Brand Naming Systems: Identifying the Nomenclature for Your Brand’s Portfolio

Nadège Depeux

Brand Strategy Director, Paris

When we talk about nomenclatures, the first thing that tends to come to mind is a complex combination of words and letters that seem to be understood only by those experts who created the nomenclature and already understand the product family, attributes, and characteristics that are behind it. 

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Facom’s complex nomenclature denotes product specifications

This might be the impression you may have when you buy a printer, for instance: what is the difference between the CANON PIXMA TS8051 and CANON PIXMA MG2550S? This impression may turn into a nightmare when you want to buy cartridges and realize you were supposed to learn this alphanumeric combination by heart.

But if you look closely, you will see that a nomenclature, which is defined as a system of names or terms and the rules established to create those names, can work in a very organized and logical way. The two printers EPSON XP-540 and the EPSON WF 3620, for instance, are named after EXPERIENCE (XP) and WORKFORCE (WF), which, once you know it, is easier to remember.

The Mendeleyev Periodic Table of Elements is a great example of a powerful nomenclature, as it structures, classifies and informs, but above all, it creates a unique and powerful language (In this case, made of one or two letters, the second being always in lowercase letters).

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The Periodic Table is a universally-known nomenclature which pairs together alphanumeric combinations.

If we look into the color painting category, we see that a nomenclature is not necessarily alphanumeric.

The British brand Farrow & Ball, for instance, presents its color range with English words and expressions that combine a description of the color with a more emotional touch: Oval Room Blue, Skylight, etc. 

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Farrow & Ball’s color range highlights an emotional touch.

5 Trends in Naming Systems

In recent years, the number of nomenclature needs for brands has increased, under the influence of 5 different factors:

1. A Customer Centric Focus

The consumer is more than ever at the centre of all attention and many companies who had developed product-characteristics-based nomenclatures – sometimes directly derived from technology/production – re-explore their system from a more customer-friendly perspective. In the building industry for instance, Saint-Gobain Glass has launched recent products with names that are more benefits-related (i.e. SGG Timeless) and differ from their past names (i.e. Planitherm XN). In this shift, the question of change is also raised. Do we accept coexistence of different generations of names or de we change the entire naming system, to suit the historical pillars?

2. Increasing Number of References for One Product Base

Customization is more important than ever, and consequently many options and variations of product offerings coexist, according to different criteria. This can lead to long series of names, such as in the car industry (i.e. the Minicooper Countryman All4)

There is therefore a need to rank, clarify, organize and express these multi-entry criteria: it can be the type of finishing touches, the range levels (i.e. IBIS budget, IBIS Style,), the sensorial experience, the seasonal variety, or more that can primarily impact this organization.

3. The Race for Renewal

In most industries, competitive leadership and consumer loyalty are maintained through innovation. This competitive spirit encourages industries to remain “lively”, agile and connected to the target. The challenge is to find a way to make this innovation/improvement visible.

In the car industry, things tend to be kept simple with the adjective “new”: “The New Scenic,” says Renault on its website. Apple with the iPhone has transformed its innovation program into a clearly identifiable nomenclature. Customers are able to identify and rank the different generations of iPhone: iPhone 5, iPhone 6, etc., with the higher number signalling more advanced features and a faster processor.

4. The Complexity of Product Experience

As a consequence of the end of traditional boundaries between sectors, digital transformation, and a service-oriented mindset, consumers experience products in a more complex and multi-dimensional manner. Brands need to help the consumer navigate smoothly along this journey through simplified common threads. Taking the iPhone example again, Apple, by using systematically the "i” letter as a prefix, creates a link between hardware and software and builds a symbiotic system that resonates smoothly all along the customer’s experience: from the iPhone, to iOS 10, to iTunes, and to the iPad.

5. The Need to Gather Disparate, Disorganized Offers

With the global marketplace home to more mergers and acquisitions, global brands seek rationalization of their portfolio so as to create something readable, simple and unified under few identified names.

Often supported by legal departments, as there is no need to find new names and therefore huge economies of scales, this centralized nomenclature serves the corporate brand and creates consistency across offerings.

Navigating the Trends

From these 5 trends, we can see that companies need to solve tensions and paradoxes, which can be summed up into 3 main questions:

  • How can brands show technology, innovation & expertise AND be customer focused – with accessible and easy to decode names?
  • How can brands be consistent and global to show leadership AND differentiate hundreds of products easily?
  • How can brands find a clear, simple, stable naming system AND be flexible enough to highlight novelty and show some liveliness?

The resolution of these tensions will be unique for each brand, but it clearly shows that establishing a nomenclature is the result of balanced choices.

How is a Nomenclature Built?

A nomenclature is built from global brand strategy and brand architecture and is influenced by a, the brands; b, the industry; c, the competitive landscape; d, the targets; e, the offerings; f, the world – looking for best practices and evolutions in other categories is always an important part of the process.

A nomenclature generally is comprised of two parts which are interdependent: the global framework and the navigation system.

Global Framework

The global framework gives the foundation and feeling of the offerings. It is the common thread that guides the customer journey through the offerings.

The global framework is an output of the global brand strategy, defining the general rules – such as the general “shape” of the names – and creates a global spirit, an overall tone.

This global framework can for instance define the name type (alphanumeric combination, arbitrary words, existing terms, etc.) and the language used or the personality (the brand conveys a sense of joy, or creates proximity).

The question of balance between technology, innovation & expertise AND customer focus is key at this stage. For instance, if a brand defines simplicity as a core value, what does it mean in terms of nomenclature? How can it be translated into an extendable system for naming multiple offerings?

Audi, for instance, names their models with a very simple and short alphanumeric combination that creates a global sensation of technology, order and simplicity.

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Audi’s car model nomenclature highlights technology, order and simplicity.

Navigation System

Once the general framework with is defined, including the foundations and the tone, the navigation system has to be created. This navigation system is influenced by the brand architecture which has established, from a theoretical point of view, the role and relationship between brands at different levels and needs to be translated verbally. But it also includes the journey through the offerings customers can take and the evolution of that journey over time.

Depending on the strategy behind, the intensity of the common thread that helps customers navigate through the offerings can vary from strong to invisible.

We can define three main nomenclature approaches that can be created using all naming aspects: phonetics, semantics, structure and brand personality.

Three Approaches to Brand Naming Systems

Approach 1: Centralized Ecosystem - Directed Navigation

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Schneider Electric’s nomenclature repeats “Modicon” for each offering, highlighting consistency.

In this approach, there is a centralized ecosystem – for example a strong central name – and all services and products are derived from this central name, along a specific path and step-by-step. Consistency is therefore very strong. New offers are relatively easy to implement, with very few legal issues.

To differentiate products, services, options, we see an addition of suffixes that describe the activity, the targets, or the use cases. Suffixes tend to remain in the shadow of the parent brand.

Over time, with new offers and options, this can result in “sandwich names” that are overstuffed with suffixes and descriptions.

This system helps in building a strong brand but may be seen as a bit rigid or repetitive over time.

DOLIPRANE, a very well-known headache and pain reliever brand in France, has developed different offerings around other specific symptoms and diseases. Instead of repeating DOLIPRANE for each offering, they developed names based on the DOLI prefix.

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Doliprane’s nomenclature uses the prefix Doli for each offering.

The use of a repeated prefix (as long as this prefix is strong) brings more flexibility to the naming ecosystem, while maintaining consistency.

Approach 2: Symbiotic Relationship – Channelled Navigation

In this strategy, the offerings have specific names that reflect their attributes and/or benefits, but the names share something in common that link them together. This can be:

  • A common letter. Renault, for instance, uses the letter Z for all cars or offerings related to Electric: Kangoo Z.E., Twizy, Zoe, and Z.E. Box. Apple uses the letter i as we’ve seen above.
  • A graphic sign. Lancôme uses a circumflex for several of their products, such as the Poême and the Hypnôse.
  • A common structure: In our Audi example, the systematic use of the same structure allows us recognize the link with the Audi brand and navigate between the different offerings.

With channelled navigation, the consumer naturally chooses his key entry point and then follows set paths to navigate through the product ranges.

There is a medium degree of consistency while diversity is more visible. Global impression is less organized, but more lively.

Approach 3: “Esprit de Famille” - Free Navigation

Like members of the same family, links and similarities between names and consequently their offerings may not be visible at first sight, yet they speak the same language, share the same spirit and have common values. The thread is therefore subtle and perceived by the subconscious rather than expressed directly.

This invisible thread can be created through:

  • The same meaning, such as the systematic expression of the main benefit of the product;
  • A semantic family, such as Seat’s Spanish towns (Ibiza, Toledo, etc.);
  • A common structure, such as a combination of two existing words; and
  • A phonetic similarity, such as the systematic use of names with technological phonetics.

Ultimately these threads can be combined to deliver a holistic brand personality expressed through the nomenclature. Nespresso, for instance, draws together several of the above factors for a comprehensive brand personality. All names convey a sensorial experience and feeling through meaning and phonetics.

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Nespresso’s Nomenclature communicates a sensorial feeling.

Even if the links between offerings seem very subtle, they serve the global brand and nourish each other.

This strategy allows each offering to live on its own and valorises diversity. Consistency is invisible; there is no specific entry point but instead a global feeling that highlights diversity of experiences.

Conclusion: Anticipate Future Offerings

From these 3 strategies, we clearly see that an arbitrage has to be made between homogeneity, consistency, structure and diversity, heterogeneity, and liveliness. We also see that this depends upon the role the global brand chooses to take in the navigation process of our consumers: directed, channelled, or free.

However, whatever the strategy adopted, the nomenclature must make sure that it anticipates the future of the offerings in respect to all naming aspects (legal, linguistic, etc.). Beyond structuring and classifying, it must leave doors open so that new offerings brought on in future years can fit into it.

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