When a Brand Name is More Than a Name


In many ways, New York City’s Tavern on the Green is a marketing success story. It is one of the most recognized brand names in the United States; at one time the name alone was valued at $19 million. When you think of an upscale eatery in the Big Apple, this name probably comes to mind. However, it is also an abysmal failure. Due to bad management combined with market conditions, the actual Tavern on the Green restaurant went bankrupt a few years ago.

The family run restaurant was in debt to the tune of $8 million. This means that the company could have simply sold the name, paid the debt and been left with a sizeable profit. However, the story did not end that way. Instead, the Le Roy family, which owned the restaurant, was dragged into a lawsuit with the City of New York, which claims some kind of ownership of the name. In fact, through some legal maneuverings that are beyond my understanding of the law, New York City ended up with the rights to the name. This lawsuit tarnished the image so much that the City was only able to sell the name for a little more than one million dollars, although this does not include the rights to use the name inside New York City. The city is retaining those rights.

The speculation is already high: will the name be used for a chain of restaurants? Perhaps a line of food, or a cookbook, or even a grocery store? The license to use the name included a stipulation that a set percentage of sales must be donated to The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which means that there will at least be some social value to the sale.

Most people in the business world feel that the licensees, Tavern International, got a good deal despite the stipulations and will make a handsome profits. The Tavern on the Green brand is possibly the most recognizable upscale, non-chain restaurant name. Hundreds of thousands of tourists spent a good portion of their monthly paycheck just to have lunch in the iconic restaurant. These same people will be highly likely to buy a product bearing the name and logo design, even if it costs a bit more than the customer is used to spending.

Restaurant logo designs and names can be much more valuable than even the restaurants themselves. Consider, for instance, the Spago and California Pizza Kitchen lines of frozen pizza. You can get hot, high quality pizza for the same price or less, but consumers are paying for the name of a restaurant that they will probably never experience in person. The same goes for Lawry’s. They are the standard for seasoned salt, and most consumers no longer associate the name with the restaurant that began the brand.

The Tavern on the Green restaurant is being developed in New York City, this time to be city-owned and run. Interestingly, the related line of products will probably hit the market long before the actual restaurant sees its second opening night.

Your Name and Your Brand

No single part of a brand is as important as the name. This short phrase will be associated indelibly with your business and in many cases precede your reputation. Whether you are trying to develop a great business name or a name for a new line of products, following these guidelines can help you make the right decision.

Think of your customer’s needs.

There is an ongoing debate in the business community as to whether a unique name or a more generally descriptive one is ideal. The answer to this is simple: what does your customer need? If you are offering a straightforward service or product—that is, answering a basic need—a simple name may be better. On the other hand, unique names usually make the process of branding easier and more effective. You should first and foremost be meeting customer needs and expressing this with your name.

Keep it short and sweet.

Not only is a long name difficult to remember and even harder to fit on signage and letterhead, it may actually be a detriment to your brand. The danger of a long name is that it will invariably be shortened in a way that is unflattering to your business or reduced to a meaningless acronym. Some businesses demand more detail in the name than others, but it’s best to keep it as simple as you possibly can.

Consider negative connotations.

There are a variety of ways that a name can hold you back, either because of a phonemic resemblance to another word or another issue. For example, the Chevy Nova failed in Latin America because their name sounds like the Spanish phrase meaning, “doesn’t go.” Make sure that your name doesn’t conjure up an unpleasant image or one that is not complimentary to your brand.

Check to see if the name is taken.

First, you should search the U.S. Patent and Trade Office’s online website to make sure your idea is not already claimed by someone else in your area or industry. Second, check to make sure that the internet domain corresponding to this name is not already taken. Generally, people looking for your business on the internet will type in yourbusinessname.com, so choosing a name in which this action will take them to one of your competitors is counterproductive.

Ask others.

Once you have a name in mind that obeys all of the above rules, get as much feedback as possible from people in your community. Many people will give you a polite answer, but it is usually easy to see their true reaction. These people can point out anything you have missed, ensuring that you leave no issue unconsidered. If everyone seems genuinely enthralled with your new business name, it just may be a winner.

Many small business owners already have an existing name and brand for their company. Hopefully, these are parts of the same puzzle, creating a cohesive experience for customers and the community. An inappropriate or uninspired name can create problems for even the most well run business, while a good name can lead your brand into a very bright future. If names didn’t matter, we would be watching movies starring Thomas Mapother instead of Tom Cruise, listening to Bernard Schwartz instead of Tony Curtis. These stars knew that their birth name would diminish their brand; a good business owner must have the same sense.