About a decade ago, I read an article about a new disposable toothbrush. The product itself was modestly interesting: It was a travel-sized toothbrush meant to be used without water, allowing travelers to use it once before tossing it in the garbage.
What caught my eye, however, was not the design, but the name. It was called Wisp. Colgate hired a branding agency to come up with it, and in the article I read, someone from that agency described their research method, including an international analysis of similar sounds and a linguistic understanding of the word “wisp.” The way that “isp” noise rolls off the tongue in various different languages — it’s like a whisper or a shush. I thought it was brilliant.
Far too often, business leaders overlook the value of branding. Just over a year ago, a client brushed off my attempts to build them a brand. “We’re building an app, not a brand,” they insisted.
But apps need brands. On average, people take mere seconds to calculate first impressions of people — one tenth of a second, some psychologists believe. For brands, it’s an even bigger battle. An oft-cited statistic, bandied around branding listicles around the web (but whose primary source I couldn’t find), claims that audiences will only start to recall your brand after seeing it five to seven times. Regardless of the scientific veracity, to me, it sounds right: People take precious little time to make a judgment and will forget that judgment, and your brand, the very next day.
It is therefore critical to get branding right on the first try. For entrepreneurs, launching a company with a strong brand will make your formative years that much simpler. Too often, leaders fall into the trap of having a great idea and saddling it with a rushed name. Why go through all the trouble of building something if you’re not going to care about its presentation?
Branding is a unique trial.
I believe in an open secret of business strategy: Surround yourself with great people, and empower them to work independently and creatively. This is especially true in branding.
Here’s a recent example. This coming spring, after more than a year of research and development, I’m launching a suite of new companies in the creative industry under an umbrella corporation called “Third Summit.” I came up with that name myself, and it reflects a personal journey: I’ve tackled Mount Everest and Kilimanjaro, and this company will be just as difficult as summiting a mountain — if not harder. It’s an ode to entrepreneurs everywhere who understand the trials of starting your own company.
But under my company’s umbrella there are several other companies, and at a certain point, coming up with names for all of them felt impossible. Should they sound similar? Should they be totally separate? I decided, after months of struggling, that I was too close to it. It was time to ask for help.
Based on industry referrals, I began reaching out to the heads of reputable branding agencies. My first call was a dud — the CEO kept veering our conversation back toward money and did not sound very interested in my ideas. (Therein lies another good lesson: Just because a reputable company looks glossy and charges a lot doesn’t mean it’ll match your needs.)
But the second call was genuinely invigorating. We discussed disruption in the marketing industry and the importance of corporate agility and agreed on almost every point. But in the back of my mind, I knew it was a lost cause. How could we financially justify hiring an expensive outside branding agency?
When is it time to let go of the steering wheel?
It turns out, the man from the second call, David, was the CEO of a company called Lexicon Branding, which — in a coincidence too strange to be fiction — branded Colgate Wisp. David was featured on a podcast where he explained that a good brand name is a chance to set yourself apart or even rename an entire category. I’d worked in branding for years, but hearing him outline his process put me at ease. Not every name he came up with was a winner, but there was a well-thought-out reason behind each one.
It also reminded me of a valuable branding lesson: It’s important to recognize when it’s OK to let someone else take control. It helps you gain perspective on the issue you’re facing, but you need to do it on your own terms. For example, in our case, the decision to consider outside perspectives became obvious over time. You’ll want to consider three main factors:
1. Is ego in the way? As we spoke with more investors and fellow entrepreneurs, we realized the company could be bigger than we’d first thought. Even though I’d been working in the creative field for nearly two decades, I couldn’t let ego get in the way of something this important.
2. Are you listening to your most trusted peers? For months, I’d run the various name options by my closest friends and peers, many of whom offered honest feedback. When fellow entrepreneurs ask for advice, I always tell them to listen to their trusted friends.
3. Could someone else do it better? The company I chose to work with uses linguistic software to generate name ideas. Creativity is one thing, but professionals have access to tools you might not know about, which can be helpful when you’re feeling stuck during the branding phase.
Branding is an emotional industry; brands are meant to evoke feelings and reactions. When you see an Apple commercial, a feeling of awe should wash over you. When you see a product called “Wisp,” you understand it won’t last forever.
But because branding is emotional, it’s hard to do it yourself. Perspective is necessary. If you can’t do it yourself, it’s OK to take a step back and let someone else try.