From Aunt Jemima to the Kansas City Chiefs, many brands are being forced to reckon with the fraught history of the names they’ve chosen to represent themselves. As a society, our discussion around culturally insensitive and appropriative terms has evolved, but it’s still fairly easy to choose a tasteless name without realizing it. Prejudice is deeply ingrained in much of our vocabulary, and seemingly innocuous terms like “master bedroom” or “peanut gallery” have surprisingly harmful roots.
It takes awareness and good intentions to choose a name that is going to be inclusive to all, and it is certainly worth the effort. For an established company, renaming can be an opportunity to refresh your branding and take a new approach. For new companies, choosing a culturally sensitive name right out of the gate can save you from a crisis down the road.
You don’t want your name to make anyone feel locked out or less than, but how do you make sure it passes muster? Here’s our guide to creating a culturally sensitive brand name.
Keep the Challenges of Your Industry in Mind
Certain industries present more of a challenge than others. Skincare and beauty brands in particular must be intentional, even vigilant, about the terms they use to describe skin tones as well as hair textures. Beauty brands have made a plethora of mistakes, from dubbing a certain color “nude” to describing skin tones with fetishizing, food-related names like “mocha” and “caramel.”
Brands in the food and fashion industries need to be cautious as well, due to the fact that both have a complicated cultural appropriation problem. The line between the equitable sharing of cultural staples and flat-out appropriation is often painfully vague. Examples of brands that crossed the line include Kim Kardashian’s “Kimono” brand (she changed it to “Skim” after backlash) and Thug Kitchen, which changed its name to Bad Manners.
Fatphobia is also an issue in many industries, including beauty, fashion, food, and health and wellness, so be sure to stay alert if your brand falls into one of these categories. If your brand occupies a traditionally masculine or feminine space (e.g., power tools, cleaning supplies), go out of your way to be inclusive of all genders — or risk not only outrage but losing a whole demographic of potential customers.
Always Google Potential Names
While it may seem like common sense, one of the best things you can do is Google any terms or plays on words that you’re considering incorporating into a name. Typing “is (chosen word or phrase) offensive?” into the search bar is a quick and easy way to figure out whether you’re heading in a controversial direction. Of course, this is not a catch-all; in many cases (such as the “Kimono” debacle), context is everything.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Right Kind of Controversy
Controversy is scary, and when it comes to creating an offensive brand name, you should absolutely steer clear of it. But in certain circumstances, a degree of controversy can be healthy for a brand because it gets people talking.
For example, if you come up with a name that 70% of people like and 30% of people hate, that could be good controversy. Some of the best brand names spark strong emotions, and eliciting those emotions is preferable to choosing a bland brand name that makes 100% of people feel indifferent. Just be sure that the controversy stems from nontraditional thinking and cheekiness as opposed to cultural appropriation or insensitivity.
Perform Linguistic Screening
Your brand name may be ideal for English speakers but iffy for global customers. If you plan to expand or launch your brand on a global scale, a linguistic screening service like NameStormers’ will be beneficial. We conduct a search for offensive meanings in other languages and cultures, consulting native linguists in order to get a thorough understanding of the implications and alternate meanings of the term in question.
How NameStormers Can Help Create a Culturally Sensitive Company Name
Worried that “cancel culture” might come for your brand? NameStormers can create a culturally sensitive brand name for your company that is also memorable and available to use. We have worked with clients of every size across a variety of industries, and even though we’ve been in the business of naming for more than thirty years, we pride ourselves on remaining nimble and aware of current and upcoming trends.