September 06, 2006

How to know who can wash your windows

I was sitting here at my desk, gazing idly out of my window and thinking noble thoughts, when I saw a truck marked, "The Window Washers," park in front of the building next door to Language Log Plaza. No question about what it was doing there. Its name was clear enough. The neighboring building wasn't getting sprayed for termites or getting its leaking faucets fixed. The people who own this window washing company made it very clear that they, well, wash windows.

From the consumer's perspective, there's something rather comforting about generic and descriptive names. But I know what you're thinking -- trademark laws make generic and descriptive names impossible to protect and another company can use that name whenever they want to. Guarding against name theft, most corporations aim  for a suggestive name, one that, according to trademark law, requires some operation of the imagination to connect the name with the product or service, like Tide or Visa.  To protect their name even more, they could try to create a fanciful name, one that is coined for the express purpose of functioning as a trademark, like Xerox or Kodak. Or they could go for an arbitrary name consisting of a word or symbol that's in common usage but is arbitrarily applied to their goods or services in such a way that it isn't descriptive or suggestive, like Shell gasoline or Apple computers.

Suppose for a moment that the nice people at "The Window Washers" were worried about someone else using their name. To avoid this, the owners could have called it "Alpine Cleaning" or "Nu-View" or "Optotex" or "Kenny's Cleaning Service." Maybe this would prevent other companies from trading on their name but I, for one, wouldn't be sure we should call them to wash our windows  here at the Plaza.

A lot of  work goes into finding a suitable trade name that can be protected. For example, The Igor Naming Guide is at our disposal. Its goal is to help companies "customize" their name and "make sure that all aspects of a work plan are designated to complement your naming project, corporate culture, approval process and  timeframe." For some reason Igor doesn't always deal with the categories of trademarks used by trademark law. It refers to suggestive names, for example, as "evocative" (maybe an improvement) and wisely puts much of its focus on this category, probably because most trademark litigation relates to whether or not a name is suggestive.

Igor provides lots of interesting examples. In the category of airline names, for example, it notes that  Qantas, an invented name like Kodak and Xerox, stands alone in this category. Most airlines choose functional names, like Alitalia, Jet Blue, Air France, Midway, and Delta. But even evocative names can backfire if you're not careful. For example, Igor points out that the name, "Virgin Airlines," is capable of confusing the company's positioning with its services, noting that "Virgin" says essentially, "we're new at this," while the public may want an airline to be experienced, safe and professional. Not only this, but religious people might be offended by this name and investors might not take the company seriously. Igor also analyzes the possible down sides of the names, "Yahoo" ("nobody will take stock quotes and world news seriously from a bunch of Yahoos"), "Banana Republic" ("derogatory cultural slur"), "Oracle" ("unscientific, unreliable, only fools put their faith in an oracle, sounds like orifice"), and "The Gap" ("means something is missing, incomplete, negative"). On the other hand, Igor points out that "Virgin" also suggests that the airline's corporate positioning is "different, confident, exciting, alive, human, provocative, fun" while "Oracle's " positioning is "different, confident, superhuman, evocative, powerful, forward thinking."

As our President often says, "It's a lotta work." This doesn't come close to doing justice to Igor's analyses of corporate names, but I think you can get the point.

"The Window Washers" apparently didn't feel the need to delve deeply into their "corporate positioning" or whether they might "achieve separation" from their competitors. They weren't trying to demonstrate that they are different or to create an unforgettable name. I don't suppose they were trying to "dominate a category" either. They just wanted to tell us what they do in the simplest and clearest way possible.

I kinda like that.

Update: Several readers have written to tell me that Qantas is not an invented name. It is an acronymn meaning Queensland and Northern Territories Aerial Service. They appear to be quite right but I was citing what Igor said here, not my own analysis. Posted by Roger Shuy at September 6, 2006 04:55 PM