday for our portfolio company VillageVines. The company, which is the leading provider of insider pricing for fine dining experiences, launched a new website, a whole bunch of new functionality, 5 new markets, and unveiled their new brand – Savored. A massive amount of change on one day. And there’s more to come. Co-founder Dan Leahy wrote an awesome post on the process his team went through in getting to the big day. It’s well worth a read.

Watching the Savored team and board go through the process of thinking about rebranding put a point on a topic I think many entrepreneurs need to be more thoughtful about – branding.

There are a lot of people out there who believe that there are few things more important than the selection of company name. People pay consultants big bucks to help with it, lose enormous amounts of sleep, and are almost never really satisfied with the outcome of branding exercises. At the end of the day, does it really matter?

My answer: Not really.

Except when it does.

I’m no branding expert, but I do have a clear point of view on one place that companies often stumble in branding themselves. It can be summed up in two simple rules:

  1. Your brand doesn’t need to mean anything directly evocative of what you do (see Google, Yahoo, Starbucks, Tesla). . .
  2. . . .but you must make sure it doesn’t suggest something you are NOT, or create unnecessary limitations vis a vis what you might become.

For these two reasons, I think that companies are generally better off with non-descriptive brands.

As Dan Leahy explained, that second point is why VillageVines is now Savored. There was some original descriptive logic to that brand, but now, to 9 out of 10 people, VillageVines sounded like it must be a wine business. Even people who had seen the site and been introduced to the service seemed to forget and revert to associating the brand with wine. We had powerful brand associations – but with the wrong thing!

When our sales force was out pitching in the marketplace, they would frequently run into trouble when restaurant owners thought they were from yet another wine distributor. We have a great offering that benefits consumers and restaurateurs alike, but we were putting a mental barrier in the way of people building clear associations with our brand. The change had to happen.

While VillageVines had a misleading brand, you can create just as much of an issue if your brand starts out as a good fit, but over time becomes limiting in its effort to be descriptive. The effort to be elegant, simple, and descriptive frequently backfires.

If you listen to NPR in the mornings, you’ve no doubt heard the sponsorship announcements from Reputation.com, formerly Reputation Defender. When it was founded, Reputation Defender was explicitly, and successfully, focused on helping brands protect their online reputations by patrolling the web and tracking and remediating negative and potentially misleading mentions. As their business grew, and they quite logically expanded into offering broader services to help clients manage their online image, the ‘Defender’ piece of the brand became limiting. They wanted to be in the brand promotion and management business as much as the ‘defense’ business. So they were forced to make a change. Had they really carefully considered it from the outset, they might have predicted this outcome and saved a lot of angst and expense.

It’s impossible to predict how companies will evolve and where they will end up. And names, of course, have to be chosen at the very beginning. For that reason, I always advise startups to choose brands that either don’t mean anything (Google) or are only vaguely evocative of the company’s business (Savored). In 2011, which seems to be the great year of the pivot, that seems the safest path to avoiding this one set of headaches down the road.

(For another good read on the branding topic, check out this one from the always thought-provoking Seth Godin, and also see Wikipedia’s fascinating list of brand etymologies.)

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