Brand Naming Process: How to Make a Brand Name Resonate

Written by | @stickybranding

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A brilliant name is the basic core differentiator of your brand. It helps to build awareness and convey meaning.

What would Apple be without its name? There are plenty of innovative technology companies around the world, but Apple has the brand. The name provides a platform for the brand, and it’s the first indicator that this company thinks differently.

The name garners Apple a great deal of power, because it resonates with consumers. It’s a mark of trust. David Aaker writes in Managing Brand Equity, “A name can serve as a substantial barrier to entry once it is established. Consider the power of names like Velcro, Formica, and Kodak. In fact, a name can be more useful than a patent, which can be difficult and costly to defend.”

A brilliant name sets the stage for the brand. This becomes evident when you read the lists of the Top 100 brands. You see names that immediately evoke meaning and trust: Google, VISA, Coca-Cola, Facebook, Amazon.com, Disney, Starbucks, Subway, FedEx, Red Bull, Twitter, and Shell.

Without any other description or explanation you know these companies. You know what they are, what they represent, and where they fit (or don’t fit) in your life. The brand name is the container of meaning. We may know the brand symbols or its mascot, but we reference and talk about its name.

That’s why naming your brand is so important. The brand naming process isn’t something you delegate to a committee or a few brainstorming sessions with your agency. Naming your brand — whether it’s your company, products, or services — is a decision that can shape the future and trajectory of your business.

In this article you will find an introduction to a brand naming process. You will learn a systematic approach to generating and selecting brand names, and how to test them. It’s a proven approach, but it does take time and creativity to get it right.

Four Types of Brand Names

The beauty of naming your brand is it rewards creativity.

There’s a lot of flexibility to generate and select the right name for your brand. You can invent a word like Twitter or Kodak. You can use a descriptive name like PayPal or Toys R Us. You can even name the brand after the founder like John Deere or J.P. Morgan.

You’ve really got a lot options. There are four primary categories of brand names.

Descriptive Name: Indicates what the company, product, or service is or does.

Descriptive brand names are the oldest class of brand names. John Deere, for example, is the brand name for Deere & Company. The company was founded in 1837 and the name is derived from its founder.

Descriptive names are also effective for describing the business. PayPal is a payment company. Subway serves submarine sandwiches. These names clearly position the brands and make it easier for consumers to identify their products and services and when to choose them.

The pitfall of a descriptive name is it can be constraining. For example, Salesforce.com was founded as a CRM software provider focused on salesforce automation. The company has evolved dramatically into a cloud computing company. It offers a variety of applications that reach well beyond sales teams. The company’s name is far less relevant than it was in 1999.

Acronyms: An abbreviation of a descriptive name.

Many of the world’s most recognized brands are acronyms: GE, UPS, IBM, SAP, HP, and TD, to name a few.

Most acronyms evolve out of functional names. Either deliberately or organically, descriptive names can be paired down into bite size chunks. For example, it’s easier to say AFLAC than American Family Life Assurance Company, or GEICO than Government Employees Insurance Company.

An acronym can be quick to say, easy to remember, and easier to trademark. But, and this is a big but, they lack a soul.

The primary pitfall of acronyms is they are empty vessels. They don’t draw from any other words in our lexicon, and even with a lot of use acronyms don’t absorb much meaning. They are just a grouping of letters.

Invented Names: A made-up word.

Some of the most iconic brands are invented words: Kodak, Xerox, Acura, Google, and Twitter. They are names created specifically to represent a brand.

Invented words are very powerful, because they don’t come with any baggage. They are empty vessels designed to represent a brand.

But using invented words is very tricky. Not all invented words make compelling brand names. It’s best to avoid invented names with Greek or Latin roots such as Verizon, Cingular, or Agilent. According to Steve Manning, founder of the naming company Igor International, “Because these types of names are built on Greek or Latin morphemes, you need the advertising budget of a gigantic global corporation to imbue them with meaning and get people to remember them.”

For example, in 2002 Cingular spent over $428 million on advertising. This was only two years after the company was founded.

The best invented brand names are based on poetically constructed names. Twitter evokes the experience of communicating rapidly in 140 characters. Google resonates with the act of searching and discovering. Kodak demonstrates strength and being in the moment.

Manning explains, “By design, the target audience likes saying these [poetically constructed] names, which helps propel and saturate them throughout the target audience.”

Experiential Names: Build upon what the feeling or experience the brand delivers.

Experiential names are the most powerful class of names. This is where the most iconic brands stand: Apple, Virgin, Caterpillar, and Oracle.

These names are positioning statements. They help a company stand out in their marketplace by setting an expectation of what it’s like to choose them.

The biggest obstacle of generating an experiential name is connecting meaning to the brand. This requires a deep understanding of your business and what it stands for before the naming process begins. If the name is out of sync with the positioning of the business it loses impact.

Map the Competition

Before you start brainstorming or putting pen to paper, the first step is to map the competitive landscape for your brand.

To begin your naming project develop a comprehensive list of all the competitors to your brand. Consider both direct and indirect competitors. As you collect the names divide them into four categories:

  • Descriptive
  • Acronyms
  • Invented
  • Experiential

Once you have an exhaustive list look for trends:

  • What are common words or phrases?
  • What are the naming conventions? For example, do competitors congregate in one category more than the others?
  • What attitudes or beliefs do the competitors’ names evoke?
  • Which brands stand out most and why?

By mapping the competitive landscape provides two benefits for your brand naming process. First, it lets you see what you’re up against. Second, a clear picture of the playing field will help you develop guidelines for your naming project.

Establish Brand Naming Guidelines

Naming your brand is strategic. It’s going to be a part of your business for a long time.

The next step in the brand naming process is to define what your name will represent and how it will support your business. This starts with what you are naming. Is it a product, service, or the business itself? What you name will influence how you name it.

In 2004 I led the rebranding of my family’s recruiting business, Miller & Associates. I shared the background on this rebranding project in the preface of my book, Sticky Branding. The company was being repositioned from IT staffing to sales and marketing recruiting, and we were developing a fresh new identity.

To rename Miller & Associates we established a few guidelines. The new name had to be:

  1. Simple to say, easy to remember
  2. Short, ideally less than 8 characters
  3. Have a .com domain name
  4. Could not use the words “recruiting, “recruiter,” or “staffing”

These guidelines were established based on what kind of brand experience we wanted to present to our customers, and how we wanted to differentiate our company from the competition.

When you are naming your brand — whether it’s a company, product, or service — establish your guidelines. How do you want your brand name to perform? What rules should the name adhere to? What are areas you want to avoid in the naming process?

Notepads, Sticky Notes, and a Thesaurus

Generating names is a creative process, and works best if you give yourself the freedom to explore. Start wide and build lists of names.

To rename Miller & Associates I relied on three tools: notepads, sticky notes, and a thesaurus. I’d search the thesaurus for interesting words, and then create as many word combinations as possible in my notepad. Every time I found an interesting word pairing I’d write it on a sticky note and tack it on the wall.

I also explored invented words. I invented words in two ways. First, I pretended to talk in gibberish and grabbed words or statements that I found compelling. I also explored combining words and strong syllables. Again, every interesting name went on a sticky note and was placed on the wall.

I didn’t generate any brilliant names on my first few tries. It was a process. For the better part of six weeks I spent twenty minutes a day generating names. I focused my efforts on generating evocative, descriptive, and invented names.

At the end of the process I had filled dozens of notepads, and had twenty potential names on sticky notes. This was a good starting point.

You may have a different approach to generating names, but my key recommendation is to let yourself explore freely in the name generation phase. Generate lots of options. Push yourself beyond the obvious. Explore lots of words, phrases, and ideas.

A brilliant name may show itself quickly, but chances are it’s far deeper in the cycle.

The Domain Name Wrinkle

A key decision in the naming process is to determine if the brand requires a domain name. If you’re naming a company you can guarantee a domain is required. With a product or service you may have a bit more latitude, and not need a domain name. The domain name requirement all depends on how you will market and promote the brand.

Finding an available .com domain name is very hard, unless you are working with invented words. Even finding domain names for unique word pairings is extremely challenging. It’s almost a given to assume all the good names have been registered, but that doesn’t mean all the domain names are being used.

In many circumstances you can purchase domains that have already been registered. That’s what I did with Sticky Branding. I purchased StickyBranding.com and StickyBrands.com from two different people. There are vibrant marketplaces like GoDaddy Auctions and Sedo where you can buy domains.

If having a domain name is important I recommend setting aside a budget to purchase domain names. For a small business I recommend a budget of $2,500. For consumer oriented brands, or brands that will engage a large audience, I suggest a budget of $25,000. The basic logic is simple. A great name will more than pay for itself in the long run.

Short List of Brand Names

You can test every name on your list, but it’s a good idea to cull the list before you go further.

To help select my top three names I engaged five people to pick their five favorites from my list of twenty names. I collected the lists from each person, and then looked to see which names rose to the top.

Three names emerged as potential brand names:

  • Fox Hunt, an experiential name
  • AYA, an invented name
  • LEAPJob, a descriptive name

At this point we did a gut check. AYA fit our brand guidelines, but it lacked something. It didn’t stack up to the other two names so we ditched it.

The short list can be a humbling moment. You may hit this stage and realize that none of your names are good enough. It happens. It’s a natural part of the brand naming process. The key is to not let this setback hold you back. Avoid compromising by selecting one name just because it’s there. Go back to the name generation phase if none of your names are good enough.

Committees Kill Names

It’s worth pointing out that committees are the bane of creativity. Don’t let them slip into your naming process at any stage.

Choose your naming team deliberately. Who is generating names? How are you testing names? Who is helping to select the short list? What qualifications do these people bring to the process?

Build your naming team early on. There’s nothing more frustrating than having a dozen voices and no way to move forward.

Five Characteristics to Test Your Brand Name

Do a quick assessment of your brand names, and consider each by five characteristics:

  • Distinctive: How does the name stand out amongst the competition?
  • Sound: Say the name out loud. How does it sound? Is it easy to say? Is it poetic?
  • Stickiness: Is the name easy to remember? How many times do you have to hear it before you remember it?
  • Expression: Does the name demonstrate what your brand is all about? Does it fit your brand’s personality?
  • Appearance: What does the word look like in print? Does it look as good as it sounds?

A brilliant brand name will excel in all five characteristics.

The Helvetica Test

To test the appearance of your brand name print the name in capital letters in Helvetica Neue Bold. What you are looking for is the balance and readability of the name. How does the name look in a standard sans serif font?

If you’re deliberating amongst a handful of names you can print each name on a piece of paper. Print each name in huge characters so it fills up the page.

Hand the pages out to people and ask them two questions:

  1. What do you think of when you read each name?
  2. Which name is your favorite and why?

A few days later circle back with each person and ask them to recall the names you shared with them. Take note of which names they remember, and how quickly and easily they were able to recall the names.

The more people you can have complete the test the more insights you will gather.

The Logo Test

If you’re happy with the name and it’s resonating with your test subjects, the next step is to develop a logo.

A logo will help you prove the visual impact of your name.

To test LEAPJob and Fox Hunt we developed two logos. The Helvetica Test left us with a split audience. People liked both names equally, and we weren’t sure which way to go. The logo test helped us break the tie.

Once in a logo the LEAPJob name won. Many people found the name Fox Hunt evoked ideas of blood, guts, and animal cruelty. Those were not connotations we wanted associated with our brand.

LEAPJob was built on the metaphor of leapfrogging, and it played on the idea of leaping forward in your career. The leaping frog struck a chord with our audience.

A visual test helps you to distinguish your brand, and proves this is the name you want to represent your company, product, or service.

Mix and Match Logos and Wordmarks

The neat part of developing several names and logos is you can mix and match the best elements of each.

Lululemon’s brand identity came from mixing and matching logos and names during the naming process. The company explains, “The lululemon name was chosen in a survey of 100 people from a list of 20 brand names and 20 logos. The logo is actually a stylized ‘A’ that was made for the first letter in the name ‘athletically hip’, a name which failed to make the grade.”

The benefit of generating a lot of options is it gives you more to work with. You never know where inspiration will strike. You may find elements of one name or logo really stand out. By combining them you can create something iconic.

Brand Naming Takes Patience

The biggest obstacle to selecting a brilliant name for your brand is time. Many companies aren’t willing to put in the time or resources necessary to choose a name that will empower their brand. This is a mistake.

If you’re going to build a Sticky Brand, do it right.

The project management triangle argues quality is derived from two of three criteria:

  1. Time
  2. Resources
  3. Cash

If you don’t have the time or the resources to invest in the naming process it’s going to cost you. This is when you need to hire a naming agency and set aside a substantial budget to acquire domain names. The agency brings forward the resources necessary to get the job done.

If you don’t have cash you’re going to have to invest the time and resources to find and test a brilliant name. That’s how I named LEAPJob and Sticky Branding. They were both DIY projects, because I didn’t have thousands of dollars to hire additional resources.

The best course of action is to give your team the time and space they need to explore and test names. Ninety days is a good time frame. This doesn’t mean your full time job is to generate and test names. Rather budget an hour a day to work the process.

By investing the time to get it right can make all the difference in the world. A brilliant brand name can set the foundation for your business to be a leader in its category.