At Catchword, if we had a nickel for every client who expressed concern about “bad” meanings associated with proposed brand names…well, we’d have a ton of nickels.
Keeping an eye out for potential hiccups when creating new brand names is not only natural—it’s critical. But it’s also important to know the difference between edgy-but-viable name ideas and serious red flags (like a name that’s too similar to a competitor’s…or means “tiny male genitals” in a relevant language…or forces you to explain the name away when your company wants to pivot or expand [subscription required]).
In reality, just because a name idea has a dark side doesn’t mean it’s all bad. To the contrary: if your brand position is outside the box, on the cutting edge, a little bit risky or risque, going over to the dark side may be just what your brand name needs.
Consider Spanx shapewear. Urban Decay makeup. Arrogant Bastard Ale. Bed Head hair products. Monster Energy drink. Poison perfume. As these names demonstrate, “negative” names can suggest a range of attitudes: sexual savviness; hip cynicism; self-deprecating humor; sly sensuousness; unbridled power—and dozens of other nuanced ideas. Perhaps the one thing these names have in common is a willingness to challenge conventions and stand out from the crowd.
Don’t get me wrong: Some words have such singular and repulsive negative associations they should never be part of a brand name. Take, for example, “Swastika.” That’s the name of a brand of Indian bedding—and a naming blunder for sure for a product hoping to be sold outside India. (It’s also a good reminder to work with a professional naming consultant before going to market with a new brand name. Even though the swastika is an ancient Hindu and Buddhist symbol of well being, its association with Nazism makes it unrehabilitatable for an international audience.) However, when edgy words are used well in brand naming, and they align with a brand’s positioning, they can deliver just the right amount of punch to help a brand rise above the “sea of sameness” in its category.
So, how do you know when a name idea with some negative associations will lift or undercut your brand? Follow these five tips from Catchword’s naming experts:
1. Assess the audience
A younger demographic is more likely to accept and appreciate names with shock value. Sectors like cosmetics, fashion, beverage, and other lifestyle-oriented products are more fertile territory for “negative” names. You may want to steer clear of this approach for older audiences or in highly traditional, B2B markets.
2. Imagine the impact
Names with negative connotations can be emotionally potent. Calibrate accordingly. For example, M.A.D.D. aptly conveys the anger of a group that’s fed up with drunk driving and its consequences. Suppose, however, you were naming a lobbying group aimed at forging better citizen-police cooperation. Then you’d be better off dialing it down and choosing a name with less flashpoint potential.
3. Study the semantics
Think through multiple layers of potential meaning. “Burn,” for instance, can suggest fire or injury. But it can also hint at “feel the burn,” a meaning that works well for an energy drink. So long as the name isn’t overwhelmingly tied to a single, negative definition, don’t cross it off your list prematurely. Speaking of which…
4. Consider the context
Context will often determine the first meaning called up by any word. The word “lush,” for example, could suggest someone who drinks too much. But in the context of cosmetics, its other meanings, like ‘luxurious’ and ‘opulent,’ will rise to the fore. Its alcohol-related associations may just add a bit of naughty insinuation.
5. Go with your gut
At the end of the day, if you love the name and think it works, don’t let its negativity potential deter you. The word “snicker” implies disrespectfulness, but candy-man Frank Mars didn’t let that stop him from using the word for one of his chocolate bars. (It was also the name of one of his favorite horses.) As far as we know, Snickers is still the world’s most popular candy bar.
Takeaway: don’t run scared from the dark side of naming. Used judiciously, a “negative” name can have a positive impact on your brand’s future.
Mark Skoultchi is Principal & Project Lead at Catchword, a full-service naming company. He is a veteran naming professional with 20 years’ experience counseling clients in every aspect of product and company name development.