Naming at a premium

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Do expensive wines taste better? Several recent studies indicate that people have a tough time distinguishing between bottles at different price points. Even experts can struggle to differentiate upper tier wines in blind taste tests.

In the naming business, our clients often ask us if their name can convey certain benefits or qualities: one of the trickiest of which is “premium.” Many companies want their customers to perceive their products or brand as premium—and they are often convinced that a name can accomplish this.

The challenge is that perceptions of quality are more closely tied to experiences with a brand than to the name itself. In other words, no name, no matter how good, can save a bad product. Likewise, good products can be successful despite a lackluster or unoriginal name. Consider Google Wave (interesting name idea, great brand, failed product) vs. Apple’s iPhone (fantastically successful product from a very hot company, not an especially exciting name).

That being said, I have constructed an informal survey to illustrate my point. Take a look at the list of wines below. Rather than trusting our fickle taste buds, I want to know how effectively you can navigate the relative prices of the following California reds. Which is the most “premium” bottle? Which is the least? How much does each one sell for?

Stag’s Leap
Heitz Cellars
Silver Oak
The Prisoner
Crooked Mayor
The Real McCoy

Even “Crooked Mayor” from Vending Machine Winery is tough to assess based exclusively on the name. You may have thought to yourself, “Vending Machine Winery couldn’t possibly be the name of a lower tier winery. It is way too ironic.” But how ironic are they trying to be?

And for those of you who were familiar with some of the brands I listed: did your experience with a brand help you navigate where the other bottles land? I would be surprised if it helped much.

The fact is that you can’t know what’s in the bottle without giving it a try. Most of the names I showed you could work for any number of different price points. The same is true for most brand names. Despite our ability to interpret marketing cues at a remarkably subtle level, names are limited in their ability to communicate certain qualities.

But keep in mind, names don’t have to do everything—they are just one of many elements that combine to form a brand. Between a name, messaging and visual identity a brand can accomplish whatever strategic goal is required. Understanding what names are good at and where their limitations lay is the first step in completing a successful naming engagement. With unrealistic expectations, you are bound to be disappointed.

Spoiler alert:
Each of the bottles in the survey is above $25, even The Real McCoy. Over half of them are $95 or above. All of the wines are in descending retail price order as listed on the Astor Wines & Spirits website.

Andrew Olson is an associate naming strategist for the Siegel+Gale New York office.

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