Last January I found myself in a comms meeting where we discussed the ways in which we were going to communicate about a new product we are developing. One of the issues that came up was that the current working title of the product didn’t particular excite anyone, and there was a need for a new product name. Product naming is what some call a ‘dark art’. It’s one of those things that we’re all familiar with; we all know the importance of good product name and brand, but how to do that seems a bit of a mystery. 

In the comms team we thought that, rather than come up with random names, we’d delve in to the history of Akvo product names first. We soon realised that in the past product names had been thoughtfully chosen on their own, but not necessarily in relation to each other. Richard Branson says that “Good brands reflect the histories of the time and the group of people that made them.” Akvo has grown in an organic way. So has our product portfolio, and the names not neatly matching up – like, for example, Apple’s iPod, iPhone and iPad – reflects the history and people who worked on those products at the time. It adds personality to the Akvo brand. 

However, as we expand our product portfolio, it’s good to look how we can move forward in a more cohesive way. By looking at our brand names from a historical point of view, we learned a lot about the strong points of Akvo’s (product) brand names, which helped us devise some guidelines for future product brands.

Blackberries by Dwight Sipler via Flickr.
We like illustrative brand names
There are many different kinds of brand names, and within Akvo we have used three different kinds. Firstly there are descriptive brand names, where the name holds a fairly literal clue to what the product does, for example, Akvopedia or Akvo Sites. 

We also use acronyms, like Akvo RSR. Written out in full, RSR means Really Simple Reporting, which is descriptive, but that isn’t conveyed by the letters on their own. 

Lastly we use illustrative brand names. Illustrative names spark the imagination. They may hint at a product characteristic, but in a not so obvious way. An example: In 1998, a small Canadian company (RIM) tried to come up with a name for its new high-tech mobile phone which would send emails. Torn between names like MegaMail and ProMail, they went to a branding agency seeking help. There, after free associating words, one of the brand naming specialists said “strawberry” to convey enjoyment and freshness. Then someone else suggested “blackberry”. RIM chose the latter and, after adding two capital letters, the BlackBerry brand was born. 

Illustrative names like BlackBerry are great conversation starters. They surprise and delight people when they find out about the meaning. When I explain that Akvo is the Esperanto word for water, or that Akvo Caddisfly, our water quality testing kit, is named after the bioindicators of pure water, people perceive Akvo as a clever bunch of people. If we can come up with a product and a name that are so well suited, we must know what we’re talking about. They are also easier to remember and stand out better when looking them up in search engines. We like illustrative names for all these reasons. 

Google-abilityWe want good google-ability
Nowadays internet search engines provide us with the possibility to run a universal name search, which is a challenge when it comes to marketing our products. It’s important to find a product name that stands out, and doesn’t get lost in a sea of similar products and services on the internet. If you were to type the word “Akvo” into any search engine, you’ll find is the top hit. In fact, it’s almost every hit. That wasn’t always the case. We eventually moved up there because of the content on our sites, though it certainly helps that no significant other brand uses the name Akvo. Our product names should come up with similar search results. Maybe not at first, as time is needed for search engines to trawl our sites and find the info they need to move us to the top of the list, but eventually we should get to the top. We can do this by choosing our brand names carefully, and make sure they stand out. As mentioned above, illustrative names will help with this. Imagine what a difference in relevant search results “MegaMail” or “BlackBerry” would give. This also applies to words commonly used in our field. “Data” or “solutions” won’t give us a top hit, but “Caddisfly” just might. 

monolithic-brandWe are a monolithic brand
A monolithic brand consists of a main brand, on which the underlying brands are based. The Akvo brand is the main component of each of our products: Akvo Flow, Akvo RSR, Akvopedia, and so on. It’s something we’ve done since Akvo’s conception, as it creates brand awareness and makes our products easy to recognise. Our products work well together, which would be less obvious if we were to brand our products individually. The monolithic brand also works well from an organisational point of view. Our team plays a big role in the implementation of our products with partners, so by using the name Akvo in each brand we underline the work we do as an organisation, not just the benefits of products.

colour-codingWe ♥︎ colour-coding

Last summer we started grouping our products under three key processes: Capture, Understand and Share. The response to this was positive, as it takes away the complexity of multiple products, and it helps simplify the explanation of what Akvo does. Each category has its own colour, and products within that category share that colour too. This visual way of clustering products under a process, helps describe our products, even if you only see the colours at a glance.

If we add new products to our portfolio, they too should be identified with one of the three processes. If the product incorporates more than one process, we’ll identify the most dominant one. For one of our current products (Akvo RSR), this has proven difficult. After asking different team members, each would place it somewhere differently on the Capture, Understand and Share scale. We realised that RSR isn’t Capture, Understand, OR Share. It’s all of those. So we added a fourth colour to the mix for products that cover everything. This complicates things, however, and where possible we should identify new products with a single process.


Football by Matthew Wilkinson via Flickr.

We play by the rules
Apart from the guidelines above we also set some general rules to make sure future product names are aligned with each other.

  1. All of our product names are to be composed of no more than two words; Akvo followed by a single word with an initial capital. Akvo Flow, Akvo Sites, Akvo Caddisfly (with the exception of Akvopedia, which is one word, and Akvo RSR which is an acronym).
  2. Even though the word Akvo is Esperanto, the second word is always English, and should be checked in the context of the languages of the regions we work in, to make sure they don’t mean something inappropriate. 
  3. Product names should be easy to pronounce. The second word is less than 10 letters long, and no more than three syllables. 
  4. We use no punctuation marks (& + – %) or acronyms in new brand names.

The right word
It’s taken us some time to set out these parameters, but at least we now have some guidelines to help us find a product name for the new product we are developing. It’s a complicated process, finding the right word, as every person in Akvo will have different associations with any word we choose. It will be almost impossible to please everyone. However I think we can all agree with what Lexicon, the branding agency that came up with the BlackBerry brand, says about this: “The single most important value of a name is its storytelling ability. And to tell a good story, you must do three things; Get their attention. Make it interesting. Tell them something new.”

Read our full branding guidelines.
Linda Leunissen is Akvo’s graphic designer, based in London. You can follow her on twitter @lindadutches