Brand Naming Lesson From The NCAA’s March Madness

The last few weeks have seen the annual "March Madness" surrounding the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, with the conclusion only days away.

While the competition is fun to follow, especially if your favorite team or alma mater is still in the running, I’d like to draw your attention to some factors in play, hidden in plain sight if you will, that add to the excitement:

While there are countless multi-round tournaments in any number of sports, only the NCAA has evolved a truly outstanding "portfolio" of brand names surrounding the tournamant and its stages, each of which make use of the principles of good brand names (first discussed here), foremost of the principle of "rhythm, rhyme, and speakability" including by way of alliteration:

First there is the already mentioned "March Madness" to describe the entire procedure. Then there are the named tournament rounds, the "Sweet Sixteen" (what is sometimes called a 1/8 final), the "Elite Eight" quarter-final, and the lastly the "Final Four" semi-final.

Note that in large part due to the alliterations, the NCAA terms roll of the tongue much more so than the traditional, generic terms.

Now you may be saying, "why does this matter so much, I don’t even care about basketball…"

It matters because enjoyment derived from saying a brand name is a strong predictor of the both the viral success as well as the depth of imprint in the consumer’s mental real estate of that name. Making it enjoyable to repeat, to say or think more often, will accelerate the spread of a meme through a population, and embed it more thoroughly in the individual.

Rhythm and rhyme, including alliteration (which you could see as a form of front-loaded rhyme), are pleasant and also more memorable to our unconscious minds (that is the reason why you still remember most advertising jingles to this day).

It doesn’t hurt that each NCAA "brand name" is reasonably short, while also still being sufficiently descriptive/evocative of the things they are referring to.

In fact, they even take out some of the complexity of having to think of the somewhat confusing traditional "quarter-final", asf. terminology (number of teams left devided by 2), in favor of simply counting the number of teams still in the tournament. Simplicity is typically good. Simplicity wins.

Yet none of the names are too generic to hurt differentiation in your mental real estate. And they all are easily understood, requiring no spelling out (unlike this massive brand name failure). But the alliterations providing a certain rhythm and rhyme are ultimately the most important drivers in this case.

The end result is, more people talk about March Madness and its rounds, more often.

It is very likely that you were already familiar with these NCAA Tournament "brand names" EVEN IF you’re not particularly following basketball. Now that’s strong branding. You would do well to apply these powerful principles to your own brand naming.

If you can’t get all of them lined up for a given name, apply as many as you can. One thing we do know is, "March Madness" is a winner…

It’s been 13.5 Years, Microsoft!

Henry Blodget over at the newly rebranded “Business Insider – Silicon Alley Insider” (a hint of “Microsoft branding mess” in that one, no?), this morning wrote an excellent post on how the balance of power may have just shifted back to Yahoo in the long-running Micro-Hoo buy-out saga (of Yahoo search only, or otherwise).

I consider this a must-read to get yourself back up-to-date on everything that has transpired over the past 3+ months behind the scenes, while we were all busy watching something else, the global financial melt-down, say.

It is almost precisely 1 year and 1 month to the day that Microsoft first launched its unsolicited buy-out bid, and you know the endless back-and-forth that ensued. What stands out is that as of today, while Yahoo’s stock has fallen from its pre-offer price of about $19 on 2/1/2008 to about $12 (and Jerry Yang was so maligned for not taking Ballmer’s offer that he ultimately resigned a few months ago), Microsoft’s stock has gone from $32 to now around $17 during that time!

If you do the math, that’s worse than Yahoo’s stock has done. So who still wants to argue that Ballmer would have really been much better at steering Yahoo (or really worse: the combined Micro-hoo “Franken-carrier”)? Which brings me back to the headline, and this quote from Blodget’s post that sums it all up very neatly:

Another six months of Microsoft Internet futility.  Last summer, Microsoft had been struggling to succeed online for 13 years, and it had only managed to run a distant third.  Now it has been struggling for 13 and a half years.  The company’s Internet branding, strategy, and organization is in its usual chaotic disarray.  Perhaps the new search head, stolen from Yahoo, can cut through the bureaucracy and fix everything.  After 13.5 years of a lot of talent and money being thrown at this problem, however, we wouldn’t hold our breath.

So the saga continues. The patient (Micro-hoo) indeed isn’t completely dead yet… but Yahoo’s new CEO Carol Bartz now appears to have the upper hand in any negotiations from here on…

Note: In case you don’t recall how badly Microsoft’s branding in particular has been going, refresh your memory here. Branding is where it all begins, after all, how can you know what you should be doing if you don’t know who you are?! And hoping that an engineer like Lu, however talented, is going to fix branding and related woes is simply delusional.

You might also enjoy this post on complexity, and why even the 800 Pound Gorilla such as Microsoft cannot avoid it’s pernicious effects.

Pownce Shuts Down: A Branding Post-Mortem

Micro-blogging service and Twitter competitor Pownce is shuttering its site. Presumably the company was purchased by SixApart (makers of the MovableType and TypePad blogging software and service), and its technology will presumably be rolled into a SixApart offering at some point in the future.

Pownce never reached the critical mass of Twitter despite having arguably better technology (though at the much lower user numbers a true load testing crucible like experienced by Twitter this year never happened), which prompted me to look into the branding aspects of this "failure to thrive":

While "Pownce" is by no means the worst Web 2.0 start-up name out there, it’s also far from ideal. The name SOUNDS good, but presents spelling problems. You don’t want your early adopter users and everyone else to have to spell your company or site name every time it is passed on. You may think that this seems like a minor detail, but for almost any Web start-up concerned with mass services, velocity of the spread of the idea is paramount.

Pownce also likely fell prey to what I call the "too cute by half syndrome", in that the name may relate to the posture/spelling of the hacker term "pwned", which means to "own a computer by root access through password hacking", and by extension just to "own someone or something" as in beating them thoroughly in a contest. So the name may have made for a cute geeky insider joke, but either way did little to advance the mission of the company to spread their micro-blogging service faster than its competitors (of which some like Twitter had a head-start).

The name also does little to describe or even merely allude to what the service was doing for its users, unlike Twitter, which with its name and bird imagery created a story in people’s minds that Twitter was about super short, rapid, distance-independent messages, which came to be known as "Tweets": The image of birds hectically twittering away to each other in a dizzying symphony of missives was concrete enough that more people hearing about and/or testing out Twitter almost instantly got the point.

Even though there are large numbers of people who test Twitter and subsequently think that Twitter is, well, for the birds, the point is not about a potential user ultimately liking the service, just whether the brand name immediately helped them get what was going on or not. This is the kind of thing that ultimately gets you awareness saturation, like being mentioned NIGHTLY on CNN, etc. (you can’t buy something as good as Anderson Cooper constantly mentioning your service, as in "check out our account on Twitter…").

(By the way, I am in the process of updating an original "Twitter for Business" private forum post of mine to put up on the blog, which explains about a dozen ways in which Twitter can be used advantageously for your business. Stay tuned.)

The English language already has the idiom of "the place was all atwitter with the news of the …" and similar constructions, further helping the meme of fast, rumor-like spreading of news to stick. "Pownce" evokes no such allusions, instead it at best brings up ideas of "pouncing" on prey. Not something that seems to have much to do with the goal of the service, which their slogan stated was: "We send stuff to our friends."

Again, I repeat, Pownce had some superior technology features compared to Twitter (including allowing the sending of image, audio, and video files, and several other value added features), but it failed to capitalize on it and grab mind and user share. This branding stuff really does matter!