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Economy & Business

What Goes Into A Product Name?

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Samsung is coming out with its version of a voice assistant. They call it Bixby. As far as we can tell, it is not some kind of tribute to Bill Bixby, who played the Incredible Hulk on television. What are the considerations that go into putting a name on a product? We turn now to Barbara Kahn. She's a marketing professor at The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.

Professor Kahn, thanks so much for being with us.

BARBARA KAHN: Oh, it's my pleasure.

SIMON: I imagine the first thing you have to do is not put a name on it that's already been taken.

KAHN: Yes. Obviously, names are trademarked. And when you come out with a new product, it has to have a new name.

SIMON: Now, we have read that Bixby can be difficult to pronounce in some languages. This is something manufacturers have to worry about, too, particularly as they become more active globally, isn't it?

KAHN: Yes, yes. Usually, you take that into consideration. I mean, typically, when you have a brand name, you want it to come up very spontaneously, be easy for people to pronounce. That's obviously what you would usually look for in a brand name.

But sometimes, when a name is difficult to pronounce or unusual, you can turn it into an asset. Famous examples are Aflac, which was an acronym, and some very clever marketing made that a name that people understood, or GEICO, another name that was an acronym that using traditional marketing turned what was a difficult name to remember into a strong marketing ploy.

SIMON: We've heard a lot of stories - and a lot of them, alas, turned out to be simply apocryphal - about names that were put on U.S. products that didn't travel well. Do you know any stories yourself?

KAHN: Oh, there are many. For - the most famous one is probably the Chevy Nova, which in Spanish means doesn't go, which isn't a good name for a car. There have been many names that have been translated into Chinese that become not at - what's intended at all.

And I was going to say - and sometimes it makes sense to take a name that doesn't have any meaning whatsoever - typically, it'd be one that is a little easier to pronounce - and then, you can put any meaning behind it that you want. And that's really the value of a brand - the brand positioning - what the brand comes to mean. So people don't hold other preconceived ideas about what the brand could stand for.

SIMON: May I ask you, professor, do companies, executives, call you up and say, give me a name?

KAHN: Well, not me personally, but there are lots of branding agencies out there that try to find names that will work for particular products. And now, there's a lot of things you want to make sure of, not only in other languages, but you also want to make sure that you can own the domain on the internet, that there - it's not being used in other ways. So there's a lot of scanning that's done, typically, before a brand is selected.

SIMON: I'm almost surprised there are any names left.

KAHN: Yeah, really (laughter). And that's why people make them up all the time.

SIMON: Yeah.

KAHN: A lot of the internet names are just made up words.

SIMON: Barbara Kahn, who's a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania, thanks very much for being with us.

KAHN: Oh, thank you. It was my pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF B.FLEISCHMANN'S "COMPOSURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.