Naming is a weird science— always deceptively simple, rarely easy.
Solid brand strategy answers the question "Who are you?" and can make a business thrive. A name can tell us so much. Think about it— when you meet someone you learn their name and the way they present themselves. You learn so much about this new person that's unspoken. That's why Hollywood's been using stage names for years.
If you're going to name a business, product, or service, you better have a working Brand Strategy. If you don't, contact me and I'll start you with a strategic foundation. Skip this step and you'll be less likely to come up with a great name. A name will make or break your business.
Once you have a working brand strategy in place, collect the answers below.
- What do you do? What does your brand promise?
- How do you do it? How will you uphold those promises?
- Why do you do it?
- Who is the target customer?
- Why should they care? What's your value proposition? Meaning, what value does your business bring to people?
- What competition exists? What are the gaps?
- What's your brand's personality? Remember the Personality Sliders and Is/Is Not exercise? Pull your visuals from the Brand Workshop.
Brainstorm Everything & Listen
Listen to people with the problem your business solves in their natural environment. Listen to their vocabulary. How are they currently addressing the problem? Listen to your target customer, but don't overthink it. Take notes and refer to them in brainstorming.
Write down the words you want your customers to think of when they think about your brand, collected from your brand values, Personality Sliders, and Is/Is Not exercise. With everything in front of you, brainstorm like crazy. Get a whiteboard and write big! Don't be afraid to sound stupid. Do you think Google sounded a little silly at first? It did.
In copywriting, the adage "say it straight* then say it great" works. A straightforward name has advantages because it's no nonsense. If you're creating a product or service, a simple, to-the-point name can get your target comfortable with the concept of the business.
* The word "straight" here means straightforward, this isn't a reference to sexual orientation.
- One Medical
- Cards Against Humanity
- Microsoft's Internet Explorer (you have to be an elder millennial like me to understand this, but pre-wide spread internet, the internet was a tough concept to graph, so the straightforward name worked)
- Ford Explorer
- Bank of America
Just like a good band name, "everything good is taken." Don't lose hope. Brainstorm what the brand does, and blend words that still make sense. There's a fancy word for this, and it's called a portmanteau. Think breakfast + lunch = brunch.
- Febreze (fabric + breeze, swap a for e)
If you have a founder with a great last name, this can work. That said, sometimes founders exit companies after a sale, so be careful with this one. There's also the option to pull a name from history. When using a person as a figurehead of a brand, know that their behavior, good or bad, can affect the brand.
- Adidas: Adolf "Adi" Dassler
- Ben & Jerry's: Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield
- Cadbury: John Cadbury
- Ford: Henry Ford
- Bacardi: Don Facundo Bacardí Massó
- IKEA: Ingvar Kamprad Elmtaryd Agunnaryd
"If you're considering this route for your brand name, the rules here are simple. Ask a few people if they think you have a cool last name. Don't listen to their answer, instead watch their facial expressions. You'll know… you'll know."
Cole Schafer, Honey Copy Founder
Names can also humanize a seemingly "cold" technical business or an unknown product/service.
- Mrs. Meyer's
A place name is a solid way to create a visual metaphor in the customer's mind. Make sure the place can extend geographies and become a "state of mind." You can get creative about using place names by using part of a place name's word.
- Patagonia (Andes Mountains, South America)
- The North Face (El Capitan, Yosemite)
- Duane Reade (This drugstore's first warehouse was between these two streets in Lower Manhattan)
- Haribo (Hans Riegel blended the first two initials of his name to the first two letters of his home town Bonn, Germany.)
- Cisco Systems (San Francisco)
- Budweiser (from Busweis, Czech Republic)
Starting with the straightforward word, you can add a prefix or suffix. A direct word plus prefix/suffix helps with the "all good names are taken" problem, and allows you the potential for ownability. Remember the genesis of the iMac and iPod? Apple created an entire ecosystem around the name. At first, it was the perfect name for these devices we had to get to know.
Soon, a bevy of copy cats and ancillary products were released to capitalize on the popularity of "i." Over the years, Apple's won and lost trademark cases and eventually opted to ditch the prefix with the release of the Apple Watch. That said, an imitation is a form of flattery and opportunism. Copy cats proved the "i" prefix worked for a time.
Another recent trend is adding "-ify" to startup brands. Don't do this—it's been done. Shopify and Spotify are two well-known brands that were able to jump on this bandwagon early, but if you're naming now, it's too late.
- Polaroid ("-oid" having the form of)
- Rolex ("-ex" excellence)
- Cottonelle (-elle" she" in French, a suffix for feminity, adding style to almost any name, even toilet paper)\
- Crayola (-ola as a diminutive, can signify cuteness)
- Pantone (many tones)
Common Prefixes: all-, in-, my-, on-, our-, the-, un-
Common Suffixes: -am, -ble, -er, -ero, -ia, -ie, -io, -ing, -ist, -ism, -ium, -it, -ly, -ora, -ous, -sy
This is a tricky one— and tempting. Using initials/acronyms can be short, but potentially forgetful. When done wrong, it can completely ruin your brand. When basic, it's a snooze fest. When done well, you've hit the jackpot.
🤔 Person on the street: "What even are those?" "Sap?!"
- MADD = Mother Against Drunk Driving is the literal feeling and straightforward for a tough subject
- BMW = Bavarian Motor Works
- H&M = Hennes & Mauitz (founder last names, using initials instead of hard to pronounce names for English speakers)
- EOS = Evolution of Smooth
- Fortune 500
- Nintendo 64
- Chanel No.5
Esoteric or Poetic Names
An easy way to make sure your name is unique is to make something up. It's hard, but when done well and reinforcing the brand strategy, it can be a great way to name.
- Google (kind of made up— it's a misspelling of "googol," the number 1 followed by 100 zeros, picked to signify that the search engine was intended to provide large amounts of information.)
- Kodak (different stories exist on its origin, but the founder made it up with his mother while looking at letter combinations, and he liked the letter K)
- Haagen Dazs (made in Brooklyn Heights, named to sound Danish, a name that sounds like this must be authentic, right?!)
Not my fav! You'll run the risk of sounding like Hooli or another made-up tech name from Silicon Valley. Still, for the right naming problem, this can work. Usually, a brand that should be juvenile works best with a spelling quirk. Sophisticated brands should never use spelling quirks.
- Cheez Whiz
- Froot Loops
An extension of a spelling quirk is to spell the word backward. A backward name can reference any category, including a straightforward name. It's tough to pull off, but of course, Oprah did it with Harpo. Because Oprah can do anything.
This one is big. A metaphor can describe your brand in a way nothing else can. It's visual, visceral, and full of emotion applied to the thing it references. Look back at your Brand Strategy work and brainstorm:
- Does your product bring calm to chaos?
- Does it bring excitement to the status quo?
- What personifies the value your product or service brings? It can be a person, place or thing.
- What sea change is your target audience experiencing? Understand that and use it to create your metaphor.
When brainstorming try these metaphors:
- Our product/service is "like ____" (Simile)
- If our product/service were a person, who would they be? (Known personalities work best)
- If our product/service were a ___ what would they be? (You'd be amazed at how descriptive this is)
Finally, metaphor in use:
- Ford Mustang
- Secret Deodorant
- Adidas Gazelle
- Nike (Greek Goddess of Victory)
Remember that brand strategy? You worked on your Competitive Matrix. Pull it and assess the landscape.
- If every brand in the space is high brow, go cheeky.
- If every brand is serious, go weird.
- If every brand is copying Apple, how can you compete? You can't, and you don't. You become anti.
Brands that win are different, not better.
Jasmine Bina, my favorite brand thinker out there
Verbs & Feelings
What does it do? How does it make you feel? I use the framework of Job Stories in product & brand design. I believe people buy products and services to get a job done. Whether that's the serious business of healthcare or the perfectly glossy lip, people hire products & services.
“We hire products to do things for us.”
Clayton Christensen, bestselling author of The Innovator’s Dilemma
- Glossier Cosmetics
- Eaze (Cannabis Ecomm)
- Jolt Cola
- Deathwish Coffee
Just as your audience should be able to pronounce your brand name, the sound of the word evokes emotion. If you're naming a brand that should be soft and feminine, I'd advise against calling it "Mack." (Unless you're going the anti route, but even then, why does your brand strategy suggest soft to begin with?)
Random & Inspired
If you're stuck, take a break! Do something to quiet the mind or let it focus on something else. Some people recommend opening the dictionary to a random page and picking a word. This dice rolling might yield a great name, but save it for after other brainstorm techniques. Google's "I'm feeling lucky" search is always fascinating for it's randomness. Still, the randomness of this exercise can be tedious.
I love Ungrabbed for random brainstorms, Everyday, a curated newsletter of domains and the businesses they might match arrives in your inbox.
Ok that's some exhausting brainstorming.
Let's start to get real.
Gut Check: Favorites List
Once you've generated a bunch of names, start selecting favorites. Why do you like them? What feeling do your favorites bring? Then, run each of them through this criteria.
- Is the name short? If not, is that ok for your target audience's education level?
- Does it look good?
- Sound good?
- Can people easily spell it?
- Can people say it?
- Does it mean something odd in a foreign language?
- Is it a weird acronym?
- Is it boring? (Caveat below.)
Research "Ownability" & Narrow
Google it. Is it taken or saturated, especially by your potential competition? If yes, dump the favorite and move on. You'll be seen as a rip-off brand a possibly face a trademark infringement lawsuit. If not, shortlist it.
Next move to social media. You will want a consistent handle or user name (@name) no matter the platform. I start with Instagram, then move onto Facebook, Twitter, and if applicable, Youtube and LinkedIn. If the name search doesn't bring up any profiles with the name already parked, you have a contender. If the name is taken, remember you can add descriptors to social handles if needed @<name>app or @get<name>. If your brand gets big enough, you can petition the social network for the handle, but don't bet on it.
From there, you'll want to search the availability of the top-level domain, meaning www.name.com. If you really, really love the name and the .com is available for less than what you consider ridiculous, buy it. If someone's listed it for more than $500, I usually wait until further in the process to purchase a domain.
That said, once the domain seller picks up that their owned domain is getting hits, they will jack up the price. Believe it— understanding the demand for domain names is their business model.
At this point, try to have at least 2-3 ownable names that pass the criteria above. Run them by your trusted advisors, and friends and family. I don't advise publishing any of this on your social networks. This is a qualitative research phase, so use your intuition and don't react to every comment. Still, your darlings if you see a pattern of people hating the name.
Keep it close, but talk to as many people as you can trust, especially those that fit your target demographic.
Bring it to life
Work with a professional designer to work with your new brand name into conceptual designs. Please, avoid networks like 99 Designs. They're just recycled clip art that devalues brands. Your brand deserves better. Come to the process with the intention to have an opinion, give direction to your designer, and be collaborative. Branding is hard but fun!
Know that you may not be your target audience— so listen to feedback and your designer.
Every designer has their own process. To get an idea of what to expect, here's how I generally like to run design sprints:
- Brand Strategy review: see above focusing on Who is this for? Why should they care? etc
- Mood Boards: a collection of images that show look and feel
- Style Tiles: usually contain a rough logo, color palette, icons, type hierarchy, and supporting imagery to further communicate look and feel
- Brand Applied: If you're naming a consumer product, mock-up packaging. If it's a SaaS company, design app icons, websites, social profiles, and yes, digital ads on social media.
- Why/Why Not list: Ask your designer to be straight up with you. Why do they like the concept? What are potential drawbacks of the design direction? Designers should be able to articulate the pros and cons of almost any design decision. If you're working with a designer who can't communicate this, it might be time to move on. I can help coach the designer if you're looking to stay with them or offer alternatives.
Once you see your name and visual identity take shape, you better get a gut feeling. This feeling can be good or bad. Remember, this is your vision, your business, your brand. If it's not right, you'll need to keep investing until it is— or you'll need to call it and move on.
Take a look at the early names/logos of companies you know. You always have a chance to update your brand's supporting visual elements like color and photography— even your logo. Still, remember first impressions are critical. Names are much harder to change than logos.
Launch & Learn
When you launch, you'll see feedback at scale. Define a mechanism for recording that feedback, and name an owner on your team. If there's a pattern of feedback (positive and negative) review it as a team and try to understand why. Get in touch with me, and I can send you a template for recording feedback. If you can address negative feedback, do it! If it's positive, try to learn from that and replicate the successes.
Naming is hard. I promise there's a process, but it can seem opaque. Start with your audience/user, brainstorm like hell, and go with it.