Unlocking the Secrets of Name Generators: Navigating the Challenges in Brand Naming
Written by: Mike Carr, CEO/Founder of NameStormers
I have a lumberjack shirt on today so that I’m not shivering on this nippy day in Austin, TX. Today I want to talk to you about something that does make me shiver and drives me crazy—AI name generators.
Any naming consultant that tells you name generators aren’t getting a whole lot better is downplaying the impact and is not telling the truth. How do I know this?
When I was still in my 20’s (and yes, I know that was a very long time ago) I helped design and code with 3 other guys much smarter than me, the first PC name generator. It actually had 4 different principle name generators, 5 additional name utilities and two database tools, including an AI-based Adaptive Learning Method. This was in 1986, many years before people started talking about AI. We called it “Namer” and showed it to John Dvorak, a PC Magazine editor, in Dallas. John then wrote about it in his Inside Track column in August, 1986.
At that point, we needed a good review. The 4 of us had all left Nielsen, the market research firm, about a year earlier where all of us had nice executive salaries and since then hadn’t hardly any income for almost 12 months. We all had families and expenses, so this was a big deal.
Here is what John said in his article: “Once in a while you hear about a program that sounds corny or mickey mouse or user group city. You don’t take it seriously..” (uh-oh, not a good start to a review). “That was my initial take when I first heard about a software product called Namer. But once I used the thing, my mind changed – fast. I was astonished by its capabilities, and I can understand why many advertising agencies (including J. Walter Thomson) have been playing with it. It generates product names, slogans, kids’ names, and other great names!”
John raved about it and we’ve been refining and testing name generators ever since then. I’ve helped thousands of companies name stuff for over 30 years, so I don’t know very much about a lot things, but this name generator thing and naming is in my wheelhouse!
In the dynamic landscape of brand naming, the evolution of name generators has been both a boon and a challenge. From the early days of PC-based generators to today’s advanced AI models, the naming game has transformed significantly. We’re going to explore key insights on the intricacies and pitfalls of contemporary name generators.
Identifying Strengths: AI Name Generators’ Successes
Modern name generators showcase notable strengths, particularly in crafting names that align seamlessly with specific categories. A few name generators that I tried out today include NameLix, Looka, Novanym, and Shopify. I like Zipfizz – I think it tastes great so I used these various name generators to see what they could come up with and they gave me names like:
Pure Potential, Nutrivibe, Hello Hydration, TotalLife, Glow, Thrive, Triumph and Alive
These are names that are pretty safe and fit well within the category of the product name, with most of them being real word or mash-up style names.
The name generators are also good at coming up with more nonsense or suggestive names like Nubeno, Pelivit, Numiv & Luunova. The problem is this style of name is generally too expensive to establish and it takes too long to see the pay off.
The Sea of Sameness: A Growing Problem
Name generators are getting much better at creating a whole lot of pretty good names and this creates the first problem. With the proliferation of AI-generated names, a new challenge emerges — the “sea of sameness.” The abundance of good, but not necessarily distinctive, names creates a dilemma for businesses trying to stand out in a crowded market.
So, how do you find the needle in the haystack when none of the needles seem that sharp? Trying to get consensus around a name or what names even to take to your leadership is becoming harder.
The 10% Challenge: Name Generation vs. Other Key Aspects
Name generation, by itself, is probably less than 10% of the effort the goes into creating a successful naming experience. Four other essential aspects surpass the significance of generating names: strategic fit, legal risk, target resonance, and long-term success.
You can have the coolest name in the world, but if doesn’t fit with your underlying foundation and your brand strategy, it is going to take you in the wrong direction.
This was huge mistake we made when we started our company in 1985. I think hubris got the best of us. Or we were drinking too much of our own Koolaid and decided we could come up with our own company name- Salinon.
Here is what John Dvorak had to say: “Namer is available from Salinon (which must have used its own product and then selected the wrong option to get that name.” Ouch!
John wasn’t a big fan and realy no one else was either. What’s salinon? Does it make you think of a salamander? It’s actually a math symbol but no one knows that, it doesn’t resonate with naming, and it has next to zero emotional cachet. We didn’t think through the strategy. What did we want to be known for? What should the name convey? How should it resonate with our targets? Wait, who WAS our target audience?
So, we did some strategy work and came up with NameStormers- a much better name for many reasons. Unfortunately, name generators aren’t going to help you with strategy. That is where we come in.
Legal Risk: The Hidden Dangers of Not Doing Your Research
Here is another huge mistake I made. Some ex-IBM guys came to us in the 80’s wanting to name their new startup. So we did a consulting project for them and were using Namer and our own creative team and gave them some names that really resonated.
The proposed names fit the strategy, were pretty interesting and everybody was getting pumped up, but then they asked a question that no consultant wants to here: What about legal availability? Have all of these names cleared a trademark search? We were doing some screening… basically the equivalent of going to the USPTO website, be we weren’t doing any more.
Of course, the names they liked the most had legal problems. So they left, not real happy with us, and went off and came up with the Tivoli Systems name which cleared trademarks. They went to grow Tivoli and sell it to IBM in 1996 for $743 million which was a whole lot of money in 1996. We could have been part of that success, but we didn’t do a thorough enough job on the trademark research.
This is perhaps the scariest problem facing anyone that uses a name generator. Why? Because name generators build names based upon historical data. They use the same building blocks and algorithms over and over again to produce different, but very similar sounding names if you give it the same criteria. And guess what? You’re going to give them the same criteria your competitors use. Don’t believe me? Let me share an example. We do a lot of work in semiconductors. The 3 key benefits are: faster, smaller & they use less energy. Guess what the name generators are going to come up with?
- Names that may be unique in how they are spelled but sound the same.
- Similar to existing names in the space which are already registered trademarks
Trademark infringement is based on a lot of things but if a name sounds too similar to an existing mark, regardless of how different it might look or it is spelled, you have a potential legal issue.
So, no problem, hop on over to the USPTO. The USPTO just unveiled a much-improved trademark search tool. It has a Basic and an Expert mode that is so slick and so much better than the older TESS system -kudos to the folks at USPTO. But its simplicity is seductive and it tends to mask the complexity of trademark law. It misses common law usage. It does not cover state or foreign trademark registrations. What about URL and social media handle conflicts? There is no “instant” way to secure a trademark.
Target Resonance: Understanding Audience Perception
Name Generators don’t give you any insight on what name is actually going to work best with your target market. Your CEO may love the name or your entire C-Suite may love it, but will it resonate with your target? This is especially important if your target is significantly younger than your executives. I’ve sat in so many of these sessions where the old guys are targeting a young guy or a millennial mom but they are too focused on choosing a name that resonates with the leadership team.
The generational difference in name resonance is striking and more pervasive now than we’ve ever seen. We’ve been doing name testing research for over 30 years. Millennials don’t react to names like Boomers do. And Gen Zr’s are different than Millennials. So, you need to test the names with the target audience and you don’t do this by asking what name they like best, but you must observe their behavior when your target first sees or hears the name. We know how to do this, but no name generator can and very few naming agencies get this right.
Long-Term Success: Beyond Quick Solutions
No name generator or AI cares about the long-term success of your name. Even the seemingly successful high volume, low cost naming services that supposedly do it all with hundreds or thousands of 5 star reviews aren’t delivering this. Why not? Their business model is based on short-term results, but your name is long-term game. They’re basing their success on winning the 50 yard dash where you need to focus on winning the marathon. You may love the name and think it is legally available, give the name generator or inexpensive consulting firm that 5 star review, and then get a rejection notice from the USPTO months later. Or you may get a cease and desist letter from the actual trademark owner a year or more after you started using it. Or maybe the name is legally available but means something offensive in another language or culture. This happens all the time. Rolls Royce discovered when they rolled out the Silver Mist in Germany that Mist sounded like the German word for manure. How would you like to spend 200,000 euros for silver manure?
In Conclusion: A Call for a Comprehensive Naming Approach
So to wrap up, while name generators are getting better every day, don’t forget these 5 foundational pillars that are much more important than just picking a cool name:
- Good vs. Great
- Strategic Fit
- Legal Risk
- Target Resonance
- Long-term Success
We’ve been doing this for over 35 years… longer than just about anybody else. Most of our business is from repeat customers. We’re all about making sure you win the marathon, not the 50 yard dash. Regardless of what path you take, slow down just a little bit, do it right and you’ll reap the benefits for years to come.
Mike Carr (00:05):
Hey guys, so I have a lumberjack shirt on this morning. It’s a little nippy in Austin, Texas, and I don’t want to shiver. I don’t want to be too cold, but there is something that absolutely causes me to shiver or go crazy, which I want to talk to you about. And it’s all these AI name generators. Now, any naming consultant that’s been doing this very long that tells you these things aren’t getting better, is not telling the truth, they’re getting a lot better. And you can say, well, is this my personal opinion? I mean, what basis do I have for that judgment? Well, back when I was in my twenties, and you can tell from my face, that must’ve been a long time ago, I wrote the first PC name generator with three other guys that were much smarter than I was and we decided to call it Namer, and it had four different name generators built into it.
It also had five different name utilities to do basic letter manipulation and sound somatics and some other cool stuff. And it had two database search engines. One of the name generators that we developed was called the Adaptive Learning Method, and it actually was a rudimentary AI algorithm type of name generator. Now, this was back in 1986. This is a long time before AI and artificial intelligence ever became a thing. And so we’ve been looking at this and working on these for a long time, and we decided to show this PC-based software to John Dvorack who was an editor at PC Magazine, and he wrote it up in his Inside track article in the August of 86 edition of PC Magazine. Now, we needed a good review. We had started this company, four of us had left AC Nielsen, the Nielsen Market Research Company back in August of 85, so it’d been about a year we had put our heart and soul into this software.
And so all you startups can appreciate this, right? No income for a year. We thought we had something that was really pretty cool and exciting and new and different, all those kinds of things, right? But we needed to be known, right? We needed to get the word out there. We needed a good review. So we were waiting for our edition of PC Magazine to arrive in the mail, and this is what John had to say about us. Once in a while, you hear about a program that sounds corny or Mickey Mouse or User Group City, you don’t take it seriously. This was not the start of a great review, right? Corny Mickey Mouse user group city. Don’t take it seriously, John, this is not what we needed you to say. But he then went on to say, that was my initial take when I first heard about a software product called NAMM R.
And once I used the thing, my mind changed fast. I was astonished by its capabilities and I can understand why many advertising agencies, including Jay Walter Thompson have been playing with it. It generates product names, slogans, kids’ names in many other great names. So he liked it. And we’ve been refining name generators in writing code and doing all kinds of things with technology to make our client engagements more successful. Ever since then, I’ve personally worked on thousands of projects for clients for 35 years, and I try to stay current with the name generators. And so there are two things that they do really well and they’re getting much better at. The first thing that they do do a really good job at is they develop names that sound right for the category. And I tried some of the best name generators yesterday as well as some others because I think you’ve got to try these things every couple of weeks because they’re changing so fast.
And there are four that impressed me the most name lx, N-A-M-E-L-I-X, Luka, L-O-O-K-A, Novany, N-O-V-A-N-Y-M, and then Shopify. Now I tried some others. I wasn’t as impressed with those, but those were pretty darn good. Now, one of the things I decided to try, I dunno if you guys can see this, I love Zipfizz. It’s a powdered energy drink, hydration, vitamins, whatever’s got in it. And I thought, well, what kind of names would these things come up with? If I gave it a zip fizz kind of assignment, give me a name for a new beverage that’s energy. It’s got some caffeine, it gives you a boost to the day, and I was impressed. It came up with names like Pure Potential, Nutri Vibe, hello, hydration and Total Life, all four of those sound reasonable. They sound similar to things that are already out there in the category.
I thought not bad. It also came up. They also came up with some real word names and different name generators did a better job at this. But some of the ideas that they came up with that made my short list were Glow, thrive, triumph and Alive. The second thing that name generators are getting better at is creating totally made up names that are maybe a little bit more unique and distinctive. And it came back with things like nub, bingo, pelt IV, and Lenova. Now, those names in general take more getting used to than the more meaningful names. And very few of our clients, quite frankly in today’s digital noisy world, have the time or the money to build names that take that long to establish. But I think the first thing that name generators are definitely getting bitter at is creating pretty good names. And that is also creating a huge problem, a much bigger problem than we were having even a year or two ago.
And that is everybody is now drowning in a sea of sameness. How do you find the needle in the haystack when all of the needles don’t seem that sharp? You’re putting your hands in the haystack, you’re trying to find that needle, but the sharp point at the end of a stock of hay feels just about as sharp as that needle. That’s the problem with what is happening with the name generators. We’re getting a lot of pretty good names, but are we getting any great names? And one of the challenges I think that a lot of folks don’t understand when they start using these tools is actually the actual name generations about 10% or less of the total effort of the total naming journey. It’s important, but if you’re very good at this, and if you do it all the time like we do, it was never the biggest value add that we brought to the table or the hardest part of the naming journey.
There are four other things that we think are more important than just having a set of names, whether they’re good names or great names. The second thing is strategy fit. So the first thing was good names versus great names, right? Coming up with the names. But the second thing you need to think about is strategy fit. You can have the coolest name in the world, but if it doesn’t fit your strategy, it’s just going to take you down the wrong path. We made this mistake big time back in August of 85, and we all left Nielsen and started this company. We were pretty full of ourselves. We were drinking our own Kool-Aid, and we thought we can come up with our own name. And so we did. And here’s what John ak, at the end of that review in his August of 86 column said about our namer is available from, here’s our name, Senon, which must have used its own product and then selected the wrong option to get that name.
Oh boy. So the concluding remark at the end of this review was these guys that came up with this very cool name generator, couldn’t even figure out how to use it to name their own company, not really what you want when you’re trying to get out there in the marketplace. Well, what were the problems with Senon? Well, it didn’t mean anything. It was a real math word. It’s composed of four semi circles. There were four of us that started the company. We all had math backgrounds. It sort of looks like the head of a Texas Longhorn steer, and we were all in Dallas, Texas. So it actually fit the region of the country. The cattle herding a lot of the lore that West Texas had, but nobody could remember it. It was infinitely forgettable. It had no emotional cachet. We just hadn’t thought through the strategy, basic strategy questions that we help clients with all the time.
Before you start naming your things, like what do we want to be known for? What do you want to be known for? What should the name convey? What’s your value prop? What’s your USP? What sets you apart from the competition? Is that sustainable? Is that relevant to your customers? How should it resonate with your targets? Who are your customers? Are there different constituencies? What’s the pecking order, et cetera. There are a whole bunch of questions that go into strategy work that are just huge, hugely important. So name, generators, create a preponderance of okay names, but are there any great names? They don’t address strategic fit. The third thing is they don’t look at legal risk. Now, back a couple of years after we started the company, I think this was 19 88, 3 or four guys from IBM who left IBM came to me and they said, we need a name for our new company.
Great. We took ’em through the entire exercise. We came back with some names that they got pretty excited about, and then they asked the question that we really didn’t have a good answer to. And as a consultant, you always hate this, right? When a question comes up and you kick yourself in the shin, you say, why didn’t I think of this? Are these names legally available? And sure enough, the ones they liked the most were not. So they went off and they came up with a name Oli. And so their company was called Oli Systems, and this was in 1989, in 1996. So eight years later, they sold Oli back to IBM, back to the company that they left for 773 million. I mean, that was a lot of money back then. I mean seven $43 million, I’m sorry, so almost a quarter of a billion dollars.
And we could have been part of that journey. We could have given them a very successful name and been part of that success story had we just done the legal research we should have done. The problem with name generators is because they generate names that use the same algorithms, the same basic building blocks over and over again. They’re generating names that are very similar to names that are either already out there or that are similar to one another. Now, we tried this in another scenario. We do a lot of work in the semiconductor space. So we’ve worked for Intel, A MD, Nvidia, Motorola, Freescale, et cetera, and there are three core things that are always important about chip sets. You know what those are. So think about a new processor in your iPhone or a new processor, a chip set in your notebook. What are the three things, even as an end user that you’re hoping you’re going to get when you buy that new iPhone or that new chip set?
So the three things are it’s faster, it’s smaller, so now all of a sudden you can pack more into that iPhone, more cameras and everything because the chip itself is smaller and perhaps most importantly, it uses less juice, it uses less energy. Those are the same three things that we’ve been working on since 19 90, 19 91, and they haven’t changed. So the name generators know that they build all this data based upon this experience, and guess what? They’re coming back with names that are very similar to the names that are already out there. And the problem with trademark law is even though these name generators might generate names that are spelled differently, are slightly different, they’re similar, and the likelihood of confusion isn’t based upon spelling. It’s based upon sound. So if two names sound enough like one another, even though they’re spelled very differently, that likelihood of confusion, red flag goes way up and you run the risk of trademark infringement and litigation on all the kinds of things you want to avoid.
So you’re thinking to yourself, no problem. I can do the trademark search myself in the US PTO. So you go to uspto.gov, they have got a really cool new search tool, far better than tests, far better than their old search tool. It is seductively slick. We’ve been playing around with this thing yesterday and before yesterday, and it looks amazing. You enter in your name, a few categories and bang, it shows you your name’s out there, any other names that are similar to it. You can even go into the expert mode. So it’s got a basic mode and expert mode, and you’re getting results back in a couple minutes and you’re not finding any hits. And you’re thinking, man, I’ve got some names from my name generator. I’m now using the new U-S-P-T-O tool and I’m not getting any hits. I’m good to go. The problem of course is you’re missing a lot of the potential legal issues, and unless you do a lot of this, you just don’t get it right.
The problem with the US PTO website is it’s only federal registrations. It doesn’t look at state registrations, it doesn’t do anything with common law usage. And common law usage is becoming a much more common problem because so many folks are just using their names without registering them. And so the only way you find them is by doing common law usage checks, web checks, and a lot of other stuff. They have legal rights in those names just by the fact that they’ve used that name, even though they haven’t registered as a trademark, they can prevent you and block you from using your name and getting that registration. The U-S-P-T-O website does not address that at all. It also doesn’t look at foreign trademarks, right? A lot of our clients now are selling outside the us. It could be Canada, it could be Europe, who knows where, right?
With the web, it’s pretty darn easy to start selling things outside of just the us. What about the URL? What about social media handles? I mean, there’s so many different things that one has to consider to assess total legal risk. They’re just flat miss. So legal risk is number three. Number four is target resonance name generators. Don’t give you any insight on what names actually going to work best. Now, your CEO may love the name, your whole c-suite may love the name. I’ve sat in a lot of these meetings where we’re delighted that the names we’ve pitched are starting to gain some traction. And then you look around the room, and I’ll be honest with you, this isn’t politically correct. They’re all white guys in their forties or fifties and sixties, right? They’re targeting a more diverse, much younger population, let’s say gals that are moms or guys that are millennials or Gen Zers.
The way those generations interpret names and react to names is radically different than the way a 40, 50, 60-year-old guy is going to react to a name. And so you don’t have the ability, I don’t care how confident you are to really assess how that name is going to resonate with that market. And so a big part of what we help clients do is test names, right? And we test names in such a way that we’re actually assessing behavior. You can’t ask someone whether or not they like the name that’s artificial. People don’t think about whether they like a name. They just react to a name. So we test behavior. We say, how are folks reacting to that name without ever asking them or without looking too hard at, what do they tell us about the name? Well name generators clearly don’t do that. The fifth thing, and the last thing I want to talk to you about, name generators that you need at least put on your checklist is your long-term success.
Naming is not a 50 yard dash name. Generators could care less about your long-term success. There’s no technology out there. AI doesn’t care whether you’re successful or not. Even a lot of these high volume, low cost naming services and naming consultants, they have hundreds or thousands of five star reviews. Those aren’t based upon the long-term success of the brand. They’re based upon that initial reaction, Hey, this is pretty cool. Some marginal, quick and dirty preliminary trademark screen. Oh, it looks like it might be okay. I went off to that U-S-P-T-O site and did that quick federal check only. Great, I love it. It was cheap, it was fast. I’m going to give ’em five stars. And then three months later, or six months later, the examiner at the U-S-P-T-O sends you a rejection notice, can’t use the name. Or a year or two later after you’ve been using the name, you get the cease and desist letter from a competitor who actually owned the trademark maybe at the state level.
So you totally missed it. Doesn’t make any difference. They were using it before you. They can force you to stop using your name, throw away all the goodwill, all the investment you’ve made in that name, and go with something totally different. So we are about that, right? And the better naming consultants are about that is that we want you to be successful. We want to make sure that this is not a focus on a 50 yard dash. It’s truly a marathon. The name game is a long-term gain. It is a marathon or an ultra marathon. It is not a 50 yard dash. It is not a short sprint. And we look at things beyond just trademark law. Linguistic and cultural screenings are something that no name generator really does a good job at. Rolls-Royce, learn this the hard way. When they introduced the Silver Mist model in Germany, mist sounded like the German word for manure.
So here you go. Walk into the Rolls-Royce showroom. You got your 200,000 Euros in your hip pocket, and you’re looking at this call called silver manure. Don’t think so, right? So there’s so many of these issues that pop up. So just to close, there are five things I want you to remember before you lock and load on a name generator number one is good versus great. They come up with lots of pretty good names, but by doing that, they overwhelm you in this sea of sameness. They make it much more difficult to figure out where’s the diamond in the rough? Where’s the needle in the haystack? Where’s that truly great name but hidden with all hidden within all these good names or these ho-hum names. Number two is strategic fit. It doesn’t make any difference how much you like the name if it doesn’t fit your strategy.
And if you don’t work on your strategy first, before you start using your name generators, you’re going down the wrong path. Legal risk. This is horrendous. And it’s a problem that almost nobody is worried about because it’s such a complicated issue. The attorneys love it, right? Because they can see all the money that’s fixing the land in their pockets as all this litigation picks up. It’s going to happen. There’s just too many folks using names without doing the proper checks. And we’re in other society. We’re seeing a lot more activity there. The fourth is target resonance. Does the name actually work with the people you’re targeting? Not what you think about the name, but the external targets, especially if you’re of a different age. And then long-term success. We’ve been doing this since 1986. Most of our business is coming from repeat customers or referrals.
We want you to be successful. There’s not a name generator. There’s not a technology out there today that could care about your success. So best of luck to you going down this path. My last suggestion is just slow down just a little bit. Think about your strategy. Do it right. If you use a name generator, great. If you go to the US PTO site, great. But just remember, that’s the start of the journey. By no means the complete journey or what you really need to go through to have a positive outcome and a great name at the end of that whole process. See you.