Most firms struggle to get their names into the public consciousness and achieve the wide recognition they desire. For a bemused few, however, the problem is the opposite: their name is so handy and perfect for the product or service, it is adopted by the public and becomes a generic term. When this happens, the owner of the brand name is in danger of losing the rights to it as a trademark, since generic names of things cannot be trademarked. The list of former trademarks that are now common words is a long one (corn flakes, linoleum, aspirin …) and the list of currently endangered names is just as long: Kleenex, Xerox, FedEx, Google …

Brand names encounter the biggest problems when they cross borders. Federal Express found it expedient to shorten their name: research showed that “federal” had negative connotations in some countries, while some Asians had difficulty with the r and I. There are many humorous tales of marketers who fail to research all the evocations a name can have in a local language, and end up with a failure.

Some brands choose a completely different name when they cross borders. The Snickers bar was renamed Marathon when it was first sold in the UK because marketers thought the American name sounded like “knickers.” Eventually, the American name was adopted, and Marathon was reused as the name of another, high-energy bar from the same company.

Most products have several names: the manufacturer’s name, the line, the product, a plain-language identifier, and perhaps a subidentifier such as size, flavor, or color. This can be confusing.

Progress and competitiveness push some companies to update product names regularly. Gillette introduced the three-blade Mach3 razor in 1997. A few years later an improved version arrived, called the Mach3 Turbo. Now Gillette also offers the battery-powered M3Power and M3Power Nitro. What began as a simple name, with manly evocations of speed, has accumulated generic add-ons that are crushing the original name and risk undermining any loyalty that customers might have built up toward the original Mach3.

Apple was falling into the same trap in the 1990s, with names as unwieldy as the Power Macintosh Performa 6400, but smartly retreated. All models now have a short, friendly name such as iBook or Mac Mini, depending on the basic category, with no clunky add-ons to designate processor speed or bus type. These designations may be important to some customers, but they shouldn’t clutter up the name. If it isn’t memorable, it isn’t a good name.