What’s in a Name?

Recently, I participated in an interview for an LA Times article on menu names. Here are my top ten thoughts on, ‘What’s in a name?’
1. Do you consider menu naming serious business?
Naming is really important for two main reasons, first, to encourage ordering of menu items, and second to set the right expectation about the menu item. In research I did for a new start up, an item called ‘Jerk Chicken Sandwich’ set customer expectations of a hot, spicy item whereas the item itself was very mild. Customers who ordered it in our test focus groups were very disappointed because they ordered what they were led to believe was spicy and it wasn’t. They were disappointed because the name was misleading. Naming items well so that they create realistic expectations can increase customer satisfaction—that’s serious business.

2. Are menu names based on research?
Large companies, particularly fast food chains with franchisees that have high expectations for menu item performance, research menu names extensively. The also do what they call ‘product concept positioning.’ They ask, ‘is the concept right for the brand and is the name right for the concept?’ Small, entrepreneurial companies are a little less strategic about it. They will sometimes do informal research but they don’t usually test names formally.

3. Are menu names really important in helping to sell food?
Names are really impogarbagertant and can make or break menu item sales.
□ When Max & Erma’s Restaurants years ago introduced a smaller, less expensive burger, we wanted to discourage ordering because it would have cannibalized our larger, more profitable burger, so we named it the ‘Erma’ Burger and experienced far less cannibalization than projected. The more feminine name discouraged ordering by some men and gave us the result we needed—offering a more appealing size, but not compromising profitability.
□ The uniqueness of the name especially if it’s easy to remember and distinctive can also encourage word of mouth. Ignite! a restaurant client of mine in Carlsbad, CA offers an appetizer called ‘Man Candy’, maple glazed bacon with chili flakes. It’s a great happy hour item, easy to remember, distinctive, really on-brand and helps create word of mouth.

4. Does research show certain words that work better than others?
□ Words that refer to appealing cooking methods like ‘grilled, roasted, braised, fire roasted’
□ Words that promise freshness like ‘farm-fresh’ or ‘fresh cracked egg’ or ‘made to order’ ‘freshly made’
□ Words that promise healthy food or ingredients with integrity like ‘free range’ or ‘natural’ or ‘grass fed’ or ‘organic’
□ Words that romance premium ingredients like ‘Belgian chocolate’ or ‘applewood smoked bacon’—research shows that people equate quality ingredients with quality taste
□ Words that romance the flavors like ‘cilantro-lime rice’, ‘ancho-braised’ or ‘triple thick hot fudge’ and ‘vanilla bean sauce.’ This kind of name can literally generate craving.

5. Are menu names a type of branding?
Menu names manifest the brand ‘voice’ in action. Every brand has a brand personality, and smart companies use that personality to work for them by developing their ‘brand voice’ and using that voice to tell the story on the menu and in all their messaging.
The brand ‘voice’ might be edgy or funny or whacky or outrageous depending on the overall brand positioning. Names with a lot of attitude and personality are in sync with the brand and draw people to them…the more personality the better.

6. Do guests really respond to specific names? If so why and how?
Guests really respond to names that are targeted to their interests. Of course, verbiage might be lost on people that can’t relate to it (vegetarians couldn’t care less about Nueske’s award-winning ham, but carnivores may be equally unimpressed by spring lettuces). Specificity allows customers to relate in a more personal way like with the name “Skinny Margarita.”

7. What makes some names stick?
Simple, distinctive, easy to remember names can really stick. IHOP’s Rooty Tooty Fresh and Fruity and the Whopper have lasted for decades for that reason. Max & Erma’s Garbage Burger has been around since the 70’s and deserts like the Lindey’s Post Mortem and PF Chang’s Great Wall of Chocolate are distinctive, simple, peak the imagination and have really managed to stick.pf-changs-great-wall-of-chocolate-cake-01

8. Are there menu-naming trends?
Restaurants are getting better about capitalizing on their brand voice and leveraging it into more unique, interesting and sometimes outrageous names. Beyond that there are several tends:
□ One trend which is somewhat of a chef-driven trend is naming by listing major ingredients. Chefs don’t really like flowery, contrived names.
â–¡ Another is making quality statements rather than hyperbolic flavor claims about.
â–¡ Another is the shock factor going for irreverent or edgy, names.

9. Are courses offered that teach menu naming?
There are none that I am aware of, but the upcoming Marketing Executives Group Spring Conference in Chicago at the Westin Hotel on May will feature a session called “Finding your Voice” by branding expert Adrienne Weiss who helped develop WaterTower Plaza’s original FOOD LIFE and the new LYFE Kitchen brand as well as rebranding Baskin Robbins and Dunkin’ Donuts.

10. What are your thoughts about menu naming?
The main goal in menu naming is influencing people ordering the item. The one caveat from my years of doing customer menu research is that customers often order items by the item name. In other words, they read the name to the server. If it’s long or difficult or embarrassing to pronounce, it can be a barrier to purchase. Using long Italian (or French, or Spanish, etc.) names may cause customers to stumble over the name and perhaps be embarrassed. In some cases, they either point to the item or truncate the name or pick another item altogether. (They are out with friends for a nice meal…they don’t really want to be embarrassed placing their order.)

If a restaurant wants to sell something, they need to build in enough personality to draw guests to it and avoid the barriers that will slow guests down from picking it.
Until next time, I’d love to hear your thoughts.