Written 20 years back by Al Ries
The lure of the generic is so powerful that some companies have paid enormous sums for names that in the long run will turn out to be useless. A Los Angeles company bought Business.com for $7.5 million. Some other recent purchases: Wine.com was bought for $3 million. Telephone.com was bought for $1.75 million. Bingo.com was bought for $1.1 million. Wallstreet.com was bought for $1.03 million. Drugs.com was bought for $823,456. University.com was bought for $530,000. It’s worse than tulip mania in Holland or truffle madness in France. The latest bid on the Loans.com name was $3 million. (If you own a common Internet name, our advice is to sell it before the mania melts away.) Even at this early stage, the power of a proper name as opposed to a common name for an Internet brand has been clearly demonstrated. The big early winners (AOL, Amazon.com, eBay, Priceline.com, Yahoo!) have all been proper names rather than common names. There’s a lot of confusion on this issue. People see a name like Priceline and assume it’s a common or generic name, but it’s not. The generic name for the category is “tickets” or really “name-your-own-price airline tickets.” Tickets.com is a common name used for a Website that, in our opinion, is not going to take off. (“Price” and “line” are common words, of course, but they are used out of context and in combination to create the proper name “Priceline,” which becomes an effective Internet brand name.) Every common name can also be a proper name if used to identify a single person, place, or thing. Bird is a common name, but it’s also a proper name, as in Larry Bird or Tweety Bird. When you are choosing a brand name for your Website, the first thing to ask yourself is, what’s the generic name for the category? Then that’s the one name you don’t want to use for your site. Invariably a singular proper name will turn out to be a better name for your site than a generic. iVillage.com, for example, is a better name for a Website devoted to women than Women.com. (Yes, there is a Website called Women.com, and it spent millions to promote its name before selling out to a rival.
Ashton.com is a better name for a Website that sells luxury goods than Cyberluxury.com, eLuxury.com, or Firstjewelry.com. In the physical world, the same branding principles apply. The proper name is superior to the common or generic name. McDonald’s is a better name than Burger King. Hertz is a better name than National Car Rental. (All the car rental names you see in an airline terminal are national car rental companies, but there’s only one Hertz.) Time is a better name than Newsweek or U.S. News & World Report. Kraft is a better name than General Foods, so when Kraft General Foods decided to simplify their name, they called the company Kraft and not General Foods. There are degrees of commonness, of course. “Burger King” is not a totally common name. The Hamburger Place would be a totally common name for a fast-food establishment that features burgers. There are degrees of properness, too. McDonald’s and Hertz are more “proper” than Time magazine. Time is a common name used out of context to create a proper name. In the same way, Amazon and Yahoo! are more “proper” than Priceline and eBay, which are common words used out of context. (All distinctions are relative, of course. Even Amazon and Yahoo! can be common words. A yahoo is a brutish creature and an amazon is a tall, vigorous, strong-willed woman.) So how “proper” should your Website name be? It all depends. First, and most important of all, you want your Website name to be perceived as a proper name. Then hopefully you want your name to be more “proper” than your competitors’. But you also want to consider other factors.
You create a proper name that’s also short and easy to spell. CNET.com, for example, took the generic term “computer network” and shortened it to CNET, creating a short, proper name that’s also easy to spell.
Nabisco needed a brand name for its vanilla wafers, so it called them Nilla. And the powerful brand name Jell-O is just a shortened version of gelatin dessert. Nabisco itself is a brand name constructed by condensing its former generic name, National Biscuit Company. (There are many national biscuit companies, but only one Nabisco.)
Barnesandnoble.com finally threw in the towel on their long, difficult-to-spell name and shortened it to bn.com. Morgan Stanley Dean Witter is an enormously successful financial company, but Morganstanleydeanwitter.com is not going to make it on the Internet. The company shortened the name to msdw.com. (The names bn.com and msdw.com are not good either, because they are hard to remember.)
One way to have your cake and eat it too is by using both a name and a nickname on the Web. Charles Schwab is the leading discount brokerage firm, but on the Web the company uses both CharlesSchwab.com and Schwab.com, although it promotes only Schwab.com.
People feel closer to a brand when they are able to use the brand’s nickname instead of its full name.
Beemer, not BMW
Chevy, not Chevrolet
Coke, not Coca-Cola
Bud, not Budweiser
FedEx, not Federal Express
Mac, not Macintosh
But how unique is More.com, a site that spent $20 million to tell you they sell health, beauty, and wellness products? Or MyWay.com or CheckOut.com or Individual.com or Owners.com or YouDecide.com or Indulge.com or This.com or Respond.com? Or any of a hundred different sites being backed by millions of dollars’ worth of venture capital and promoted with millions of dollars’ worth of advertising? A Waltham, Massachusetts, company spent $20 million in television and radio advertisements to launch a gift-buying service called Send.com. How is anyone going to remember the name? Let’s say you wanted to buy a present for your friend Charlie for Christmas. Do you go to Buy.com, Present.com, Gift.com, or what? By definition a common or generic name is not unique. It does not refer to a specific person, place, or thing like a proper name does. Therefore, a common name used as a Website name for the generic category is not memorable.
The mind works with the sounds of words, not with the visuals and their shapes. When you grow up, you learn not to move your lips when you’re reading. But this doesn’t change the way your mind works. It still works with the sounds of words. If you want people to remember something, rhyme it for them. “If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit.” Fogdog.com is an improvement over the brand’s original name, which was Sportsite.com. Alliteration is another sure-fire way to improve your brand’s memorability. Many real-world brand names are alliterative. Some examples: Bed, Bath & Beyond, Blockbuster, Big Bertha, Coca-Cola, Weight Watchers.
The same principle applies with babies. Give your newborn kid a head start. Pick a first name that’s alliterative with your last name. It’s a fact that many famous celebrities have alliterative names: Alan Alda, Ronald Reagan, Robert Redford, Tina Turner, Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin, Sharon Stone, Greta Garbo, Doris Day, Sylvester Stallone, Susan Sarandon, Ted Turner, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck.