Are We Running Out Of Names ?
Visteon? Miravant? Diageo? In the naming business, are we beginning to scrape the bottom of the barrel?
In a word, yes. There is a numeric limit to the universe of names, the combinations of letters of five syllables or less that are pronounceable, avoid offense in principal languages, and are not someone else’s property. A population explosion of business entities, on top of product proliferation, means we are rapidly depleting the supply. And as more companies think “global,” more seek global name protection, vastly increasing the pool of possible conflicts.
In especially crowded categories like financial services and computers, you can pretty well assume that any letter combination both appealing and meaningful is already taken. Colleagues in the naming business confirm my own experience; our “short lists” of candidates that go into the top of the legal search hopper are getting longer. Where we used to screen 10 names to get a final choice of two or three “probably available,” today we must screen 40. In turn, the master lists that must be generated to pick those 40 often expand into the thousands. (The list from which American Express drew “Optima” exceeded 2,500 candidate names.)
At the same time we are depleting the supply, we have raised the availability hurdle. In January 1996, Congress (in its wisdom) further shrank the pool of available names via HR1295, adding an “anti-dilution” provision to the Lanham Act, section 43(c) (1). Previously, your rights to a name were limited to your product and related categories; the test was simply whether real customers might reasonably be confused by someone else’s use of the same name. Thus Lexus (or even Lexis) vehicles and Lexis information services could comfortably coexist. HR1295 said, “Not so fast–whether or not consumers are likely to be confused, if your name is sufficiently famous, you may deserve protection in all categories.” This immediately added boundless monopoly power and greater wealth to owners of famous brands, making it much easier, for example, to license their brands across product categories they never before dreamed of directly entering. And HR1295 also increased costs, risks, and uncertainties in naming.
The Internet adds yet another hurdle. Companies (reasonably) want company names that can be domain names too, without alteration. But anyone in the world may innocently have registered a given combination of letters, sometimes with wholly unrelated meanings, as a domain name . . . and probably has.
Two predictions. First, expect more “combination” names, the unexpected splicing of two ordinary words–a technique that geometrically expands the pool of real-sounding, meaningful possibilities. I have found company names like Flowserve (and last year’s Footstar) easier to clear and protect, as well; a given combination either has been used or it hasn’t, with little room for ambiguity.
Second, expect more strange new names like Diageo, distinctive yet functional, that take some getting used to. We really are scraping the linguistic barrel and have to reach further beyond our comfort zones to make names that work.
"Across the Board," February 1998