Brand Naming: The Complete Guide to Creating a Name for Your Company, Product, or Service
by Rob Meyerson
Which sounds more appetizing: Antarctic toothfish or Chilean seabass? Although they are the same thing, the latter sells much better. Likewise, a brand name can make a positive first impression or set the wrong tone. “‘Tronc to change name back to Tribune Publishing after years of ridicule,’ read one headline in June 2018… A mere 15 months after its announcement, Consignia was returned to sender, replaced by Royal Mail Group.”
Brand naming expert Rob Meyerson shares a process that balances creativity with discipline to avoid such disasters and arrive at “just one deliverable: a strategically optimal, legally available, linguistically viable, client-approved brand name.”
Before getting to the process, Meyerson explains how to classify names along two dimensions: naming approach and naming construct.
“Naming Approach. The naming approach is about the semantic relationship between a name and an underlying brand—how the meaning of a name connects to the underlying company, product, or service. Approach can range from descriptive names, which tell it like it is, to abstract names, which have no relevant meaning. Many brand names are suggestive, falling somewhere between descriptive and abstract—they imply or hint at something about the underlying brand without coming right out and saying it.”
“Descriptive names clearly convey tangible information about the brands to which they refer. The Container Store is, indeed, a store that sells containers… On the other hand, descriptive names… are less flexible and can pigeonhole a company that’s outgrown its initial business model. Just look at Pizza Hut, which tried and failed to rebrand as The Hut in an effort to highlight non-pizza offerings (such as wings and pasta). RadioShack’s attempts to become The Shack were no less doomed. Descriptive names are also typically less distinctive and hard to protect.”
“Abstract names… are often easier to protect from a legal standpoint. They’re also infinitely flexible, as evidenced by the fact a company that goes by Virgin can use that name for not only music, but across everything from banking to commercial spaceflight… But a name without any built-in meaning—an empty vessel like Exxon, Kodak, or Dasani—may require more resources to educate target audiences and familiarize them with the name.”
“Naming Construct. While naming approach is best conceptualized as a smooth continuum from descriptive to abstract, construct is typically conceived of as three discrete groups: real-world, compound, and coined names. Beyond those three groups, however, construct can also capture factors such as language (e.g. names with Latin roots), abbreviation (e.g. acronyms), use of numbers or symbols in names, capitalization, and length.”
“Real-word names… are more likely to be spelled and pronounced correctly and have built-in meaning (for speakers of that language, at least). Real words also have connotations and associations that can cut both ways—positive connotations can redound to the brand’s benefit while negative one’s can torpedo an otherwise strong name candidate. Real-word names are also harder to acquire—if not from a legal standpoint, at least from the standpoint of digital real estate like web domains and social media handles.”
“Virgin is an abstract, real-word name. Febreze is a suggestive, coined name. Vitaminwater is a descriptive, compound name.”
The heart of this book is the naming process, which starts with the brief.
THE NAMING BRIEF. “A typical naming brief is a short document—five or six pages or presentation slides—that outlines objectives and parameters for the name you’re developing… 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… It’s critical to ensure anyone with decision-making or veto power reviews and approves the brief before naming begins.”
Meyerson introduces the term tonality. “What feelings should the name evoke? What vibe should namers strike for–or avoid? If a brand personality has been defined as part of a broad brand strategy, list those traits here.”
The brief should also include names of competitors and partner companies. To avoid trademark challenges, it is important to avoid names that could be confused with other brands in the same industry.
“The entire point of any brief is to provide constraints—guardrails within which creativity can flourish. The naming brief is no different… At the same time, the brief shouldn’t overly constrain name generation… The naming brief must strike a balance. It should inspire and tap into a namer’s creativity, not stifle it.”
TEAM. “While more heads are better than one, an hour simply isn’t enough time to dig deep on a naming project and get past the most obvious ideas. If you’re divvying up 12 hours, 4 hours each from 3 experienced namers will net better results than 1 hour each from 12 people.” This also enables the namers to get into a state of flow. “Multiple namers conducting multiple rounds of name generation, working together but separately, will maximize the depth of exploration and diversity of ideas.”
BUILDING THE LIST. “A professional namer will shoot for a least 100 ideas per round, and typical naming projects involve hundreds—if not thousands—of name ideas. As Amanda C. Peterson, former head of naming at Google, puts it, you’re looking for ‘quality through quantity.’ More ideas can lead to better ideas, and the need for quantity will become even more clear when you begin subjecting names to trademark prescreening and linguistic searches.”
Meyerson explains 20 approaches to generate names. He credits Anthony Shore with a method called conceptual spelunking. “Anthony relates name generation to ‘an actual expedition.’ Imagine yourself standing in a cave that represents a concept form the brief. You can move up to a parent concept or category (called a hypernym in linguistics), down to child concepts or subordinates (hyponyms), and across to coordinate or sibling terms (allonyms).”
SHORTLISTING. “Great namers are not only capable of coming up with original ideas, but of plucking the potential diamonds from the rough.” A caution about putting all of your eggs in one basket: “If all you names are similar, a single legal or linguistic concern can wipe out the whole list.”
“Names that deserve to be shortlisted won’t necessarily jump out at you. Like a fine wine, they’ll probably need to breathe a little before you can tell how great they are. So, when shortlisting, you’re not looking for greatness. You’re looking for ideas with the potential for greatness—the names that may seem obvious in retrospect.”
PRESCREENING. The shortlist should be vetted for trademark, linguistic, and cultural problems. “Including the prescreening step ensures that only those names with a higher probability of success—those that a trademark attorney is more likely to deem usable after a deeper search—will continue through the naming process.”
DOMAIN NAME. “Whatever you do, don’t let domain availability drive the naming process… A great name is worth more than a lousy name with a perfect domain… Solving for the brand name first, then the domain, increases the likelihood of landing on a good name with the desired meaning and tonality.”
PRESENTING NAMES. “A well-crafted presentation can mitigate many predictable challenges of consensus-building.” The naming brief is the anchor to keep everyone focused on the same objectives.
FULL LEGAL SEARCH. “Even when names have been through a preliminary trademark screening, an experienced trademark attorney should still perform a full legal search—a more in-depth assessment of legal availability and risk associated with each name idea.
FINAL SELECTION. “The best names tend to come from decisive leaders who feel empowered to make bold choices… It’s wise to seek input from a diverse set of colleagues, but consensus can also dilute creativity. As the cliché goes, if everyone has to agree on the pizza, you’ll wind up with plain cheese—innocuous but inert.”
“According to Michael Eisner, former CEO of Disney, brands are ‘enriched or undermined cumulatively over time, the products of a thousand small gestures.’ …. Every detail can make a difference—from the color of a logo to the spelling of a name. If you’re aiming to build a strong brand, start with a strong brand name.”
Meyerson clearly has a love of words and I learned some cool new terms in this book: “euphonious” means having a pleasant sound; “phonosemantics is the theory that speech sounds have meaning.”
Meyerson, Rob. Brand Naming: The Complete Guide to Creating a Name for Your Company, Product, or Service. Business Expert Press, 2021. Buy from Amazon.com
Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. I received a review copy of this book.
A selection of books mentioned in the text:
Aaker on Branding by David Aaker
Bowerman and the Men of Oregon by Kenny Moore
The Brand Gap by Marty Neumeier
Designing Brand Identity by Alina Wheeler
Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer
From Altoids to Zima: The Surprising Stories Behind 125 Famous Brand Names by Evan Morris
Healthy Brain, Happy Life by Wendy Suzuki
Obsessed: Building a Brand People Love from Day One by Emily Heyward
A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young
The Use of Lateral Thinking by Edward de Bono
What Great Brands Do by Denise Lee Yohn
Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis
Wordcraft: The Art of Turning Little Words into Big Business by Alex Frankel