THE BLOG
09/09/2016 12:19 pm ET

Why Brand Names Are So Important, According To Science

Coca-Cola. Kleenex. Netflix. Google. Brand names surround us, often to the point that they become a natural part of our everyday speech.

As any successful entrepreneur can tell you, there are countless components to creating a successful brand - the most important of which, of course, is providing a good product or service.

Still, however, the brand name itself carries more weight than you might think - and can mark the difference between a brand that gains traction and one that falls flat.

Here's the science behind why certain brand names stick and others don't.

Learning words is more than just memorizing meanings

When we're children, our minds are like blank slates: uncontaminated by experience, we learn about the world by absorbing our surroundings.

A crucial part of this learning process is developing a vocabulary. Indeed, by the time we're 10 years old, most of us will already know 10,000 words - a figure that more than doubles by the time we reach adulthood.

But learning a word entails a lot more than mapping a meaning to a sequence of sounds. It involves a whole network of associations, which affect how we think and feel about that word.

Take "cat," for instance. At face value, a "cat" is a four-legged feline mammal that is a common household pet.

Now, suppose that your next-door neighbor had a fluffy and sociable cat when you were growing up. As a result of this, you might associate the word "cat" with positive emotions, like affection.

Alternatively, if your neighbor's cat always hissed at you, you might associate the word "cat" with negative emotions, like fear. Either way, the word "cat" makes you not only think about cats, but how you feel about them, too.

That's whole idea behind implicit-association tests: throughout the years, we've cultivated positive and negative connotations about certain words that are so ingrained in our brains that we don't even realize it.

With this in mind, let's revisit the vocabulary statistics we mentioned above. The average English-speaking adult has a vocabulary size of around 30,000 words (some estimates are even higher).

By the time we're adults, the connotations we've associated with these words are pretty solid. We either like cats, or we don't. Our minds are no longer blank slates like they were when we were toddlers.

Brand names are words, too

So what does this have to do with branding? Michael Rader, founder of Brandroot, a marketplace for .com domain names, explains: "Brand names are words, too," he says. "So the first time we hear a brand name, we have no preconceived conceptions about it."

Let's take a real-life example. Even though we've formed concrete feelings about the word "shoe," when we hear about a brand called "Nike" for the first time, suddenly we're babies again: we learn to associate positive or negative connotations with the word "Nike" based on our experiences.

As Rader points out, this gives businesses a lot of control in how people interpret their brand. "Brand names give businesses the opportunity to put a meaning behind their name with completely positive connotations," Rader says.

So, if your brand delivers a quality product, gets good press, and aligns with your customers' values, your customers will begin to associate your brand with positive connotations - just like you did with your neighbor's fluffy cat when you were a child.

Rader concisely sums up the importance of this: "If somebody automatically associates your brand name with positive emotions, you've earned yourself a customer for life."

What about brand names that are already words?

An astute reader might wonder, "What about brands like Facebook, which consist of words that already exist?"

Here, the important thing isn't the words themselves, but rather the combination of the words in question.

To illustrate, think of the word "off." If an alarm goes off, it means one thing; if an alarm turns off, it means quite another. This shows that it's not necessarily individual words that supply meaning, but rather their relationship to other words.

For that reason, brand names that consist of two words, like "face" and "book" - which, previous to 2004, had rarely been seen in combination - are still processed as novel words, and are still subject to the same "blank slate" effect as described above. (JetBlue, MasterCard, and Snapchat are other notable examples, among many.)

Of course, there are some companies whose names don't have any novelty at all - think of the now-defunct pets.com or toys.com. As these examples suggest, these brands names are hard to work with, as you can never truly break away from your customers' preconceived notions of your brand.

Still, some businesses have had success with this approach. "In my business, it's more important that people immediately know what I'm offering than it is to build connotations behind my brand name," says Brandon Hieber, CEO of The Old School Game Vault.

For the vast majority of business owners, however, the goal is to build a brand - and ideally, one that's associated with positive connotations for the consumer.

And that's why your brand name is so important. It gives customers a chance to learn a new word and imbue it with fresh connotations as if they were children.

That way, people learn to mentally link your brand with good things right from the get-go - which, like a fluffy and sociable neighborhood cat, can create a positive association that lasts a lifetime.

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