From the outside looking in, naming looks easy. But, as complicated as corporate and brand strategy can be, naming is one of the hardest tasks we face.
At BrandingBusiness, we’ve created hundreds of company and product names. We’ve learned there is no easy way to find that one perfect name that is legally available and unique in the marketplace. No matter how you approach naming, it’s hard work. By sharing some lessons we’ve learned—from our struggles as well as our success stories—we hope to make naming less of an uphill battle for others.
And every month, it gets harder.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office fields 5,000 new trademark applications each week, building on the more than two million active trademarks already filed. At least 50% of new applications do not survive, usually because they’re too similar to other names.
The Unexpected Naming Challenge Businesses Face Today
These days, marketers and branding professionals must be more creative than ever, especially when working in the crowded fields of software and technology. Every agency and consultancy that does naming has a process, but no process is a magic bullet. The ingredients for success include knowledge of a category’s naming conventions, understanding of the relevant trademark classes, and a facility with language.
But the challenge we encounter most frequently is the psychology of teams.
When it comes to naming, everyone has an opinion. At first, enthusiasm is high. People have suggestions and favorites. However, as those favorites are shot down or fall from grace during the naming process, the decisions get harder. Everything starts to feel subjective. A key element of our expertise is in guiding teams through the emotional rollercoaster of naming and managing people’s personal opinions of names. We do this partly by sharing best practices, case studies, and our own experience. Through the process, we arrive at a single, distinctive, available, and exciting name.
Nine Naming Lessons
I’ve picked up the following lessons over my 35-year career in branding and naming. Keeping them in mind (along with some good luck) will help ensure your naming process goes smoothly.
1. It doesn’t have to be love at first sight.
Nothing is “jumping off the page.” “I don’t love any of these.” “But that makes me think of…”. We’ve heard and come to expect all these reactions to new name ideas. You’ll hear them, too. It comes with the territory.
Every new idea feels uncomfortable at first when compared to a world of familiar ideas. Help people work through their gut reactions and think more rationally about a name’s strategic potential. You never know—if initial favorites can fall out of favor, names that feel wrong at first can wind up winning the day.
Lesson: Give each name some room to breathe. Take some of the pressure off; remind everyone that it’s ok to dislike a name.
2. Avoid straight “up and down” votes
Relatedly, once someone has staked out a position on whether or not a name is “good,” opinions are hard to shift.
Rational argument will hold no sway over an entrenched emotional decision. Allowing a like/dislike vote turns the process into a popularity contest, leading to strong candidates falling out of favor based solely on subjective criteria. When discussing names, frame the discussion in the context of the underlying brand strategy and the target audience.
Lesson: Even the names you dislike can be successful.
3. Create a naming process and stick to it.
The naming process should ensure new names are considered in the context of a strategy. If you open up that process to people who haven’t been involved, they’ll weigh in without understanding the thinking that went into each name idea.
Lesson: Don’t share names or ask for opinions from people who weren’t involved in the original naming brief or strategy work. It’s a surefire way to derail a naming process.
4. Names are like sponges for meaning
Some of the most familiar names in the world are virtually meaningless: Kodak, Xerox, Sony. Over time, they’ve become synonymous with the products or companies they stand for. Other names, like Apple and Uber, do have inherent meaning but have taken on entirely different meanings now that they’re attached to famous companies.
Lesson: The name will rarely, if ever, stand alone. It’s meaning will be influenced by communications, product experience, and other factors.
5. Changing a brand name will cause controversy. Plan accordingly.
Don’t assume everyone will love your new brand name. Some people will hate it, and they won’t be shy about telling you. To make matters worse, corporate brand names are easy targets for journalists and bloggers looking to poke fun at something and get clicks. Remember, it’s not about the name—it’s about what the name represents and the strategy upon which it’s built.
Lesson: Drive the narrative; proactively explain how people should interpret the name.
When launching a new name, remember that it’s not about the name—it’s about what the name represents and the strategy upon which it’s built.”
6. Customers’ highest priority is the continuity of the relationship
One reason name changes cause anxiety (and a reason companies resist changing) is the mistaken assumption that customers will revolt. But customers are used to change; as long as a rationale is provided, they’ll likely accept the name change. Their main concern is whether their relationship with the company or brand will continue, unchanged. Their reaction is usually, “Just tell us who you want to be, and be it.”
Lesson: Explain name changes proactively. Communicate directly and tell the story around the new name, and customers will go along with it.
7. The story is more important than the name
No matter the reason for a name change (e.g., rebranding, M&A), the new name is just a “symptom” of a shift in business strategy, a new vision for the combined entity, or whatever the bigger story is. Tell a story about the future of the brand, rather than focusing on the name.
Lesson: A name is not a strategy. The strategy is the focal point for the story you tell.
8. A name is not a brand.
At first, a name is just a handful of letters. It’s not a brand until it’s been imbued with meaning through brand strategy, messaging, marketing, and communications.
Lesson: You must invest in a name to make it a brand.
9. Avoid falling in love too soon
Naming requires a rigorous, iterative process of creation, shortlisting, and screening. You may start with hundreds of ideas, but toward the end, only a handful of names will go through a more in-depth legal search. With luck, one or two will be deemed “safe” enough to use. Try to avoid playing favorites too early in the process—it can be deflating if legal counsel rejects the name. Stay open-minded until the naming decision is truly final.
Lesson: In the end, the best name is the one you can own.
Alan Brew is a founding partner of BrandingBusiness, a global B2B branding agency. He has more than 30 years of international corporate branding experience with some of the world’s largest brands and design agencies.