Finding the right name for your brand can be the most fun part of the entire branding process. Or, sometimes, it’s the most frustrating part. Whichever it is, the art of finding a good brand name is a delicate balance between emotional resonance and rationale. So do yourself a favour and tailor your process to accommodate strategy and creativity and be sure to get a legal advisor on board early so your perfect name doesn’t go headlong into a wall of litigation before you’ve had a chance to get off the ground.
With that in mind, we hereby present the (almost) definitive guide to finding a good brand name.
These are the famous words of Juliet, as she defends her beloved Romeo, in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”. But as the two lovers tragically learn, there is far more to a name than the letters that make them. The same goes for a brand name. Of course, a brand is much more than just the name and logo; but the right name, together with good design, can serve as “extra octane in your brand”, as Fast Company once put it.
Just take a look at Danish insurance company, Tryg (meaning ‘safe’ in Danish), whose name extends seamlessly into its marketing and communication. Or Pampers, who defined and owned an entire product category for many years. Innocent is another example of a brand that sets itself apart with a whole new type of name within its category: instead of promising ‘fruit farm’ or ‘morning time goodness’, it promises a pure experience – alluded to through a well aligned name. Pentium and Swiffer that have raised market shares for Intel and P&G are other examples from the US.
From a manager who is obsessed with her own name darlings that are seemingly immune to test results, to meeting rooms filled with ‘gut feelings’ – these are just two of the emotional biases that come into play before a new brand name sees the light of day. Add to this the rather square practicalities such as legal barriers, the name you’re allowed to register, or what domain is available and the process becomes ever more troublesome.
That said, don’t leave your heart and gut feeling entirely out of the equation – it’s important that it works emotionally also - but try and ensure you and your process is as rational as possible. Begin by setting the objective criteria your name candidates should be evaluated against. Functional criteria such as an available domain name, not using nationally specific letters (e.g. æ, ø and å in Denmark), easy to pronounce, availability for legal registration in x number of trademark categories and so on are the classic ones. When it comes to emotional criteria, perhaps these may be related to the values the company wants to be recognised and known for. Innovation, empathy, creativity etc. You get the idea.
Once that’s done take a moment to remind yourself that a new name is rarely love at first sight. A good name grows on you, so don’t immediately dismiss those you’re not in love with on the first post-it. In fact, slightly counter-intuitively, if a name doesn’t meet any resistance, it might be a sign that it doesn’t have what it takes to stick.
Sometimes it is the name that divides opinion and elicits the strongest reactions that is the best. It is exactly these types of names we remember. For the same reason, it’s very difficult to test your way towards a truly innovative name. For instance, when Andersen Consulting changed its name to Accenture (short for “Accent on the future”) in 2000, it was dismissed as corporate lingo and a rebranding failure of epic proportions link. Today, no one questions Accenture’s value and relevance link, and most have forgotten it once had a different name.
In the beginning of the process, it’s a good idea to determine some inspirational themes to structure your initial brainstorm. For example, inspirational themes for a car brand could be speed, technology, design, the feeling of freedom behind the wheel or the model’s number in a series, while a new premium dessert for the supermarket could take its inspiration from taste, self-indulgence, the sense of luxury or even from the seasons link.
At some point, probably very early in the process, you’re going to look up words in Latin. From there it’s not unlikely you will detour via the Greek gods. For this most of us are repeat offenders, so no judgement here. But perhaps the age of the good Latin or Greek names are over?
We’ve been given Nike, Arriva, Sonos, Magnum, Volvo, Avis and an infinite amount of others, so maybe this source will soon run dry. Latin is a dead language, and unless the name borrows a verb we recognise from English or our mother tongue, it is only your old Latin teacher who gets what you thought would be a subtle, but elegant link to your product offering.
OK, so you’ve finally found the name. It’s intelligent, rooted in history and strategy. It’s short, easy to pronounce, and even the boss likes it (whoop!). Enter legal who says that global registration is out of the question. Or the risk of a lawsuit is too big (facepalm) and you’re back to where you started. To avoid this headache, lawyer up from the beginning and prioritise legal scans and judgments as an ongoing part of the process.
Saying that, some naming processes are more a question of what you can use as a name, instead of what you want as a name. Our advice: start out as an idealist, but be prepared to make some pragmatic decisions along the way.
Generally, most names fall within four categories: descriptive, associative, abbreviations and abstract. Not that you should pick one category from the beginning and stick with that, but it gives a great overview and a good frame for your considerations about what type of name that best fits your brand and strategy.
University of Copenhagen, Toys “R” Us, British Airways, American Airlines, Burger King, Foot Locker or Bank of America – a descriptive name says it as it is. Here, the focus is on functionality, product or heritage and history, and appeals to the rational. It can be an advantage in an industry where credibility and transparency is important or where a proud tradition is highlighted. Or even a recipe carried through generations is a core element of what sets you apart from competition. There are also occasions where an abstract and modern name will simply seem untrustworthy. A descriptive name is often suitable for a traditional or conservative brand or industry.
The downside of a descriptive name is that it can be too generic and thereby difficult to register, not to mention even harder to differentiate your brand in a sea of sameness. Additionally, it can be hard to adopt across borders and markets, as the meaning might get lost in translation. Last, but not least, it can turn into a bit of a straightjacket if your brand crosses into new business areas and the name no longer fits.
Facebook, Nike, Pampers, Google (a double association of “googol”, a number with 100 zeros, and “goggle”, a wide-eyed look of amazement) and Nest. Or Tesla, Ørsted and Faraday that adopt associations connected to geniuses of the past. Associative names emphasise the brand's emotional value by articulating the multidimensional, the nostalgic or the metaphorical. Softer and more value based names are less limiting when it comes to developing the core of your brand. That’s why an associative name can be a good platform from which to further develop your brand - and maybe even create a new category from. Looking at cons, the name can be intuitively hard to understand and, in worst case, the link to the essence of the product or the work and performance of the business might be lost.
LEGO (an abbreviation of ‘Leg Godt’, meaning “play well” in Danish), IBM (International Business Machines), Adidas (the founder is named Adolf “Adi” Dassler), EY (Ernst & Young), Vodafone (Voice Data Fone)… the list goes on. Sometimes the brand is born with the abbreviation, like Vodafone, Adidas and LEGO, other times it’s a result of a rebranding, like IBM (back in 1946) and EY.
In the best-case scenario, the brand succeeds to reposition itself and uses the opportunity to communicate more dynamically and in an up-to-date manner. But there are cases of brand-misstep where all the embedded brand value that was once attached to the name is lost. Or in the case of EY – you get to share your name with a Spanish gay magazine, which could provide unintentional associations (not to mention Google results) for a global accounting and management consultancy firm.
The abstract names honour the principal that a name should be “an empty vessel” that gets filled by the brand’s design, communication, service, products, actions and so on. Names like Uber, Skype and Slack tell you that this is a category especially embraced by start-ups.
Abstract names are excellent for entrepreneurial pioneer brands that aim to transform their respective industries. Or create entirely new ones as Skype did back in the day. But if your brand doesn’t have the credibility it takes, it can become untrustworthy and comical, as Tribute Online’s rebranding to the generally ridiculed moniker Tronc link testifies. You should also be wary when names become trends. Abstract names have quite the momentum right now, which could be a sign that in just a few years they’ll feel outdated.
In the beginning of the process, there are no good or bad names. Hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of names need to be generated before ‘the one’ is found. It provides energy and creativity to the name generation process to allow yourself to shoot far and wide in every direction on and off the target. Just remember that if BlackBerry link is a good name for a smartphone, everything is possible.
When the first round of the name brainstorming is done, it is time for a critical review. The names should be evaluated against the functional and emotional criteria and legal scan if possible. After this, you might have shortlisted 5, 10, 15 or 50 names, and now it is time for thorough testing and evaluation. What kind of associations do people get when they hear the name? What’s revealed from Google searches? Which domain possibilities do you have? If you haven’t already involved legal, now is a good time in order to avoid unpleasant surprises later on. Again, it is crucial to have an open mindset: try and think in possibilities instead of limitations.
When you’re down to 3-5 good candidates, get design involved. One or two candidates might bring something special to the design. An essential factor that could end up determining the final choice.
There is more to naming a brand than endless brainstorming sessions, post-its, quirky word combinations, puns and non-stop thesaurus searches. Finding the right name for your brand can take weeks, if not months. So do yourself a favour and get off to a good start with our (almost) definitive guide to finding a good name for your brand.