An often overlooked and under-thought component of marketing a product, service, or experience is the naming process. While seemingly simple, a great deal of thought and work is required in creating a singular name that must do so very much:
represent the product and immediately resonate
generate attention and plant the seeds of recall
align with the brand attributes and goals
evoke positive emotion
be differentiated within a crowded marketplace
All too often this process is an afterthought which, as you can guess, contributes to a product’s failure.
The most infamous (and, to date, unverified) story about naming blunders is Chevrolet’s launch of its Nova brand in Latin America. Sadly, “nova” translates into, roughly, “doesn’t go.” Just the imagery you want a consumer to associate with a car.
Another example is with Parker Pen and its intention to use the slogan "it won't stain your pocket and embarrass you." Translating into Spanish, no manchará tu bolsillo, ni te embarazará, created some interest challenges. You see, embarazar usually means "to be pregnant" rather than "to embarrass." So the slogan was understood as "it won't stain your pocket and get you pregnant."
Finally, in France, Colgate introduced a new line of toothpaste named Cue. Unfortunately, this was also the name of a well known pornography magazine. Can you imagine, on your regular Saturday grocery shopping trip, picking up a tube of Crest Penthouse toothpaste? Kinda leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth.
Which brings me to a little ditty that caught my eye in a recent Sunday newspaper’s circular for Kroger, a grocery chain that has stores here in Richmond. One of the many items on sale that week was dog food. But not just any dog food brand- this was for Old Yeller Dog Food. That’s right, folks, that “lovely” family film that brought the sad, tough reality of life and death to every American boy and girl for decades can now deliver the same warmth to your canine’s belly each and every day!
For those of you who aren’t old enough to have seen this during its theatrical release in 1957 or in what seemed like annual screenings on NBC’s long-defunct “The Wonderful World of Disney” on Sunday nights, Old Yeller is the story of a boy and his dog. But there’s one big difference between this “boy and his dog” movie and all the others that came to your mind when you read that line 5 seconds ago; the boy in this movie, tears streaming down his face, takes his father’s gun and shoots his rabies-infected dog. Quite simply, for everyone who has seen this movie, that is the one thing that is remembered: Travis (the boy) shoots his dog (Old Yeller). Countless millions of gallons of prepubescent tears have been shed during that scene.
So now fast forward to 2008 and imagine seeing an ad for dog food called “Old Yeller Dog Food.” What’s the first thing I thought of? “The movie where the boy shoots his dog.” That’s what EVERYONE who has seen the movie and sees the ad or food in the grocery aisle thinks of. How do I feel upon thinking of that memory? Well, after I push aside the feeling of ridiculousness about this naming (and thus branding) decision, I may feel sad or morose upon reflecting upon this truly shocking moment of my youth. Let me say it again: the boy shoots his dog dead.
Now let’s play the part of the company that brought us this gift to the canine culinary experience: the Kroger Company. Introduced in 2005 (how could I have missed this jewel of absurdity for nearly 4 years?), Kroger hoped to be able to compete in the (then) $7.4 billion market for dog food with its own “house” brand. The challenge for any house brand, beyond price, is how to compete against known brands; Pedigree, Iams, Purina, Eukanuba, Science Diet. Among dog owners, these brands have high awareness and some degree of differentiation. How does one successfully compete amongst this mix?
Kroger must have thought to themselves, “let’s connect to the consumer at an emotional level.” None of the names I listed in the paragraph above have any emotional equity. Science Diet doesn’t evoke images of vacations with the family dog, now does it? Not a bad start for thinking how to name a new product; there was an opportunity within the category for a more emotional brand. So what to do with that?
Well, Kroger could have decided to build its own brand built upon emotional resonance but that could take years and cost millions. Another route- and the one it obviously attempted to take- was to leverage an existing brand. A name that, with the stroke of a pen on a licensing contract, could be used immediately and would deliver awareness, relevance, and emotion. Hmmmm…. What options come to mind?
When I think about cultural icons relevant to dogs, I, too, immediately think of films. There’s Lassie, Benji, Beethoven, Air Bud, Underdog, Snoopy, Rin Tin Tin… and yes, there is also Old Yeller.
I understand the place in Americana for Old Yeller, the role it has in many young people’s lives (those over the age of 40, that is). It is a film about love and the bonds between family. It is about a boy and his dog, their unquestionable commitment and dedication to one another even in the most dire of situations. Per Kroger’s press release at the time:
“The movie is a timeless classic that transcends generations, and we believe this brand will appeal not only to original fans, but to the millions of Americans who share the same kind of special bond with their beloved dogs,” said Barry Vance, Kroger senior corporate category manager.
I get that. I also get that at the end of the movie… the one thing people immediately recall when presented with the name “Old Yeller”… the young boy shoots his dog dead. That’s what people think when they see the product on the shelves or advertised. And I strongly suspect that the next thought is not a burning desire to replace their existing dog food with a new product that reminds them that their dog will, sadly, die some day. Generally, death is not a good motivator of sales for consumer packaged goods.
Walt Disney, Disney, CPG
Walt Disney, Disney, CPG