Table of contents
Skip to a section in the ultimate guide to brand naming:
- Why brand names are important
- What makes a good/bad brand name?
- Types of brand names
- The brand naming process
- The naming brief
- How to generate name ideas
- Trademark prescreening
- Domain names
- How to present brand names
- Books about brand naming
- Websites and blogs about brand naming
- Good, mainstream news articles about brand naming
- Brand naming agencies
- Additional resources
Why an ultimate guide to brand naming?
You might be thinking, “Rob, didn’t you just write an entire book about brand naming? Isn’t that supposed to be your ultimate guide to brand naming?” Point taken. But let me explain: In December 2021, just two weeks before my book published, I got an email from a marketer requesting a sneak peak. “I just pre-ordered your book on Amazon, but am in the middle of trying to create some names before Christmas. It looks like [your book] would be really helpful. Any chance to get a preview?”
At the time, I didn’t have a preview to share. (There’s now a summary of the book’s key concepts for sale on the How Brands Are Built store.) But I’ve been writing about naming for years, and even published some early drafts of book chapters as e-books and articles. My reply to the namer with a Christmas deadline contained attachments and links designed to provide a good head start on what’s covered in the book. I didn’t know it at the time, but that reply email was the beginning of this post.
Since the book published, I’ve written half-a-dozen new articles about naming. As I mentioned on Instagram, “Just when I thought I was done writing, I realized one of the best ways to promote a new book is … more writing.” Since all of this information is already out there, mostly for free, a thought occurred to me: Why not pull it all together in one place? And that’s how I got the idea for this “ultimate guide to brand naming.” I’ve listed relevant topics (they loosely track with the content in Brand Naming), provided some guidance for each, and then linked to relevant articles, tools, and more. It’s not just stuff I’ve written, either—if it’s helpful and it’s out there, I’ll link to it. And I’ll do my best to keep this post updated, too.
Without further ado, I’m pleased to present: The ultimate guide to brand naming.
Why brand names are important
Brand names are important for at least three reasons:
1. Language is powerful
We experience this fact in our everyday lives—in great speeches and our favorite song lyrics. It’s also been shown empirically, in studies like Loftus & Palmer (1974), in which researchers showed they could change people’s perceptions and memories of events simply by changing the verbs used to describe them.
2. The costs of getting it wrong are high (i.e., naming is hard)
Even if you can’t convince someone of the importance of getting the brand name right, you can probably get them to agree that getting it wrong could be very costly. Ill-considered brand names can result in product recalls, wasted money, and legal problems—not to mention embarrassment.
3. A good name is a good investment
If you’re already on board with the idea that a strong brand is important, it’s not a big leap to see that the name has an important role to play. The name lasts longer than any other brand asset—logos, taglines, websites, and ad campaigns—and often costs less to create, acquire, and protect.
Can you think of other reasons brand names matter? Leave a comment below.
- “Why Are Brand Names Important?” Rob Meyerson, Branding Strategy Insider
- “What’s in a Brand Name?” Rob Meyerson, AMA.org
- “Reconstruction of automobile destruction: An example of the interaction between language and memory,” Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer, Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior
- “Famous Names,” John Colapinto, The New Yorker
What makes a good/bad brand name?
Look online and you’ll find not shortage of lists of “must-haves” for brand names. But those lists are oversimplifications, at best. What makes a name good depends on the context and underlying strategy. There is no magic list of boxes every name must check. Instead, as I wrote in Harvard Business Review, “the brand name you select should strike a balance between being strategic, creative, and technical.” For examples of qualities in each of those three categories, see the image and free tool linked below, and check out “How to Evaluate Brand Names” on the JUST Creative blog.
- “How to Pick the Best Name for Your Company,” Rob Meyerson, Harvard Business Review
- “How to Evaluate Brand Names,” Rob Meyerson, JUST Creative blog
- Blank Name Radar worksheet (free download)
- “What’s in a Brand Name?” Rob Meyerson, AMA.org
- “What makes a great brand name? (Useful List)” How Brands Are Built
- “The 10 essential qualities of great brand names,” Catchword blog
- SMILE & SCRATCH Test, Eat My Words
Types of brand names
The best way to classify types of brand names is along two dimensions: naming approach and naming construct. Using this system, we can identify roughly eleven types of brand names—nine in the graphic shown below, plus another two that don’t fit as well into the graphic.
- Abstract, real-word names: Apple, Virgin
- Suggestive, real-word names: Ivory, Twitter
- Descriptive, real-word names: The Container Store, Pizza Hut
- Abstract, compound names: Everlane, DreamWorks
- Suggestive, compound names: Zipcar, Grubhub
- Descriptive, compound names: GameStop, Vitaminwater
- Abstract, coined names: Dasani, Kodak
- Suggestive, coined names: Febreze, Sharpie
- Descriptive, coined names: Acuvue, E-Trade
- Abbreviated names (including alphanumerics and acronyms): WD-40, IBM
- Foreign-language names: Prego, Toca Boca
Also worth mentioning are founder’s names, like McKinsey and Smart & Final (yes, those are the founders’ names), and geographic names, like Palo Alto Networks and Mystic Pizza (yes, that’s the name of the town). I consider these subtypes of the descriptive, real-word category.
The internet is littered with lists of “types of brand names,” but most of these lists are problematic—they contain redundancies or miscategorizations. You’ll also find many other words used to describe names—words like evocative, associative, composite, double-barreled, merged, fused, invented, fabricated, and neologism—but most of them are interchangeable with the terms I’ve used above, as shown in the graphic. The approach-construct system (also detailed in Brand Naming) is the clearest, most logical, and most useful taxonomy of name types.
- “Every type of brand name in one simple chart,” Rob Meyerson, How Brands Are Built
The brand naming process
Different naming agencies and consultants may use slightly different processes, but the image below depicts a generally agreed-upon set of steps. Read more about the process in the Further reading links, or scroll down for additional information on some of the key steps.
- “The Optimal Brand Naming Process,” Rob Meyerson, Branding Strategy Insider
- “A seven-step process for brand naming,” Rob Meyerson, How Brands Are Built
- “Pitfalls in the naming process,” Rob Meyerson, How Brands Are Built
The naming brief
A naming brief is a relatively short document that outlines objectives and parameters for the brand name to be developed. Brainstorming name ideas without first articulating what the ideal name looks like is a recipe for disaster—especially when a group of decision-makers is involved. The brief forces everyone to align on what the name should convey, what kinds of names to consider, and what’s in and out of bounds.
Typically, naming briefs include the following information:
- A description of what’s being named
- Ideas to convey through the name (or “naming territories”)
- Name criteria (including approach and construct)
- Name tonality (the feeling the name should evoke
- A description of target audience for the name
- Competitor/peer names
In addition to the details listed above, some naming briefs include the following:
- Project overview (e.g., timeline, milestones)
- Previously explored/rejected names
- Other brand names (in or out of category) the decision makers like, and why
- Domain name requirements
- Lists of concepts, words, or word parts to explore or avoid
- Other brand strategy documentation (e.g., a brand platform or brand positioning statement)
- Company naming guidelines
- Trademark screening criteria
- Linguistic/cultural disaster check criteria (e.g., which countries/languages to review)
- Additional materials/links to review for background information
- How to Write a Naming Brief, Rob Meyerson (e-book; free with newsletter signup)
- Naming brief template (free download)
- “What to include in a naming brief,” Rob Meyerson, How Brands Are Built
- “How to write a naming brief,” Nancy Friedman, Fritinancy
How to generate name ideas
This wouldn’t be an ultimate guide to brand naming if it didn’t tell you how to come up with name ideas. But unfortunately, there is no “right way” to generate names. There are, however, many common practices and generally accepted rules of thumb. One tip is to create a complete list of every name generated (even the “bad” ideas!). These days, many namers use spreadsheet software like Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets, which makes it easy to sort ideas, remove duplicates, and more. You can find free complete list templates on the Brand Naming book website.
When it’s time to start generating names, just about any creative exercise could work. Start with your naming brief (see above) and look for “jumping off points.” Find synonyms and metaphors for ideas or words in the brief. Build a mind map and expand your thinking with a thesaurus, Google Search, or other naming resources. Eventually, you may find yourself going deep into the etymology of a relevant word, a list of terms associated with a concept in the brief, or a Wikipedia article. Professional namers often spend four hours or more doing this kind of research, generating over 100 ideas per “round” of naming.
The ideas above are mostly related to real words. But many brand names are coined or compound—two words smashed together, like Zipcar or PayPal. To create these names, try mixing and matching short words or prefixes and suffixes from your list (maybe with a tool like Kombinator), altering the spelling of words, or looking into words and roots from Greek, Latin, or other languages.
Hitting a wall? Here are ten additional ways to ensure you’ve left no stone unturned:
- Idioms, quotes, and song lyrics: Look up text that contains words or concepts related to the brief.
- Movies/shows, books, and podcasts: Find media related to the topic at hand (at least loosely).
- Misdirection: Pretend you’re naming something else.
- Bad ideas: Come up with a list of the worst possible names for whatever you’re naming. The bad names may lead to some good ones.
- Sprint: Set a timer. See how many ideas you can come up with in 10 minutes.
- Socialize: Talk to other people—but not about the project. Be ready to write something down. (You’ll be generating names subconsciously.)
- Exercise: Get some blood flowing. Distract yourself.
- Field trip: Get away from your desk. Visit a place that’s somehow relevant to the project.
- Sleep on it: Keep a pen and paper on your bedside table.
- Mine old lists: Not your first naming assignment? Check all your old ideas for anything that matches the brief (and hasn’t been used elsewhere).
- Complete list spreadsheet template (free download)
- How to Generate Names, Rob Meyerson (e-book, free with newsletter signup)
- “How to Name: Explore Concepts, not Words,” Anthony Shore, Operative Words blog
Every day, thousands of new trademark applications are filed. Legal availability is one of the toughest parts of naming a company, product, or service. That’s why preliminary trademark screening (or “prescreening,” for short) is a standard step in the brand naming process. Prescreening is much quicker and less expensive than hiring a lawyer to do a “full search” on every good name idea.
The quick, easy way to handle prescreening is to hire someone else to do it! I recommend the following three, professional trademark prescreeners:
If you’d prefer to do the screening yourself, however, it’s not impossible. (Just don’t go to market with a brand name until a trademark attorney has performed a full clearance search.) To conduct the preliminary trademark search, you’re looking for other companies using an identical or similar mark for similar goods or services. Start with the following steps:
- Check the U.S. Federal trademark database for identical names in all international classes.
- Check the U.S. Federal trademark database for similar names in international classes relevant to the goods and services of the project.
- If relevant, screen trademark registers outside the U.S. for identical and near-identical names.
- Search online for identical and similar names used for identical and similar goods and services.
- Visit relevant domains for identical and similar use.
Learn more at the links below, and use a spreadsheet to track your findings.
- “How to do preliminary trademark screening on name ideas,” Rob Meyerson, How Brands Are Built
- Preliminary trademark screening tracker (free download)
- “Using the Trademark Electronic Search System,” United States Patent and Trademark Office
- Steven Price of Tessera Trademark Screening on the How Brands Are Built podcast
- Additional posts about trademarks on How Brands Are Built, many of which were written by Perry Gattegno
Getting the exact, brand match dot-com for your brand name (i.e., [name].com) is increasingly difficult. It seems every real word, combination of words, and short, pronounceable string of letters is either in use, not for sale, or exorbitantly priced. But here’s the good news: You don’t need the exact dot-com. Contrary to conventional wisdom, putting too much emphasis on a perfect dot-com will probably backfire and leave you with a sub-optimal name—goofy, clunky, or hard to pronounce.
Follow the naming process and get to a great, final name or top three finalists. Then look into the domain. Try adding a simple, descriptive modifier (e.g., [name]consulting.com, [name]taxprep.com, [name]icecream.com, etc.). If these dot-coms are unavailable, try adding other words (e.g., weare[name].com, get[name].com, or, if you’re based in San Francisco, [name]sf.com) or looking into alternative top-level domains (.co, .io, .xyz, etc.).
- “You don’t need that exact dot-com domain,” Rob Meyerson, How Brands Are Built
How to present brand names
Naming isn’t just about creativity and cool words. It also requires alignment—getting a team of people to agree on an idea. One of the best tools namers have for driving alignment is the naming presentation. Rather than emailing a list of names, put together a well-crafted presentation to mitigate the predictable challenges of consensus-building. Explain that the name doesn’t have to say everything, not to expect a name to “jump off the page,” and that the top name candidates will have to be vetted by an attorney (i.e., don’t fall in love too soon).
When sharing individual name ideas, present one name per slide. Show the name in a neutral font with a simple, grayscale mockup; avoid anything that could bias decision-makers toward or against a name. Say each name out loud and provide a brief explanation of where the idea came from and why it could work.
At the end of the presentation, ask meeting attendees to share only their positive reactions first. They’ll be tempted to start by ruling out the ones they don’t like, but that can negatively bias other attendees and create a chilling effect. It’s important to hear whether anyone likes a name and why, even if the name is ultimately rejected.
- “Brand Naming — How to Win The Presentation Every Time,” Rob Meyerson, JUST Creative blog
Books about brand naming
About a dozen books have been written on the topic of brand naming, but they’re not all created equal. If you’re looking for practical advice and a process for creating brand names, look to Brand Naming, The Naming Book, Brand New Name, or Hello, My Name Is Awesome. For insights into the origins of names, check out From Altoids to Zima or Why Did They Name It…? And for more of an insider’s perspective on the world of brand naming, there’s Wordcraft and The Name of the Beast.
Websites, blogs, and podcasts about brand naming
Aside from posts about naming on this blog, read or hear more about brand naming on the following sites and pods:
- Fritinancy, Nancy Friedman’s blog about names, brands, writing, and the language of commerce
- How Brands Are Built, season one, is all about naming
- The Name Inspector, an old blog about verbal branding (no new posts since 2016)
- NameChangers, a relatively short-lived podcast about naming (last episode was in 2019)
- Namedroppings, Alan Brew‘s blog about naming and the business of names (including a page on the origins of brand names)
- Onym has compiled an amazing, well-organized list of naming resources—an ultimate guide to naming in its own right!
- Rewind & Capture blog about how brands got their names
Good, mainstream news articles about brand naming
Every now and then, a journalist decides to write about brand naming. Unfortunately, they usually title their article “What’s In a Name?”
Here are a handful of some of the more interesting articles about brand naming:
- “Famous Names,” John Colapinto, The New Yorker
- “Picking Brand Names in China Is a Business Itself,” Michael Wines, The New York Times
- “The Power of Names,” Adam Alter, The New Yorker
- “The Weird Science of Naming New Products,” Neal Gabler, The New York Times Magazine
- “What’s in a Brand Name?” James Surowiecki, The New Yorker
Brand naming agencies
Plenty of agencies can create brand names (or claim that they can), but here’s a list of good agencies that focus almost exclusively on brand naming or have built a full-fledged practice around it:
- A Hundred Monkeys
- Bullhorn Creative
- House of Who
- The Naming Group
- Operative Words
- River + Wolf
- Want Branding
- “Five Ways to Identify a Good Brand-Naming Consultant,” Rob Meyerson, MarketingProfs
- “What’s a Company Name Really Worth?,” Rob Meyerson, StartupNation
- Clutch Top Naming Companies
- How Brands Are Built agency directory (includes naming agencies and other branding/marketing firms)
Beyond the ultimate guide to brand naming: additional resources
In addition to the books and other resources listed above, here are some websites many namers use while naming:
- Dictionary.com and Thesaurus.com
- The Free Dictionary’s Idiom dictionary
- Google Translate
- USPTO Trademark Electronic Search System
- Visual Thesaurus
- “Resources used by professional namers (Useful List),” How Brands Are Built
- A few additional brand naming resources on the Branding Resources page
Rob Meyerson is a brand consultant, namer, and author of Brand Naming: The Complete Guide to Creating a Name for Your Company, Product, or Service. He also runs Heirloom, an independent brand strategy and identity firm, and hosts the podcast How Brands Are Built.