Introduction: Why Nailing Your Brand Name Matters
What’s in a name? Opportunity. A great brand name can tell a story, evoke intense emotion, ignite a social experiment, remain steadfast through economic and political shifts, and can even change the course of history. While a name still needs the support of marketing dollars and a solid strategy, there’s no doubt that with some direction, creativity, and supportive data, creating a catchy brand name can give you the opportunity you deserve to make a positive impact in your industry!
Getting Started: What to Consider Before the Creativity Begins
1. Define your objectives.
While it may be tempting to pull out that favorite journal and pen and get down to naming, it’s important to take a step back and consider your brand naming objectives. Having a framework provides the necessary boundaries and guidelines needed to streamline your naming process and end up with names that support and agree with the most important aspects of your business endeavors:
- What do you want the name to do? Create trial purchases? Communicate social consciousness? Become an umbrella brand for multiple products/services?
- What feelings and emotions do you want the name to evoke? Reliability, excitement, credibility, curiosity, humor?
- How will the name be used or shown on packaging, digital collateral, and more?
- Is there a current company naming architecture or hierarchy the name needs to agree with?
- Do you need an exact dot-com?
- Do you need a name that is ownable and differentiated in your industry? Do you want to trademark the name?
- Will this be a global company, service or product? Do you need a name that works well in various languages and cultures? Will you need a linguistic assessment in other languages to check for comprehension, profane meaning, and pronunciation difficulty?
- How big is your marketing budget? Can you make a sizable investment in launching and promoting this new brand or do you need the name to speak for itself?
2. Prepare for change internally.
One thing you may not think of initially when coming up with a brand name or rebranding a company is whether you’re ready as a company. Perhaps you’re embarking on a rebrand and it’s most important for your internal employees and team members to get on board with the new name. Or maybe you’re traditionally a B2B focused company but you’re launching your first B2C product. These changes will impact your internal stakeholders.
Here are some important questions to consider:
- Who will ultimately be making the final decision about the name? How and when will you involve them in the process?
- Do you care about building team consensus or are you more concerned with finding a name that resounds with your target audience?
- What will change management look like for your team? Internal marketing/branding modifications?
- Do you have a conservative company culture or do you have leadership that welcomes a name with a little controversy and excitement?
- Do you already have a cohesive and clear naming system/nomenclature as a company or is that something you many need to develop?
- Due to company history or complexity, should you consider bringing in an outside naming agency to facilitate this process for your team to make it more streamlined and collaborative?
3. Be yourself.
Knowing where you’re going starts with defining and remembering who you are as a business. It’s easy to get distracted by dreams and aspirations of being the next Google or by current internal business issues and struggles, but you can’t lose sight of your foundation and your history. Get back to the heart of why you started your business or organization in the first place. Dive back into your mission statement and key values. They will ground you and hold you accountable to choosing a brand name that is aligned with the core of your business and will stand the test of time.
Don’t have a mission statement or values and not sure where to start? We recommend a one-sentence mission statement and three key values. While it can be hard to boil everything you’ve put your blood, sweat, and tears into down to one sentence and three words, we find that keeping it short and simple keeps everyone on the same page, brings camaraderie to the team and guides your naming process.
Here are some questions to help you get started:
- What are your key differentiators (what sets you apart)?
- What is your unique value proposition?
- What story are you telling?
- What problem are you solving that no one else is?
- What void is your product or service fulfilling?
- What emotions does your company evoke that the others barely muster?
4. Know your target market.
Determining who your name is for is probably the most important thing to do before naming your business, product, or service. Too often c-suite executives will focus on names that they or other key decision-makers prefer, rather than names that resonate with their target audience. This is where naming market research can be really useful to a company. Once the team has whittled names down to a favorite 6-10 names, it can be very eye opening to take those names to a sizable sampling of current or potential customers and ask for their feedback. Oftentimes, this data is what helps the team to come to a final decision about a brand name.
Another research-backed practice is to consider coming up with target audience personas to help you to understand the individuals you are communicating with. Use your demographic data about your current or future customers to create primary, secondary and tertiary target personas. Give them names, personalities and preferences that help them to come alive for your marketing staff. When you come up with a new name, ask yourself, “Would our primary target persona ‘Brenda from the Burbs’ like this name?”
5. Keep your enemies closer.
Taking a glance at your competition might seem obvious, but it can be involved. You may know your main competitors already and, if that’s the case, it is crucial to survey their brand name portfolio. What is their name style? Do they have an obvious naming architecture or nomenclature? Do you want to look like the competition or strike out into a new naming territory and make a splash?
After assessing the competitors you know, it’s time for a deeper dive into the competitive naming landscape–trademark screening. Yes, trademark screening helps you to know if the name you love is available in your industry, but it also gives you the most comprehensive view of what is currently being used by competitors and how saturated the market is with names that are similar to the names you like. There’s no better way to keep your enemies close than to wade waste high into the world of trademark searching. Too time consuming for your taste? In addition to coming up with creative brand name options for you, a brand naming agency may do the preliminary trademark screening for you.
6. Keep your eye to the future.
Having a “here and now” only frame-of-mind is too limiting when it comes to brand naming. Being future-minded or even better, infinitely-minded (Thank you, Simon Sinek), is the difference between a name that’s reactionary and momentary and a name that ages well and thrives through cultural, economic, and political shifts. If there’s a possibility you might expand your product and service lines or switch trajectories you will need a name that’s flexible and accommodating. Is your top name inspired by a fly-by-night fad or GIF? Probably best to reconsider.
After you’ve nailed your brand naming objectives, thoroughly examined the core of your business and considered your company’s future, it’s time to explore different types of names.
5 Types of Brand Names
Brands like REI, H&M, AT&T, and BMW are all widely known and recognized acronyms. While most people don’t actually know what these various acronyms stand for, it doesn’t seem to hinder customer loyalty. Therefore, it stands to reason that acronyms make great names, right? Not so fast. There are a few commonalities between all of these brands, which comes down to decades in the business and millions of marketing dollars. Furthermore, most of these brands have extensive histories to back up their acronym of choice, few of which have anything to do with who the company is today. Take the aforementioned H&M for example. No, it’s not Hats & More, Herwear & Menswear or Handbags & Mittens, but how about Hennes & Mauritz? That’s a head scratcher only a history lesson can explain. In our modern world, selecting a string of meaningless letters together will not likely result in the REI or BMW we know and love, but will most likely result in apathy and confusion.
2. Naming After Yourself
Naming a brand or company after yourself or a family member is different than selecting an abbreviation or acronym, but the effects can be glaringly similar unless you fit into one of these three categories:
- You are the product or service. Maybe you’re an entertainer like JoJo Siwa, a podcast host, or a genius in your field looking to create invaluable content or videos, like Dave Ramsey. If this fits you, using your name as your brand may not only work well, but be the best strategy for success.
- You have something proprietary to offer. Do you have a claim to fame? If you have created a new technology, approach, therapy, or are breaking new ground in your industry, using your name might just be what’s needed to bring validity and viability to your brand.
- You have an incredibly cool name. I have a friend whose last name is “Sas”, pronounced exactly like “sass”. Depending on the type of company this friend wanted to start, using their last name as their brand name could serve them well (and with an extra measure of sass)!
One last thing to keep in mind if you decide to name your brand after yourself. As your company grows, it’s even more important to be committed and stay intimately involved for decades to come. A company who is named after a founder that pulls out after a handful of years sets the company’s future up for potential failure.
3. Made-Up Naming
Many made-up brand names that have become household names like Coca-Cola, Lego, and Adidas are staples of American culture- yet, we don’t even know what they mean. How can a brand name with no context or inherent meaning be a good strategy for your brand? Coined names have many benefits to them besides being easier to get through trademark screening. Having a made-up name usually means a lower likelihood of confusion with another established brand. An inventive name also creates the opportunity for you to build your brand from scratch with no prior associations, meanings, or linguistic hurdles you’ll likely experience with real-word brand names. On the flip side, more branding freedom calls for more marketing dollars as inventive names usually require more advertising, more consumer education, and more ramp-up time than a name that is more descriptive in nature. If you want to use a totally made-up name with no current linguistic associations, you have to ask yourself- do I have the pocketbook to make it thrive?
4. Descriptive Naming
Descriptive brand naming is usually the most-popular naming strategy and is considered “safer” than other styles of names because descriptive names tend to resonate with a larger group of people, are more easily understood, and require a lower marketing budget. Popular brands and well-known companies like CarMax, ToysRUs, SodaStream, and PayPal clearly telegraph the product or service so that you understand what they offer upon first glance. We call these “get you most of the way there” names. They don’t require a lot of explanation and, therefore, don’t demand the same marketing dollars. However, getting more telegraphic names through trademark clearance and securing an exact dot-com can be a huge challenge due to the saturated naming landscape.
5. Evocative Naming
Evocative brand names are usually real word names that aren’t descriptive or indicative of what the company or product is. Examples include companies like Apple, Yahoo, Casper and Amazon. Because evocative names tend to be disconnected from the goods and services of the company, they can create an opportunity to become an impactful powerhouse brand that is greater than the products and services it offers. We’ve seen this to be true with Amazon who has now become an umbrella of every kind of product and service consumers could possibly want. The downside of evocative brand naming is similar to coined or made-up names, which is that it usually requires a substantial marketing budget to educate consumers about who the company is and what they have to offer. These names also tend to be dangerous and unwieldy because they can bring so many memories/feelings to customer’s minds. For example, the definition of “yahoo” is “a rude, noisy or violent person.” How about Casper? What does a comic book ghost or a 90’s movie starring Christina Ricci have to do with the perfect night of sleep? In both of these cases, the companies took names with previous associations and bent them to their will with long-standing marketing efforts, some clever branding, and some excellent product performance.
Needless to say, there are some well-known brand names that do not fit in these 5 name categories. Warby Parker, for example, an online retailer of stylish, convenient and affordable prescription glasses that disrupted the industry in the early 2010’s, created their name by combining the names of two characters from a journal written by Jack Kerouac, the beatnik author. This company name carries some of the same problems and opportunities as names in these two categories “Naming After Yourself” and “Evocative Naming” and then gets bonus points for being too cool to fit into the normal categories, which fits very nicely into their whole brand personality.
Now that you’re well-versed in the benefits and drawbacks of various kinds of brand names, it’s time for the brainstorming to commence!
Let the Creativity Begin: Brainstorming Tips & Tricks
1. Write everything down, even if you hate it.
When we brainstorm brand names, it’s not uncommon for our team to come up with 1000 name ideas. The percentage of these names that actually make it through trademark screening and onto our presentation deck for our clients is around 5%. When writing down a list of names, stay positive and write down anything and everything that comes to mind. Your list should include everything from hate to great, but why? Sometimes beauty is made from the ashes of names that should be banned and burned. Brainstorming brand names is a transformational process. What started as one line of thinking can quickly morph into a completely different path of brainstorming that yields hundreds of names of all shapes and sizes. There have been countless naming projects where we have taken the concept or portion of a terrible name and created something that was a perfect fit for our clients. Take negativity and criticism off the table and allow creativity to flow!
2. Explore Greek and Latin root words, suffixes, and prefixes.
Around here, we like to do “word surgery”. Getting creative with naming means taking liberties with language by cutting up words, rearranging parts, adding prefixes and suffixes, dissecting root words, and coming up with every combination in-between. Exploring lists of Greek and Latin root words, as well as prefixes and suffixes, is a great place to start your own word surgery, especially when you need a made-up name. Amfac Parks & Resorts needed a new name for their new travel collection. “Xanterra” (Zanterra) was the winning name which came from the latin root for earth, “terra” and “xan” from Xanadu which means “an idealized place of great or idyllic magnificence and beauty”. The result? A truly unique and aspirational name.
3. Use some handy tools.
Thesaurus: When brand naming, having a thesaurus handy is an absolute must. How many different ways can you say that one super important word or value you want to communicate in your name? Only a thesaurus would know. In addition to providing synonyms, an online thesaurus can also give you definitions, antonyms, and related words to expand your thinking and naming options.
Synonym Trees: More visually oriented? Some websites identify synonyms for you and put them into visual maps that look like branches coming out from the word that you search. These “trees” tend to group sets of synonyms into like-categories to make it easier for you to consider your options.
Word-part searches: Sometimes you just need words ending in “-oid” or starting with “Pro-.” There are free tools out there that do this for you. WordHippo.com even allows you to search for independent letters or exact letter combinations inside of a word (also a great tool for Scrabble or Words With Friends, if you’re a cheater).
4. Think metaphorically and symbolically.
One of the more difficult but valuable brand naming strategies we use is metaphorical and symbolic thinking. A thesaurus can only go so far until you need to start thinking more abstractly to find that word or concept that indirectly relates to your company or product while also conceptually or symbolically capturing the essence of what you’re trying to convey. A good example is the website “Honey” which has, in the last few years, become the go-to resource for automatic coupon and promo codes for online shopping. What does the word “Honey” have to do with online shopping and discounts? Everything. We can harvest and enjoy sweet honey in just minutes, but poor worker bees spend countless days and hours cultivating it in their hives. Just like these bees, Honey does all of the hard work for you by finding as many codes and discounts as possible so you can enjoy savings in seconds, automatically applying them to your online shopping cart. “Honey” isn’t a word you’ll find in a thesaurus when you’re looking up “savings”, but the symbolic concept is easily understood and the name is widely loved for all of the positive associations that go along with it.
5. Explore idioms, puns, and wordplay.
You know those strange idioms, play on words, and ridiculous puns your dad always says? When it comes to brand naming, you’ll want to pick up the phone and thank him for being so “punny”. NameStormers recently completed a project for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), wherein they named a new digital science newsletter “Science on Tap”. The name was targeted at millennials and chosen for its double entendre, making science news seem easy to obtain and fun to imbibe. To take it one step further, NameStormers also helped a mobile health screening start-up to brazenly name their new venture “HealthYES!” The two founders wanted a name that took anxiety out of preventative screening, was obviously related to healthcare, but also stood out and connected quickly with prospective patients.
How to Choose That Perfect-Fit Name:
The brand name brainstorming sessions are over and you’ve got a solid list of names to choose from, but how do you choose? What should be considered when winnowing down a list of names?
Keep it Positive
There’s always at least one Negative Nancy on any decision-making team and one downer comment can bum out the whole team down, turning an entire naming process back to the drawing board. We’re not saying that critical comments and feedback can’t be valuable or productive, but we are advising your team to explore only positive feedback first when discussing possible brand names. Initially allowing only positive comments encourages everyone on the team to freely share their opinions and thoughts without fear of someone else shooting it down and it also keeps team members from being swayed by negative comments. Only after everyone has shared the names they like and why should you open the floor to more critical, but productive remarks.
Hit the Bullseye
We can’t blame you for wanting your brand or product name to embody and communicate all of the incredible aspects of your company, but when choosing a brand name we recommend using a rifle instead of a shotgun. Focus on names that convey 1-2 key brand characteristics or value propositions rather than every positive aspect of your brand. The shotgun approach dilutes the impact of your name and potentially even confuses the audience you’re trying to reach, while a rifle approach is incisive and memorable.
When brand naming, complete team consensus must not be your goal. If your decision-making team is more than a couple of people, the challenge of getting everyone to agree is usually substantial. Plus, total consensus on a name tends to yield lukewarm results while a bit of controversy generates buzz and interest. A good example is Google vs. InfoSeek. You likely don’t know what InfoSeek is, as it no longer exists, but it was one of the first search engines before Google came to power. InfoSeek was thought to be a great name for a search engine because it was widely understood, descriptive, and didn’t require any explanation. InfoSeek was the type of name that was likely agreed upon by an entire team, while “Google” was most likely a controversial 50/50 split. Who won out in the end?
A little controversy in a brand name is good while safe names tend to be boring and forgettable. We aren’t suggesting that you try to offend your target audience with your brand name, but choosing a name that’s edgier and creates a buzz is usually a better choice than a name that’s very descriptive and doesn’t generate conversation. Unless you need a super descriptive name for a new technology or piece of medical equipment, provocative can be better. Take Angry Orchard Hard Cider for example. Unlike apples you’d find at the grocery store, some of the best apples for making cider actually look gnarly—almost disgruntled. These apples produce a more tart, tannic juice, so they are perfect for cider. “Angry Orchard” spoke to the appearance of the apples while also sounding a bit unruly and wild, differentiating it from the tamer, non-alcoholic ciders. Angry Orchard is a brand name that cut through the clutter, embodied big personality, and made a statement. It continues to thrive as the top hard cider seller in the U.S.
Name Length & Syllables
The ideal name length and syllables depends on a few factors. The general rule is that your name should be 1-2 words and no more than 3 syllables or 10 letters. This rule might be too inclusive for some names and too exclusive for others. For example, back in the 90s Nestle wanted a long name for a new popsicle creation. They wanted the name to fill the length of the package and intentionally be a “mouthful” to say. They landed on the name “Itzakadoozie,” which breaks all of the above mentioned rules- and for good reason. The popsicle was a hit due to its ridiculous name and fun packaging. While product names can be a little more flexible in name length, company and brand names usually benefit from being shorter in length like Uber, Ebay, Ritz, & IKEA. Some questions to consider when selecting shorter vs. longer names:
- How will the name be used on printed materials and packaging?
- How much visual space is allotted?
- How will the name be used in conversation and sound audibly? Does it roll off the tongue or feel clunky?
- Are you using any grounding trailers at the beginning or end of the name?
Global Linguistic Viability & Cultural Relevance
Not all names need to work well internationally, but if your company, product, or service will be launched outside of the United States, it’s important to use in-country linguists to help you make sure that your name is easy to say, easy to understand, isn’t offensive, and is culturally relevant. On that same note, even if you are only launching in the U.S., it is still important to assess whether your new name is culturally relevant and acceptable to your various target audiences, which may be diverse in ethnicity, religion, socio-economic status, etc. This is where market research and buyer personas can be extremely helpful.
A brand name is only as fruitful as its resonance with your target market. Unfortunately, many companies don’t embrace the value of market research when naming their company or product and they pay for it in the long-run with a re-brand. Spending the extra time and money to hone in on what your target market thinks about a name is a proactive and productive way to ensure success.
There are many ways to conduct market research, from free and simple to expensive and complicated. Many agencies are big believers in focus groups for name vetting, but our preference at NameStormers is quantitative research. In real life, your customers won’t sit around discussing your product with a mediator and 10 strangers for an hour before expressing their opinions about your name. You’ve got a couple of seconds to make a lasting impact on your customers. Our preference is to quickly survey your top names with at least 300 individuals in your target audience and get their immediate reactions, name rankings, and rationale. The data usually reveals the 1-2 names that rise above the rest, while easily knocking out those that shouldn’t even be considered.
These are only a few ways to put your names to the test. With all of the various types of market research out there, it may be best to leave this part to the professionals, but if your marketing budget doesn’t allow it, testing for memorability with some trusted advisors can be an extremely clarifying exercise.
This might be an obvious one, but sometimes the most obvious ideas and strategies are the most overlooked. Is your brand name memorable? Bring in some fresh eyes and ears to put your favorite names to the test. We recommend sharing your names with trusted advisors without telling them about this next step: 24 hours later, contact that same person and ask them a simple question. “Out of the names I shared with you yesterday, can you tell me which ones you remember?” Notice we didn’t ask which ones they liked or hated- only the ones which they can remember. This is a shockingly simple and accurate way to measure which names, if any, have a memorability factor to them. You might be surprised to see that your favorite names aren’t the ones that anyone can remember. Again, if you hope to have a statistically significant sample size and employ rigorous research methodology, we would recommend outsourcing this part of the research to a brand naming agency.
Securing Your New Name
Do you need an exact dot-com for your new brand name? Checking to see if your desired domain is available consists of a quick and simple Google check, but frequently results in a frustrating outcome. Getting an exact dot-com is much like hunting for unicorns. You might get lucky to find that your desired domain is for sale, but cyber squatters might be ruthless with their price tag. This is one of the reasons why we talk about getting a domain before trademarking. Cyber squatters watch for new pending trademark registrations and mark-up the cost of a domain name if someone is trying to own the name. Best to try to negotiate a price before registering and do it with an email address that is not associated with your company. If negotiations are unsuccessful, there are other ways to get a domain that’s at least close to your exact brand name:
- Add your location
- Use an acronym or shortened brand name version.
- Add “The” in front.
- Add “services”, “company” or some other trailer to the end of your brand name.
- Throw in a dash “-” to separate words.
Once you have a few name options you’re excited about, it’s important to screen them for trademark risk. A trademark is a word, phrase, symbol, logo, or some combination of these elements that identifies and distinguishes a business. Nothing is more disheartening than to get your heart set on a name that’s legally unavailable. Trademarking your company name or logo through the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) means that you have the prevailing right to use it and to bring legal action against any business infringing on your trademark. Securing a dot-com or web domain does not mean that your brand name is secured, and on the flip side, just because someone else has parked your desired domain doesn’t mean that it’s not able to be trademarked. The best way to ensure that your name is legally available is to hire a trademark attorney.
One Last Thought
Despite all of these tips and tricks on how to find that perfect-fit name, brand naming isn’t an exact science nor does it guarantee automatic success in your industry. While that might feel discouraging, it isn’t! It means that your new company or product name is just the ribbon on the package. It ties up all of your hard work, ambition, and passion and merely provides an opportunity for your company to make a real impact in the market. Paired with a solid logo, some smart branding, advertising prowess, and a great business model, you may really have something to write home about. Now, get out there and get some market share!