Here’s a quiz. Take the following five names: Leesa, Purple, Nectar, Casper and Tuft & Needle. Can you spot what they have in common? (Hint: you may need to sleep on it.)
Answer: they’re all online mattress retailers. Only Tuft & Needle gives the slightest suggestion of the product. The rest could be hawking anything from single-origin espresso to electric scooters.
The earliest brand names typically followed the surnames of their founders. When an English candlemaker, William Procter, teamed up with an Irish soapmaker, James Gamble, in 19th-century America, he created a brand styling that makes up in longevity what it lacks in imagination. Today’s brand names tend to be more painstakingly contrived. The founders of Warby Parker, an online eyewear company, sifted through thousands of iterations before settling on a mashup of two characters from Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road”.
Some names are reached by playing around with words. The messaging company Slack, for example, made an acronym out of “Searchable Log of All Conversation and Knowledge”. The name also neatly conjures up the productivity problems its technology is there to solve.
Startups want short names like Slack that stand out, yet are somehow familiar (psychologists call this sweet spot in human preference “optimal distinctiveness”). Many companies try to achieve this by using first names of the sort we might give our children. Casper, an online mattress seller, was named for an old college friend of the founders. “We realised that having something that makes it feel like it could be a person actually kind of lets your guard down a little bit and lets you have that deeper connection,” explained Neil Parikh, one of its founders. With nearly 200 other firms in the online mattress market, consumers might also not have noticed another company with “sleep” or “rest” in its name.
We assign meanings to the aural quality of words as well as their semantic associations: Casper sounds soothing, a soft echo of “whisper”. One study has found that participants assumed an ice cream called “Frosh” would be smoother and creamier than one named “Frish”. Casper also has the combination of familiarity and novelty that makes for a fashionable baby name.
Both parents and brand creators need to be sure that the name they give their baby passes the grocery-store test – how does it sound when you call it aloud in a public place? In both cases, it should be a name they can grow into, and age gracefully with. After all, brands want us to forge with them what we have with our kids: a lifelong bond.•