In the history of marketing, Peter Drucker's Marketing Concept of 1955 is a milestone. The statement that “the purpose of a business is to create and keep a customer” served as an eye-opener to many executives and helped transform many businesses as a result. Consistent with this perspective, Theodore Levitt published the classic Harvard Business Review article Marketing Myopia in 1960 in which he claimed that businesses should define themselves more in terms of the needs that they were satisfying rather than by the product that they currently made.
This has impacted the naming of companies and the general wisdom is to not name a company after its current product as the means by which you meet customer needs can change over time. Indeed, it is difficult to find more than a few (e.g., Nescafé, MasterCard, and MTV) out of the 100 Best Global Brands of 2014 with a name that directly hints at specific products.
Also, if you have already painted yourself into a product corner that you are feeling is becoming too constrictive, look at ways by which you can become more vague or flexible going forward. Hence, International Business Machines became IBM, Kentucky Fried Chicken started going by KFC, Citibank switched into Citi, and Apple Computer Inc turned into Apple Inc.
Yet, even as I recognize the benefits for many companies if they follow such advice, sometimes I wonder if product-centric names aren't making somewhat of a comeback? I see that companies with a name that specifically matches what someone searches for on Google, can be very successful selling their wares online.
For small businesses to show up high on Google, they often have to resort to so-called long-tail strategies, the idea pioneered by TED founder Chris Anderson. What I also have seen is the phenomenon of companies buying up not just one but multiple domain names. In fact, I visited a firm here in Orange County recently and learned that they operated four different websites under very different names but all four basically led people to the same company and address.
Some businesses are taking this one step further and launch perhaps hundreds of different websites each of which is customized to a precisely defined target market and the searches they are likely to make. The more specific you become, such as through the use of 3 or 4-word keywords, the more likely it also becomes that you will be found by people searching for that more specific term. I recognize that many such websites that are set up are not company names per se but rather they represent product pages but still, building up a product-specific web property could also become limiting after a while.
Regardless, my sense is that emerging long-tail tactics in digital marketing indeed can work to your advantage but a key factor is the degree to which you make fixed investments in the form of time and money spent on each of your many different websites. If that amount is low, you could readily change your mix of product pages and transition to new product categories as needs change. Many products are indeed meant to be temporary and corresponding microsites that are set up do not require substantial resource investments.
The potential downside of using product-centric names is still that you are not building a brand for the long haul if the whole product category risks becoming obsolete or if you would like to include other products in your offering over time. So, what do you think? Would you prefer to build a website using product-specific phrases like Air France or would you rather call yourself McDonald's?