Gotta have a system


What’s in a name? Well, lots. Otherwise, we wouldn’t spend ages agonising over what to call our children. Or, indeed, our companies. And it is agony. Because if you’re naming a new company (or, even more tricky, renaming an old one) then you want your name to sum up who you are, what you do, what your brand is like.

Which, in truth, is virtually impossible. So you have to make a choice: which aspect of your business is it most beneficial to capture in your name? Do you want to explain what you do (‘Phones4U’); or gets across your attitude? (‘Virgin’); or gives your customers something emotional to connect with? (‘London Pride’); Or just jump on a bandwagon, like every startp tht drps thr vwls s thy snd lk Flickr, nd Tumblr)…

Which might be why, after all the stress and bother of naming their businesses, people often forget the nuts and bolts stuff: the naming systems of the products and services your customers will actually buy or use.

I was reminded how often this gets missed when I saw this First Great Western poster at the Reading station the other day:


First Great Western have just spent a train-load of money on rebranding as ‘Great Western Railway’. (A good rebrand, which I’ve written about here, as it happens.) Presumably naming the trains themselves got overlooked?

Also, I realised that I’ve never actually thought about what the trains are called before. I just have a vague sense of there being ‘the big one’, the ‘local stopper one’, and the ‘one-that-pretends-it’s-a-big-one-but-behaves-more-like-a-local-stopper-one’.

This poster also makes me weep. Because the names are all over the place.

The smallest train has been given a sexed-up name to make it sound sporty. Which is clearly nonsense, and also messes up its place in the set (like when coffee shops give the ‘small’ drink a big-sounding name like Enormaventi). Just think if you were standing on a platform and the announcer said ‘yourTurbo train is now arriving on Plaform 9’ — which of these three trains would you realistically look out for?

The ‘High Speed Train’ has been given an almost comically straight descriptive name: It’s a train. And it goes at high speed. Can’t go far wrong there, surely? It’s only spoiled by the fact that nobody who works in railways ever calls them ‘High Speed Trains’, they call them HSTs, which means nothing to the average rail passenger.

And the other one? What on earth were they thinking calling it the Class 180?! If they’ve bothered to give ‘Turbo’ a pet name, why not this one?

I can hear tutting at the back already. Yes, I know it’s difficult. The trains probably come with names; they’re probably made by different manufacturers, in different countries, years — perhaps even decades — apart. And it would be nigh-on-impossible to get all rail companies to use the same names. The chances of being able to call them ‘Small’ ‘Medium’ and ‘Large’ are vanishingly small. (You’re welcome.) And does it really matter? It’s not like it ever makes a difference to passengers. We’re almost never in a situation where we need help ‘choosing’ between flavours.

But the chances are, your company doesn’t have products or services that are as difficult to name as trains. So check them. Do they make sense? Do they form a coherent set, that helps your customers choose? Do they reflect your brand as well as your company name?

Oh, and don’t get me started on ‘Crossrail’.


Nick Parker – Writer. Language strategist. Simplifier of things. Author of The Exploding Boy and other tiny tales (‘astonishing’, The Guardian.)

Nick has worked with AB on various naming and brand story projects.

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