With the end of the year in sight, I thought it would be interesting to look back on some of the best brand name changes of 2021 (and, while I’m at it, the worst name changes of 2021). Rather than simply provide my own opinion—although I’ll share a bit of that, too—I decided to use a readily available dataset: all the votes on names reviewed by Brand New, the leading brand identity review site (edited and written by Armin Vit).
One nice thing about using Brand New is that it captures some smaller new brands and rebrands. While I keep a tab on major naming news throughout the year (e.g., in the branding news roundups in my newsletter), Brand New covered a few names that I’d never heard of. Secondly, at the bottom of every Brand New review, there’s a small poll, and the results are public, making for easy data collection.
That said, this data needs to be heavily caveated. I’m sure there are a ton of brand names that Brand New didn’t capture either (especially if they didn’t feature much in the way of visual identities to review). And for the most part, only subscribers can vote on the names, so we’re looking at a relatively small population of respondents (the name with the most votes overall, Meta, had received just over 800 votes as of this posting). Given the content of Brand New, most voters are probably designers. Nothing wrong with designers, but it’s not exactly a representative sample of global citizens, likely customers, or whoever you’d want to fill out a poll like this, ideally.
Lastly, because of the relatively small vote totals on some names, it may be possible for polls to be “gamed” a little bit. In other words, if you work for a 20-person agency and the name you created has only received 30 votes so far, you could ask all your colleagues (and their friends and family, maybe) to vote “Great,” and turn the tide. I’m sure Brand New doesn’t encourage this, and maybe even has some measures in place to try to prevent it, but it’s impossible to avoid entirely.
Brand naming in 2021
When it comes to brand naming, 2021 ended with a bang. Two bangs, actually: First Meta, the new name for Facebook’s parent company, then Block, the new name for Square, Inc. These name changes were not simple rebrands. Facebook and Square will continue to exist, but the corporations behind/above them will be named Meta and Block, respectively.
Another naming trend in 2021—a continuation of the fallout from George Floyd’s murder in 2020—was the replacement of offensive brand names with less offensive ones. The Washington Football Team is still the Washington Football Team, but the Cleveland Indians are now the Cleveland Guardians, Uncle Ben’s is now Ben’s Original (that happened in 2020), and Aunt Jemima is now the Pearl Milling Company. See the animation below for a rundown of these and other major name changes (but not entirely new brand names) in 2021.
What makes a brand name “good”?
Before I start digging into the data, some quick thoughts on what makes a brand name “good.” You’ll have no trouble finding lists of the “X qualities every great brand name must have.” Naming experts (and non-experts) agree on a handful of factors. Distinctiveness matters, and it’s important that the name be “on brief.” But there is no perfect checklist of qualities for all brand names, because so much depends on context—what’s being named, what “job” the name needs to do (e.g., informing versus building buzz), and what names competitors are using. That said, as I cover in Brand Naming, good brand names consistently balance strategic, creative, and technical criteria, including those shown in the graphic below.
Keep these criteria in mind when reviewing the lists below, and you’ll have a better sense of why some names received more “Great” votes than others. Speaking of which, here’s how voting works on Brand New: voters can select one of three options—”Great,” “Fine,” or “Bad”—for whichever aspects of a new brand identity the poll asks about. That usually means voting on the logo, and sometimes the applications, packaging, signage, or other visual aspects of the brand.
To assign a “score” to each name based on votes, I took the percentage of “Great” votes and subtracted the percentage of “Bad” votes—let’s call this “Net Great Votes,” or “NGV” for short. (I ignored the “Fine” votes; when I tried incorporating them, it didn’t impact the ranking materially.) To see all the names reviewed and how they performed in voting, scroll to the bottom of this article. Based on NGV—with a few small adjustments made for the total number of votes each name got—here are the three best brand name changes of 2021, followed by three of the worst.
The best brand name changes of 2021
“Reveal,” the new name for Sharework, received about 72% “Great” votes and only about 1% “Bad” votes, giving the name an NGV of about 71%—the highest of any name reviewed in 2021. The company is a “platform for partnership, marketing, and sales teams to generate revenue through their ecosystem by securely connecting customer relationship management (CRM) platforms together to reveal business opportunities with trusted partners by identifying and converting strategic leads.”
That’s a bit of a mouthful, but the name isn’t. Just six letters and two syllables, this familiar, real word is easy to say and easy to spell. It’s a suggestive name, as evidenced by the company description above (“…to reveal business opportunities…”), and strikes a nice balance between conveying relevant meaning while maintaining some adaptability.
The name (and visual identity) was created by Ragged Edge, a branding agency based in London.
2. Edmonton Elks
This Canadian Football League team—formerly the Edmonton Eskimos—demonstrates the right way to replace an offensive team name. With 69% “Great” and 2% “Bad” votes, “Elks” gets an NGV of 67%. Like “Reveal,” this is a real-word name, and it’s even shorter, at just four letters and one syllable.
Using an animal as a team name is well-trodden territory and far less risky/racist than using a group of people. Elks are (I assume) strong and fast and, as Armin puts it, associated with the “winterly/northernly aspect of Canada,” giving this name plenty of relevant meaning. Best of all, it starts with E, retaining the alliteration with “Edmonton” and allowing the team to continue using a double-E monogram.
According to a press release from the team, “the name was ultimately chosen by the fans. ‘Elks’ finished first or second among all segments who participated.”
“Keyloop” is the new name for CDK Global, “a leading global provider of software solutions to the auto retail industry.” Its NGV, based on Brand New votes, is 63%, making it third on the list of best brand name changes of 2021. Like “Reveal” and “Elks,” it’s short, simple, and easy to say. I find the “oo” in the name a bit hard to read, but it’s worth noting that the name gave the designers something to play with. (As noted above and in Brand Naming, it’s important to think about how names will look, not just how they’ll sound.) As far as I can tell, the name is abstract (i.e., no relevant meaning).
For the purposes of some data analysis (see bottom of this post), I’ve coded this as a compound name—two real words smushed together to create something new. But is it? According to the agency’s project page, “the name’s literal meaning is synonymous with a ‘keychain.'” I see some examples of this usage online, but I’m not finding it in any dictionaries. (What do you think—is this a real word or a compound name?)
The name and visual identity are by SomeOne, and the project page mentioned above goes into some detail about the legal, linguistic, and domain challenges the name faced, as well as a note about the name’s phonetics (it’s got that famous K, also found in names like “Kodak” and “Nike”).
Honorable mention: Over the Spoon
This fun name for a brand of pudding replaces “Freaks of Nature” a name that Dexigner says left the brand “stuck in the free-from section of supermarkets, catering to specific dietary needs rather than a broader lifestyle.” The new name gets an NGV of 58%, putting it in fourth place out of all the names reviewed in 2021.
I’m also listing it as an honorable mention because fewer people voted on this poll—90 versus over 150 for all the names above. Unlike “Reveal,” “Elks,” and “Keyloop,” “Over the Spoon” is more than one word. Despite its length, however, it’s simple and memorable. It’s also meaningful, distinctive, and fun to say.
The name and visual design work are by Robot Food.
The worst brand names of 2021
1. ITA Airways
ITA Airways is the new Italian flag carrier, taking over from Alitalia. It received almost no “Great” votes (less than 1%) and about 86% “Bad” votes, giving it the lowest NGV of any name reviewed in 2021, by far: -86%. Ouch.
The name is an initialism, short for “Italia Trasporto Aereo.” (Note that it’s not technically an acronym because acronyms are pronounced as words, like “NASA”). Although they’re short, initialisms don’t tend to work well as company names, partly because they fail to convey any meaning unless the audience knows what the letters stand for. They can also blend in with other abbreviated names, especially in “alphabet soup” industries. Luckily, only a few major airlines have three-letter names (e.g., KLM, IAG).
It’s a pretty boring name, but I suspect a lot of the negative reaction is based on what it’s replacing. Alitalia was considered by many to be an iconic Italian brand. And in Armin’s words, “Everything replacing the old Alitalia brand is inferior in so many ways.”
Another abbreviated name, “EUSPA” stands for “European Union Agency for the Space Program” (although I’m not sure how, since that would be “EUASP”). Its NGV is -74%.
Like “ITA Airways,” “EUSPA” is meaningless (unless you know what it stands for). Unlike ITA, it’s an acronym—we’re supposed to say “you-spuh”—and I’d argue it’s uglier, harder to pronounce, harder to remember, looks worse, and sounds worse.
Perhaps all that saved it from coming in dead last is the fact that it’s replacing something pretty dull—”EGSA,” short for “European Global Navigation Satellite Systems Agency”—rather than the beloved “Alitalia.”
3. Pearl Milling Company
It’s less offensive than “Aunt Jemima,” but it’s certainly not as elegant as “Elks.” “Pearl Milling Company” gets an NGV of -72%, putting it just above EUSPA in the voting, although it received more than three times as many votes overall.
The name’s most obvious feature is its length—three words, 21 characters (including spaces), and six syllables. That makes it harder to say and maybe harder to remember. And it doesn’t look great (one of my designer friends asked why they couldn’t shorten “Company” to “Co.” just to save some space on the packaging).
Armin sums it all up very nicely in his original post:
The new name has sufficient of significance in that it’s the name of the original mill that created the flour that created the pancake mix. So far so good. The problem is that it’s a boring name for a nineteenth-century mill and it’s a terrible name for a twenty-first-century consumer product: Pearl. Milling. Company. Those are three words that have no relation to each other, are not evocative of pancakes, and, as a group of words, they make for an extremely long product name which is going to make consumer adoption of it almost impossible. Telling your significant other ‘Honey, don’t forget to buy Pearl Milling Company pancake mix’ doesn’t roll off your tongue quite smoothly and punch me in the face for having to write it out on a grocery list. I’m pretty sure consumers will keep calling it Aunt Jemima in the same way that 17 years later after it was acquired we still call FedEx Office, Kinko’s. To summarize: Good idea to go back to the origin of the brand, bad idea to adopt a complicated, hard-to-memorize name as a consumer product.”
Dishonorable mention: Serandipians
This name, which gets the second lowest NGV of anything reviewed in 2021 (-76%) is a dishonorable mention because it’s only received 60 votes overall. As such, I didn’t feel it was fair to compare it directly to the three names above, all of which received over 150 votes. But man, what a doozy. It’s the only coined name in this entire post, which is unfortunate because coined names often work wonderfully (e.g., “Swiffer”). But “Serandipians” is hard to say and very hard to spell correctly.
If you subject yourself to the video above (don’t!), you’ll learn that Serendipity is “the enchantress of life’s adventures,” which is how they got from luxury travel to “Serandipians.” But I wouldn’t say it’s a name that conveys much in the way of the desired meaning or tonality (luxurious, presumably). And, I know it’s not the biggest concern here, but how does “serEndipity” become “SerAndipians,” anyway? (Maybe to save money on the domain name?)
Votes and NGVs for all the names reviewed
The graphic below shows all the names reviewed on Brand New in 2021, along with the percentages of “Great,” “Fine,” and “Bad” votes, as well as the resultant NGV (shown as a dark blue square). The second graphic shows the same information for a subset of the names—those that received over 150 total votes.
A little more data analysis, just for fun
Given some of the potential faults in the dataset, I don’t want to go overboard in drawing conclusions from it. That said, I do see a few interesting things going on.
First off, do real-word and compound names perform better than abbreviations and coined words in the voting, as the best and worst lists suggest? Yes. As the graphic below shows, the average NGVs for real-word and compound names are 5.0% and 12.9%, respectively, versus -17.8% for coined words and -50.7% for abbreviations.
The graphic also shows the best and worst performers in each of those categories, along with Meta (given its significance). A few extra caveats here, though. There were very few compound and abbreviated names in the dataset (three and four, respectively). Also, the construct of some names, like Keyloop, is debatable. (If I switch Keyloop to the real-word category, that average goes up to 7.5% and the average for compound names drops to about 0%.)
This data simply isn’t robust or clear enough to extrapolate these findings to a broad claim like “people prefer real-word names.” (Another note on this: The top performing coined name was “Mycle,” which I don’t consider especially strong.) That said, the data seems to support the conventional wisdom that abbreviations work poorly, especially for company names.
Another bit of conventional wisdom about brand naming is that shorter names are better. Obviously, making a name shorter can make it easier to remember. Then again, initialisms like “ITA” are very short, and they’re often forgettable. For the analysis below, I removed abbreviated names and compared length (characters including spaces) to NGV (remember, that’s “Great” votes minus “Bad” votes).
There is a correlation (R2 = 0.154) between shortness and performance in the voting. Whether there’s a real effect here or it’s just an artifact of this dataset, which includes some very long, bad names (e.g., “Pearl Milling Company”) and some great, short names (e.g., “Elks” and “Reveal”), is hard to say. Combining this data with data from other years or performing a deeper, more sophisticated analysis might shed a little more light on the subject.
For now, I’ll let this partial analysis stand. 2021 showed us a handful of great brand names and quite a few examples of how naming can go wrong. We saw big corporate name changes and brands ridding themselves of problematic names. Whatever 2022 brings, I will be Over the Spoon so long as I’m able to avoid running into any Serandipians.
Rob Meyerson is a brand consultant, namer, and author of Brand Naming: The Complete Guide to Creating a Name for Your Company, Product, or Service. He also runs Heirloom, an independent brand strategy and identity firm, and hosts the podcast How Brands Are Built.
- Thanks to Alex Foss for suggesting “Net Great Value” as shorthand for the scores, and for making other edits and recommendations to this article.
- Full disclosure: Ontra, which is shown in the first data visualization but not discussed in the text of this article, is a name I worked on in partnership with HUb. Its NGV is about 31%, the second highest score for coined names and tenth highest overall.
- A previous version of this post incorrectly showed voting results for Block (the new name for Square, Inc.). Brand New did not provide a poll for the new name—only for the logo and other visual identity design elements.
ITA is boring, yes. But it definitely gets an even badder rap because it is replacing alitalia, which is simply a supperb name.
Thanks for doing the deep Data dive! I’d be interested to see what rebrand results are based on other factors: style of font, number of colors used, etc. 🙂