Is it possible to actually "own" a word in everyone's mind? The short answer is "Yes!" (Or perhaps Yahoo!) You can own just about any word in any language, or even create new ones, if you undstand the dynamics behind branding. Take for example Amazon, Monster and Virgin. None of these names have any direct correlation to the companies they represent, but they have become so well known, that in some cases, they have surpassed the original meaning of the word. Google has become so ubiquitous that it's often used as a verb, as in "I googled to find the best deal on a watch."
So what does it take to "own" a word? It comes down to four key criteria, at least one of which must be met, in order to pull off this feat. (And by "owning" I mean that consumers think of your company or product as much as, or more than, the original meaning of the word itself).
Rule 1: First in wins
If you are the first in a category (or the perceived first in the category), you get to name the category. If you invent it, create it, revise it, or re-position it -- you get to name it. And so you have Apple and Blackberry, as well Frisbee, Rollerblades and Slinky. You also have completely invented names such as Xerox and Kodak. When companies or products are new to market, they beg for mental "handles" to describe them. So the first company or product in a new category, if they are aware of this fact, can create a new name or invent a new noun that can become the recognized name for the entire category.
When people ask for a "Coke", it often means whatever carbonated beverage is on hand. Same for a "Kleenex" or making a "Xerox". So first in gets the right to name itself. That's what happened when we named PODS. There was an opportunity to create a new "handle" for a new product. One competitor went with the name "Door to Door Storage" which does not work well as a noun. It's much harder to order a "Door to Door Storage unit" than a "POD".
If you are first in your category you have a tremendous opportunity. Before grabbing any name, see if it works as a noun and a verb. People "google" but they don't "overture". It's a subtle, but important, distinction. Some companies blow this tremendous opportunity to define a new category by creating forgettable names. The prototype name for the Blackberry was the descriptive and uninspired "pocketLink". Would you rather use a Blackberry or type on your pocketlink? As far as branding, they made the right choice.
Rule 2: Viruses spread
If your idea is innovative, imaginative, or free, consumers will memorize your name no matter what you call it. The free music download sites are a good example. Napster, Limewire and Kazaa are not necessarily the best names ever created. But because they offered something for nothing, customers quickly sought out and learned these names. In any other situation, Kazaa, with two "a"s, would be a nightmare for an internet based company needing a good type-in name. But with the lure of free music, customers willing shouldered the burden of learning the quirky spelling and finding the site.
Another viral idea was the creation of WheresGeorge.com which tracks the former locations of a dollar bill by its serial number. The novel idea has people logging on by the tens of thousands to check where their money has traveled. The service is free and the site generates advertising income from the immense traffic.
These free (or ingenious) products and services generate attention because of their inherent benefits or novelty. So they succeed despite their naming not because of it. If you have a product that's revolutionary, viral or free, you may name it anything you want. Otherwise it's best to stick to good naming practices.
Rule 3: Size matters
When 7-Eleven introduced the Slurpee, it could be argued that it didn't fit their naming architecture at all. It had no tie-in to the company name (such as McDonald's Big Mac). But when a company has thousands of stores that can instantly expose a new name to millions of customers, it's enough to permanently tattoo any name on the cerebral cortex. So just because a huge company does something, it doesn't mean a start up can imitate the strategy. When starting out small, it's best to have a "naming architecture" that supports your primary brand or company name. Pointing everything towards one name will help you "own" a word faster than diversifying names across the board. Apple is beginning to achieve this in their product line with the letter "i", as in iPod, iTunes, iMac, iLife, etc.
Rule 4: Money... Money. Money.
Big budgets can imprint names. When GTE came out as Verizon, they put a .wav file on their site so people could hear how the name was supposed to be pronounced. (Was the emphasis on the first syllable like "Verify"? Or was it on the second syllable like "Horizon"?) If you had never heard the name before, would you be able to pronounce Cialis correctly? Or Wachovia? The point is that big money can make even awkward names seem like household words. So again, before emulating big companies, realize they have a big enough marketing hammer to drive lots of square pegs through round holes.
A good example of a company combining rules three and four is UPS. By using their size and marketing might, they were arguably successful in owning the word "brown". Nexium has come close with their marketing of "the purple pill".
So can you "own" a word? That would be a qualified "yes"... if you are first in category, infectious (in a good way), a huge company with a big footprint or a profitable company with a lot of cash. Smaller companies and start ups are better off using strategies one and two. Otherwise, it's best to stay with proven naming methods that offer a hint into what you do. From our portfolio, these would be names like...
. Park Place (a garage renovation company)
. SeaOfDiamonds.com (an internet based jeweler)
. Spruce (facilities management company)
. SupplyAmerica (tool sales and rental company)
. TeamLogic (an IT franchise for small businesses)
These types of names offer positive connotations while providing a sense of the industry to which they belong.
No matter if you are a small business, a hot new start up or a Fortune 500 company, there's a naming strategy that's right for you. You may not need to "own" a word, you may just need to communicate your message creatively and effectively. But if you're first in your category, have a brilliant idea, have a big presence or deep pockets... then go for it! By owning a word, you can grow into a "monster"!