As a student in my Strategic Brand Management course in 2018, Chris Allen WG20 learned about building brands, choosing critical brand elements such as a name and logo, and articulating a brand platform. Now, Chris and Vicente Surraco WG20 have co-founded Osena, a soon-to-launch spiked coconut water business.
Last spring, Chris and Vicente visited my (virtual) classes to share the process of naming their product and to gather feedback on Osena and a few other names that were still under consideration. Margaret Wolfson, founder and chief creative officer of River + Wolf — a New York-based brand naming agency that Chris and Vicente tapped for the naming process — was also a guest speaker. Here, Chris and Margaret share insights about Osena’s process and offer broader brand naming tips.
Patti Williams: Tell me about your new venture. How did you come up with this idea?
Chris Allen: Vicente and I met in our first year at Wharton and roomed together in New York during our summer internships, Vicente at Anheuser-Busch InBev and I at Faherty Brand. We quickly got excited about doing something in the alcohol space, given his experience at ABI and some connections I had in the industry. We wanted a product that would capitalize on similar macro trends that spiked seltzer had revealed — low calorie, low carb, etc. — but that would offer a differentiated value proposition.
We became excited about spiked coconut water because of the health-conscious consumer base drinking coconut water as a health drink, the naturally occurring electrolytes in fresh coconut water, and the rich tropical taste profile. Because of the cost of coconut water, we knew that our product would be premium, with a higher price point and affluent consumer. We needed a name and brand platform that would reflect its alluring mystery, ingredient quality, and overall refreshment.
Patti: After you had the concept, why did you think it was important to work with a naming agency to find a name for this product?
Chris: As you know, I’d taken your Strategic Brand Management class in my first year, and one of my top takeaways was the importance of a strong brand name. For this reason, we chose to work with an agency.
Patti: Margaret, why is naming so important?
Margaret Wolfson: In a few syllables, your company or product name captures the essence of your brand through the sound and sense of language. Messaging and packaging change, but a name has a very long shelf life. It is the first thing people often encounter, and it is repeated many, many times, especially in this day of social media.
Patti: Chris, how deeply had you considered your messaging prior to working with River + Wolf? Did the naming process cause any shifts in your brand strategy?
Chris: We knew we wanted an interesting, premium-sounding name that could help us tell a story around the brand. I knew the importance of brand personality, as this was something highlighted in your class, too. But working through the naming exercise with River + Wolf forced us to really dig deep into what the agency calls the 4Cs of naming: character, construction, communication, and where the name falls on the continuum. We also learned how steep the trademark climb is in general, but especially for food and beverages. The complexity of trademark isn’t something most new entrepreneurs consider.
Patti: Some founders might think anyone can come up with a name. Why, Margaret, would you recommend working with an agency?
Margaret: As Chris referenced, a lot of creative, strategic, and legal work goes into brand name development. Sometimes people with little experience are lucky enough to catch lightning in a bottle and land on the right name almost effortlessly. But that’s the exception, not the rule.
Helter-skelter brainstorming sessions between friends or in-house marketing teams generally don’t lead to naming gold, either. Naming often requires a lot of upfront work. In brainstorming sessions, people seldom work with a naming blueprint, for example.
Patti: Why aren’t brainstorming sessions well-suited to choosing a brand name?
Margaret: In a brainstorming session, huge numbers of names are amassed — some on point, others not — and then discarded. Finding something wrong with names is practically a blood sport. And emotions tend to run binary — names are either loved or hated. And odds are that any names generated can’t surmount trademark hurtles.
In my experience, deep research into a range of disciplines — literature, history, music, mathematics, and science, as examples — can yield more interesting, viable candidates than brainstorming. The thesaurus is also not that useful. It’s the first place most people go for inspiration, and most of the words that might be a good fit will hit trademark issues. Naming is akin to an archeological dig: The deeper and more carefully you dig, the greater your chance of finding treasure.
Patti: What are some helpful devices used in developing brand names?
Margaret: It is helpful to familiarize yourself with various literary devices. Three of these — alliteration, assonance, and onomatopoeia — can add sonic power to a name and, in turn, increase its memorability. Alliteration, the repetition of consonants in close proximity, is a tried-and-true way to increase name memorability. Examples include Jamba Juice and Lululemon. Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in proximity, like YouTube. Onomatopoeia refers to words that sound like what they are. Zoom, for example, sounds speedy.
Patti: How specific should a company name be? For example, we’ve seen that Starbucks dropped the word Coffee from its brand name. And now Jamba Juice has dropped the word Juice.
Margaret: That depends, but you generally never want to be overly narrow with your name, as your product mix may expand in the future. Had Amazon called itself Books-A-Million, it would have been much harder to make the leap into an online marketplace that sells everything. Allusive names — names that have no direct connection to the underlying goods or company — can more easily grow with a brand.
Osena, for example, can travel in multiple directions. And while the inspiration behind it is “water for the senses” — the name’s onset “O” phonetically nods to eau, the French word for water, and sen is Latin for senses — it is an abstract word that can flex with the company’s future ideas and products.
Patti: Chris, how are you using your name in your brand story?
Chris: Osena provided us with a number of options for building our brand story. In addition to the actual meaning behind the name, we settled on the idea of Osena as a place. In our emerging brand story, Osena is a mythical island where our drink flows freely. The island of Osena is depicted on our can, where our signature monkey mascots sip from a coconut. This is just the beginning of the magic that happens on this fictional isle. We’ll be developing this story across multiple media platforms as our product launches.
Margaret: There are so many things that make a name special: the sound, the sense, how surprising it is. At River + Wolf, we believe extraordinary names lend themselves to creative storytelling. This is especially important in business-to-consumer naming. Chris and Vicente “got this” and are crafting an imaginative narrative that I’m sure will have many chapters.
Patti Williams is the Ira A. Lipman associate professor of marketing at the Wharton School.