Believe it or not, there’s an entire consulting practice around creating brand names for companies and products. Although it sounds fun and exciting, naming is not easy. I've been professionally naming companies, products and services for 18 years, and I've learned that it's complicated, and the nuances are limitless. Along with those nuances come misconceptions, urban legends and naming myths, some of which I’ll seek to dispel in this piece.
1. 'I’ll know it when I see it.'
When people are developing a new name, they often have the false assumption that “the winner will jump off the page.” In reality, this isn’t how naming works. It’s not as transactional as a new car that you love as soon as you see it on the lot. Names are merely words the first time you see them. Even when presented with some relevant context, a name in isolation is a far cry away from being the powerful brand name it will someday become.
For that reason, it’s exceedingly rare, if not nonexistent, for a word to jump off the page the first time you see it. Instead, if you’re in a naming presentation, it’s more likely that you will strongly like several names. It’s an important step in the process to sit with potential names for a bit, let them grow on you, build relevant marketing stories around each of them and then eventually realize which name works for you.
You won’t “know it when you see it” during a naming presentation. But over time, the right name will grow on you and feel like the perfect fit.
2. 'Shorter is better.'
In rare cases, a short three-letter name may be required. But unless you’re branding a microchip and have extremely limited space, the bias toward short names is most likely unfounded.
Consider brands with longer names that certainly didn’t hinder their popularity: Under Armour, BlackBerry, American Express, American Apparel, Industrial Light & Magic, The North Face, Microsoft, Facebook and 7 For All Mankind. In fact, a longer name -- even a two- or three-word name -- gives you more real estate to communicate more ideas and richer metaphors.
3. 'We need an exciting or cool name.'
Sometimes you need a name that captures attention. Other times, you just need a name that describes what a product is and what it does. A potential cutting-edge banking app that’s going to turn the industry on its head may need a name that differentiates, stands out and attracts a millennial audience. But the feature within that app that lets you transfer money to your friends probably needs a name more like “Pay a Friend” rather than “Zipzap.”
Here’s the challenge: Product managers and engineers spend years developing a new feature. They devote their lives to it and are invested in its launch. Their passion is integral to the process, but this passion often translates to them thinking the feature also needs a cool, edgy name. Who wants to tell their friends they spent the last two years building “Pay a Friend?”
It comes back to understanding your customer. The product engineer and product managers are likely not the audiences for the feature. Creating total clarity and helping the end user find their way within this experience should be the goal instead of splashy branding that captures attention without explaining what and why. In fact, naming in a straightforward way for some products and features could even make them more successful and better understood.
4. 'I’ll just let the research pick the winner.'
At the end of a creative naming process, people often use research to assess how consumers and other audiences feel about a shortlist of names. But all too often, this research is used as a final decider when it should instead be used to inform a final decision made by a human. The leaders running a naming project for their company have years of marketing experience. They should lean on that vast experience and intuition as they make their final naming decision.
Many data points should be considered as you decide on a final name, such as which names perform well in research, which names fit with your brand story, which names you like best and which names work best with design. Research should be a factor in your final decision, but never the sole factor.
5. 'This name is already taken.'
Naming myths are common even in sitcoms. In one episode of the HBO show "Silicon Valley," the protagonist thought he couldn’t use the name Pied Piper for his internet company because a nearby irrigation company was called Pied Piper. The writers got that one wrong.
In the same way no one gets confused between Dove soap and Dove chocolate, no one would confuse an internet company with an irrigation company. The international governmental agencies that manage ownership of names, otherwise known as trademarks, acknowledge this and have divided products and services into 45 different classes or categories of ownership. One key metric they use when deciding on cases like Pied Piper is the “likelihood of consumer confusion.” The same name can be used in different classes because there’s no likelihood that consumers will be confused that one thing is like the other.
Here are a few other naming overlaps that work because of no likelihood of confusion: Ford Explorer and Internet Explorer, Delta Airlines and Delta faucets, Pink by Victoria’s Secret and Pink shirt maker, Salesforce product Quip and Quip toothbrushes, Cisco Systems and Sysco food service, Magnum ice cream and Magnum adult products, Fox News and Fox Racing extreme sports, and Equinox gym and Chevy Equinox.
In naming, as with anything, if something sounds suspicious or too good to be true, it probably is. Be sure to keep an open mind, question everything and ask your friendly neighborhood naming professional what’s true and what’s a myth.