Brand Naming Expert Misty Johnson
How do you respond when people react negatively to brand name changes?
This week we’re announcing a name change for the podcast. Okay, not really, but almost. We called in an expert to discuss process of naming companies and branded stuff, the pitfalls of renaming and how to do it in a way that makes it easier to be accepted by the people who loved the old name.
Misty Johnson is a brand strategist with a specialty in brand naming. She has nearly 20 years experience helping brands name, rename, merge, name products, name services, and name just about anything that has to do with brands.
Show Notes Links
Evan 0:02 You're listening to One Thing Real Quick. It's a podcast about design and creativity where each episode is built around a single question. My name is Evan MacDonald. Our guests are the kinds of people who use creativity every day. Designers and writers, photographers, artists, musicians, filmmakers, and on and on.
This week I'm talking with Misty Johnson. She has nearly 20 years of branding experience with a specialty in naming.
I first met Misty Johnson just over 10 years ago. At the time, she was a senior program manager on the naming team at Interbrand in New York City. While she was there, she worked with AT&T, the Ad Council, Procter and Gamble, Heinz, Toyota, and a lot more—doing everything from brand naming and renaming to naming products and naming all the other stuff that brands like to have names attached to.
I really enjoyed this conversation. Brand design is the kind of work that I do every day. And I've been lucky enough to work on some naming projects myself, and I really enjoy the naming process, I find it to be a fascinating process, and one that I think most people underestimate. Here's Misty talking a bit about the process. And the scope of this kind of undertaking.
Misty 1:25 I also was in charge of the rebranding for Deloitte Consulting, when they had some legal and ethical challenges and wanted to show a change in that direction. And so they needed to rename Deloitte Consulting. And so, that one was very, very long. For that one, I manage the database of over 10,000 names. We would do something called a pre screen. So we had a trademark firm that we worked with. We would send them lists, we would cull it down and we'd send them a list and kind of get feedback from them on whether it was a go, or no go. And they would look at things like phone books, and domain registries, and DBAs. So you actually would pick the trademark class, whether it was a food or whether it was automotive, or whether it was telecommunications, ...
Evan 2:23 So from making massive lists of names—in this specific case, 10,000—to calling that list, and then vetting, the naming of a brand or a product is a potentially huge project with legal and linguistic pitfalls. And sometimes naming a brand or a product can take years. And with the rate at which trends change, your product could become obsolete by the time you've come up with a name for it.
Misty 2:55 Sometimes it does take years. Miller actually was coming out with a low carb beer. And I think the name they actually ended up keeping was Fortune. Miller Fortune. The problem is, they waited so long on the name the low carb phase kind of died out. And so they ended up keeping the name but they ended up not using it for the purpose that they intended, for the product they intended, but they ended up five years later with something else.
Evan 3:36 Naming is a big task. And this week, my guest Misty Johnson share some insights about this task, about this process, the process of naming things. My question for Misty, "How do you respond when people react negatively to name changes?"
Stick around for the rest of my conversation with Misty Johnson. She'll share some really important ideas about naming and renaming, specifically a story where rebrand and rename project went over about as well as anyone could have expected. She'll outline some of the things that they did that I think could apply to just about anyone that's renaming or rebranding just about anything. But before we get there, a little message from our wonderful friends over at Libro.fm.
If you like audiobooks, and I hope that you do, I know I do, you should be getting them from the Robin Hood of audiobooks libro.fm. See, libro FM offers the same experience and selection from places like Audible. But they have partnered with thousands of local, independent bookstores. With each purchase, a portion goes to the bookstore of your choice. So it's like you're helping the little guy, you're buying local. They've also partnered with their users by not putting limits on where you can listen to the audiobooks that you purchase. And if you subscribe to their monthly plan, the credits that you get each month never expire. You can't say the same thing for some of these other big... we could call them the 'Prince Nottingham's of audiobooks.' And if you needed another reason to go check out Libro.fm, they've also partnered with this podcast, an independent podcast, One Thing Real Quick. And as a listener, if you sign up for an account Libro.fm and use the offer code OTRQ—that's just the initials of this podcast: OTRQ, One Thing Real Quick—you get two free audiobooks. And if you enjoy conversations about branding, like the one that we're having this week on the podcast, you might check out Brand Aid by Brad Van Auken as one of your first free audiobooks. So go now to Libro.fm, use the offer code OTRQ, and get yourself to free audiobooks. You know, maybe Libro.fm change their name, maybe there's something like Robin Hood audiobooks. Okay, probably not. All right, let's get back to my conversation with branding and naming expert, Misty Johnson.
So this is my question. You talked about renaming things?
Misty 6:31 Yes.
Evan 6:32 So my question is, how do you respond when people react negatively to rebranding and to name changes?
Misty 6:39 Sure, you're going to have a reaction one way or the other. What we used to say is, don't ever discuss names with your spouse. They will have no context. They won't understand the brief. They'll just have the knee-jerk reaction.
Of course, I made the fatal mistake of talking to my husbabd about names. Miller had 'Highlife,' and he says, "I know what it should be called. It should be called Lowlife. Miller Lowlife. Because it's low carb and it should be called Lowlife."
Evan 7:23 Hire him!
Misty 7:24 Yes, exactly.
Evan 7:27 It's not gonna get through vetting very well. The linguistic check stops at our language. At English!
Misty 7:38 Exactly! Say low life to someone, it's not a good thing. So Rick and I kind of had that same philosophy with naming our kids. We did not share the names with family members or friends before they were actually born, because we didn't want to hear if they didn't like it. It was going to be what it was going to be. And it was better to do it as a fait accompli rather than 'this is open for suggestion.' So I would say...
Evan 8:05 Design by committee. Right? That's the greatest way to never get anything done.
Misty 8:09 That's right. Well, and the thing I had a boss say one time when we were on the phone. There was a company that needed to change its name for legal reasons. Their question was "how are you going to accomplish the task of getting us a name that we love?" And he said, "Well, I'm going to tell you right now, you're not going to love the name as much as you love the one right now."
He said, it's just not possible. When you've lived with a name for a while, it's something that already has a life, that already has legs. It's something that you've seen full grown. And so we came at it as that way. We're going to try and get as close as possible to how much you love the name you currently have. But it's just not possible.
Evan 8:55 That's really insightful advice.
Misty 8:57 Yeah, I thought so too. Because you know, you want to promise the stars and moon, to say, 'of course, that's exactly what we do!" And that's not possible. I don't care who you hire. It's just the nature of the beast.
Evan 9:11 Do you think that when you make a name change like this, that an organization is not going to love it as much at first. But that eventually over time? Do you feel like with time, people can love a new name better than the old name?
Misty 9:30 Oh, yes, definitely. Definitely. No one likes change. And so the initial reaction is always fear and rejection. And so I think, whenever people get their questions answered, and they live with something... We always try to tell people that a name is like a suitcase, you can only put so many things in it before it explodes. And so you can't expect it to be the end all be all of your entire brand. I mean, it can communicate one or two things. It also depends on how you build the story around those one or two things. You've got all these other elements to a brand besides the name. You've got logos, you've got colors, you've got advertising, you've got taglines.
Sephora was a client of ours, and we did the internal store design. And so, what's the story or the customer experience like? All those different elements all add up to the brand. The name is just the thing that you trademark.
Evan 10:38 Yeah, I remember hearing something once at an industrial design conference. And, and they were talking about how the product is the container of the brand. And as a graphic designer, I kind of took that and said, "dang, I design logos, I want to contain the..."
But it's, it's absolutely true. The products, the thing that you make, the thing that people are purchasing and interacting with and living right for, hopefully, years after they make that purchase. Or if it's a service, or whatever it is, That's the container of the brand. And so I like that you talk about the name being like a suitcase ,that can only hold so much. Because really, the product is what holds everything.
Misty 11:27 Exactly. And a lot of clients, we end up having to tell them, "Look, you're over stuffing the suitcase, it's just not possible, it's gonna burst it's not, you need either a bigger suitcase or more suitcases." They want to be able to say, 'this is our brand.' We worked really closely in my work with the with the design team, because we did not like just sharing names as black words on a white page. Because that's never how the brand is going to live. And so, we said 'you cannot properly judge something, if you don't see it "in-situ."' So we would have the design team either mock it up...
Evan 12:10 Just for listeners that's "in-situation" like in in the environment where it's going to live.
Misty 12:16 That's right. So we'd have it either on the shelf, or we'd have it on a T shirt or, letterhead. And sometimes we would physically do them. So we could actually say this is what your business card would look like. And have their name so they can feel like, "Oh, I couldn't see how my name would fit with that."
Evan 12:39 It's like that juxtaposition is essential. To see how it interacts with its environment.
Misty 12:46 Exactly. And so it depends on how much you tell a story behind the name.
Evan 12:52 If you remember, I asked misty about how she responds to the negativity that often surrounds the name getting responses that often come after a name change. And she shared a story with me about a naming effort, and a rebrand, that went really, really well. Which First of all, I love that she turned my negative question into a positive.
She told me a story about a project they did for what was then called The National Dialogue on Cancer. It's an organization that was launched and co-chaired by former President H.W. Bush, and his wife, Barbara. Here's Misty:
Misty 13:33 And they needed a new name, they needed a new look, they needed to a new everything. And so we produced a movie to unveil the name. And we went to Washington DC when they had the unveiling. And we actually had it so that everyone's name badges, if you flip them over, had the new name on them. So once it was unveiled, we could say, "here, this is you, you're already living the brand." And so the new name was C-Change. And it was literally 'C-Dash-Change.' And so talking about how we want to make this different, we want to change the way people perceive cancer and how it's researched. And so we want to make this a sea change. But it's also we want to change perceptions and change cancer, to make it something that's not so scary anymore.
And so like that was just absolutely, an overwhelmingly positive response. Because partly, I think, they just saw all these different people who were on the board, we had the Surgeon General, they had former President Bush, they had American Cancer Society, National Cancer Institute, that we're talking about how they were going to create this sea change.
And that was before they even unveiled the name. They just talked about, we need to see change in the cancer conversation.
Evan 15:07 I like how you’re like, reframing it.
Misty 15:09 Yeah, exactly. So it was already part of the vernacular. So when they actually unveiled the logo, and the new name, it was like, "well, of course, C Change, that makes so much sense." And the logo was the turning of a page in the shape of the C. So it worked with the whole thing, but it also looked like a wave. And so it was it was just beautiful. It was overwhelmingly positive.
Evan 15:40 So that was a rename, that was really well adopted.
Misty 15:47 It was and, you know, sometimes that's not always the case. I mean, we've had where they've changed the name. And they've come back and said, yeah, we can't do that.
Evan 16:05 I need to thank Misty for taking the time to share some of these stories with me about her work, and a huge thank you. Thank you for listening.
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Misty. One last question before we let you go. What are you reading?
Misty 18:18 One book that I finished recently that's been around for a while is, I am Malala. So I've kind of been on the nonfiction bent. So I finished I am Malala. And then I also finished reading Dan rather's book, What Unites Us. I've kind of been on a political bent as well, because I read A Higher Loyalty by James Comey as well. So yeah, so those are the kind of the things that I've been reading, because I feel like this day and age almost feels like fiction.
Evan 18:50 Yeah. You're not kidding.
Misty 18:51 So that's what I've been reading.