A quick internet search will tell you there are five “most common” types of brand names, six “name categories,” seven “popular” types of brand names, 10 “types of brand names to consider,” three “categories” of brand names that include over 13 types of names, and 18 types of product names. In case your head isn’t spinning already, here’s just a partial list of the many purported “types” of brand names I’ve found online and in books, roughly in order of how often they’re listed:
- Founders’ names
- Compound words
- Empty vessel
Is it possible to find brand names to exemplify each name type above? Yes. And when developing brand names, should you consider metaphors, portmanteaus, and founders’ names? Of course. But when it comes to categorizing brand names, top-tier naming and branding agencies avoid lists like these, which often suffer from incompleteness, redundancy, or categorization errors. Instead, they use a simple, two-axis chart to capture almost every type of name. Here’s one version of the chart (from our free naming brief template):
Vertically, the chart arranges names by approach, a continuum from descriptive to suggestive to abstract. Horizontally, it organizes brand names by how they’re structured (the naming construct): real-word, compound, or coined. Professional namers can pinpoint almost any brand name by identifying its approach and construct. Apple is an abstract, real-word name. BestBuy is a suggestive, compound name. And so on.
From one-dimensional lists of types of brand names to a two-dimensional chart
By considering names in two dimensions, we can immediately clear up some of the confusion created by long, one-dimensional lists of name types. Take those 13 or 18 name types listed above, for example. The chart captures all of them:
- Founders’, geographical, and historical names are typically descriptive, real-word names. Some descriptive names describe the people behind a company or product, some describe a point of origin, and others speak to a historical attribute.
- Acronyms and initialisms are often descriptive (e.g., IBM is short for “International Business Machines”). Other forms of abbreviation, like alphanumerics, may be abstract and virtually meaningless (e.g., UX 200, from Lexus).
- Misspellings, truncations, and portmanteaus (e.g., Froot Loops, Cisco, and Pinterest, respectively) are different kinds of coined names.
- Invented names, fabricated names, and neologisms are different ways of referring to coined names.
- Evocative names are the same as suggestive names. “Associative” is also sometimes used.
- “Lexical” seems to be a catch-all term that includes “puns, phrases, compound words, alliteration, onomatopoeia, intentional misspellings, and foreign words” to “convey important details about a company.” In other words, lexical names are suggestive names, spanning real-word, compound, and coined constructs.
- Metaphorical names are a subset of suggestive names; most metaphors use real words, such as Nike, Patagonia, Monocle, Quartz, and Amazon (all examples from Designing Brand Identity).
- According to the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), arbitrary names are “actual words with a known meaning that have no association/relationship with the goods protected.” In other words, abstract, real-word names.
- Fanciful names, on the other hand, are “invented words with no dictionary or other known meaning” (again, according to the USPTO). So “fanciful” is a trademark attorney’s way of saying “abstract, coined name.”
- Empty vessel names are also coined, abstract names—names with no inherent meaning, like Kodak and Xerox. Like an empty cup, brand builders can “pour” meaning into them through messaging, advertising, and other activities.
- While not listed above, compound names are sometimes referred to as “composite” or the more colorful, “double-barreled.”
Let’s take another look at our chart, with all of these name types plotted:
You can apply an almost infinite number of adjectives to any brand name. Names can be derived from mythology, contain puns, or employ onomatopoeia. To avoid confusion, however, it’s useful to understand how these various descriptors relate to one another—whether two terms are interchangeable, or one a subset of the other. Unfortunately, many lists of name types conflate categories or present two name types as separate rather than orthogonal and overlapping. For example, one online list of name types identifies some names as evocative and others as invented. But as the chart above shows, a suggestive, coined name (like Febreze), checks both boxes. Another list seems to distinguish between metaphors and real words, when in fact, most metaphorical brand names are also real-word names.
I’ve seen a version of this chart at virtually every naming firm I’ve worked at or with, and yet it’s surprisingly hard to find in blog posts and books about naming. For clearer, more accurate conversations about types of brand names, I recommend you use it in place of the oversimplified “there are X types of brand names” formulation. Regardless, be sure to think of brand names in terms of both approach and construct.
Rob Meyerson is a brand consultant, professional namer, and host of the How Brands Are Built podcast. He is also principal and founder of Heirloom, an independent brand strategy and identity firm in the San Francisco Bay Area.