05/20/2014 12:44 pm ET Updated Jul 19, 2014

Empty Vessels

The title President of the United States of America--easily one of the most respected honorifics ever, synonymous with most powerful leader in the world--was intended to belittle (or at least humble) its holder. In the hallowed halls of our nascent political system, architects of our democracy sought to limit George Washington's power (or at least prevent him from getting any big ideas). They chose the smallest, most functional title (president of a cricket club for instance, compared to a King, the prevailing grandest title) they could think of, not realizing they had given a succession of great leaders an empty vessel of a title they would fill with meaning.

This story came to mind when a good friend of mine sought advice on naming a new product. She was frustrated. Her team had offered up several rounds of options, but none had hit the mark. "What's the mark?" I asked, ready to suggest she give Tether a shot at naming such a promising product. But what she told me stopped me cold. "I don't have a huge budget to promote the launch," she said. "So I want a name that's truly unique and memorable, but explains what the product is and what it does. Oh, and it also has to convey how premium it is."

All she was asking for was the magic bullet of naming. The problem is: it doesn't exist. When we work on naming projects, we often bucket our options into categories: descriptive names (Shredded Wheat); suggestive (Microsoft); arbitrary (Apple); and coined (Xerox). Coined and arbitrary names give you the best chance of being truly unique. Descriptive and suggestive tell you what it is or does, but they're rarely interesting, never mind memorable. (As for conveying premium? Show, don't tell.) But no matter where you land, name-wise, it's important to understand that a name isn't as powerful as you think. They're important--names consumers can't pronounce or don't want to say can certainly hurt (lookup Toad the Wet Sprocket for proof). But the reality is that it takes more than a name. Or, in other words, a product's reality doesn't depend solely on what you call it--it depends on what you make of it.

Which is why I'm a big fan of empty vessels, those brand elements--names, logos, marks or icons, big campaign ideas--that hold very little meaning in and of themselves. Starbucks, for instance. To most of the world, Starbucks is synonymous with coffee. The brand elements--a name derived from an obscure literary reference and a logo that drafts off seafarer's mythology--did not explain the products or convey quality. At the time, in a market dominated by deplorable diner coffee, the name was certainly unique, but memorable? Probably not until after the consumer had his or her third or fourth pleasurable experience. Yet the name and logo (now reduced to a mark, no name required) conveys premium in a way the more on-the-nose Seattle's Best Coffee never will.

"Empty vessels favor the bold," I told my friend. A unique and potentially memorable name, when paired with a quality product that truly meets consumers' needs, can be the most powerful asset a brand can wish for. In our age of instant gratification, the notion of building something over the long term may seem archaic. But consumers are smart and discerning--if they like what you offer, they don't mind doing a little work to get to know you. While your brand may not be the next President of the United States of America, it may well be the next Starbucks. Especially if you embrace an empty vessel and fill it with meaning.