Common Blunders in Brand Naming

What’s in a name? Well with all due deference to Mr. Shakespeare….a lot.

Naming is one of the hardest things about creating a brand.

It may appear deceptively easy. After all most of us have successfully named pets, children, favorite body parts, etc.

But finding an appropriate and legally available trademark is actually very difficult.

It’s been a while since naming was my full time job. I had the privilege and the pleasure of leading the crack Verbal Identity group at Interbrand for many years.

Last week I was asked by 3 separate friends for naming counsel for their start-ups. This got me thinking about the old days and the triumphs and tribulations of naming. So I decided to dust off my verbal identity cap and share my advice here.

Most Common Naming Mistakes
1. Not agreeing to the strategic role of the name upfront
2. Evaluating names without the proper context
3. Expecting lightning bolts and the perfect name to appear
4. Treating final name selection as a democratic decision
5. Not leaving enough time for the naming process

Here’s some more perspective on each of these “naming blunders”:

1.Not agreeing to the strategic role of the name upfront
We tend to expect a lot of brand names. Be catchy, stand out from the competition, not too long (ex. 6 letters, 2 syllables), legally available, available as a URL, and my favorite recent criteria…become part of the current vernacular like Twitter or Google (e.g. “I Googled him last night”).

Phew! That’s a lot. Well the truth is it’s a rare name that can accomplish all that. So it’s best to hone in on the specific role of the name. One way to do this is a proper naming brief. List the 3 (no more) key benefits the name should convey. Agree to the priority and make them as well-defined as possible (e.g. “delicious” or “confidence” are too vague, be more specific). Remember, you have other tools in your branding tool box (e.g. logo, tagline, advertising)to convey elements of the message. Don’t put the burden 100% on the name to communicate every nuance of your strategy and positioning.

2.Evaluating names without the proper context
To my point above, the quickest way to kill a name is to evaluate at it as a simple word without any context. This is a lazy approach, and quite frankly it doesn’t really reflect the way the name would be seen in real life. Can you imagine choosing any of the following names today just by seeing them in black and white on a piece of paper: Apple, Virgin, Nike, Starbucks, Kodak, Haagen Dazs, IKEA?

Each of these names has come to mean something because of the powerful branding that surrounds them. If you are creating new names for a company, then imagine answering the phone at reception with that name, pretend you are at a sales meeting and someone asks you what your company name means…prepare a brand story for the name and see if it serves as a platform to give an interesting answer. One that helps you to tell a compelling story and quickly get to the point about what’s special about your company.

Consider creating some rough logo designs for the names you are evaluating. A good name, should be easy for a designer to spin in a lot of different directions. And remember that the colors, font, and shape of the logo can help you speak to a lot of the attributes and benefits that might not be conveyed in the name. For example if one of your product or company’s benefits is security, you don’t need to put “sure or secure” in the name. The concept of stability can be communicated through color, font, or simply by the people that are behind the company or product.

3.Expecting lightning bolts and the perfect name to appear
I can only remember one time in all my years naming at Interbrand, when we all knew immediately that we had come upon the “perfect” name. This was when we created the name Orbitz for what was then a fledgling web travel service. Usually names need a maturation process. Either they grow on you naturally, or they grow as you continue to poke and prod and explore them with some of the methods I mentioned above. This especially true if you are changing a company name (e.g. a merger, acquisition or need to start clean). The old name, though it may be flawed, is comfortable. It’s like when you get married and you may change your name. It’s going to feel awkward at first, which is normal because it’s what you are used to, but eventually the “new” name will also feel right. Give names a chance to marinate, and don’t set up as an unrealistic expectation the “we’ll know it when we see it” or “lightning bolt effect”. To this end, it’s a good idea to keep a healthy handful of names on your “Short list” (preferably 5-10) because they will inevitably get knocked about in the trademark process (more on that later).

4.Treating final name selection as a democratic decision
Names are subjective. One man’s weed may be another man’s rose. This is why most of us decline to share a future baby’s name with even close friends and family until the baby has been born and the birth announcements printed. Because we don’t want the “harmless” opinions that come with sharing this decision. Example: “Oh really, the bully who used to torture me in 3rd grade was named X”. Not really relevant or helpful. That’s why it’s really important when you are going through a naming process to be clear up front who has the final say. It shouldn’t be a democratic vote . Pros and cons for each name should be gathered and considered, opinions can be heard. But you are certainly not going to get everyone to agree.

At some point, someone has to make a decision. And then begin the very important process of getting internal audiences to understand, and eventually, embrace the new name. Ideally this should be done as a series of powerful communications (visuals, videos, and brand stories) before the name is launched externally. An ideal goal is to have anyone from the receptionist to the CFO be able to articulate with certainty, passion, and consistency the message behind the new name.

5.Not leaving enough time for the naming processWell, you’re probably already exhausted by the process if you are still reading this post. But as you can see there is a lot that goes into finding a powerful and available name. I haven’t even touched on the rigors and the nuances of trademark and URL search (and the important investigations and negotiations that usually follow). Very few names appear available at first blush and the difference between a good and bad IP attorney is the former will counsel you on how to get one of the names you want, the latter will just say no. What always amazes me is that people spend months even years bringing a product or company to the point that it is ready for launch, but only leave a few months (and sometimes only weeks!) for the naming process.

That’s just bad planning. Start early. It’s one of the most important decisions you can make in developing your brand. It’s the first and one of the most powerful signals to the world on what you are about. Give it the time it deserves. And believe me you want time on your side, and not working against you, if you do find yourself negotiating for a trademark or URL.

My last piece of advice, is to remember any name can work (ex. Chase Bank, The Pep Boys, Woolworth’s etc).

A good name is one that is legally available.

A great name is one that is available and gives you a starting point on which to build a strong brand.

Treat naming as an art and a science, invest the time and money in the proper resources to help you, and you will significantly increase your likelihood of creating a great brand name.

That’s my point of view. What’s your twist?
What good and bad naming practices have you seen?



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