The top 5 rules of brand naming

In our years helping to define a company’s brand, the aspect of the work that gets the most interest at cocktail parties [back when we attended social events] is naming. People perceive name development as a profoundly creative endeavor. They romanticize the process, thinking we spend our days looking out a window, taking long walks on the beach or lingering over a latte at the local coffee shop waiting for inspiration to strike.

The reality behind developing a good company or product name is starkly different than the notion of caffeine-fuelled creativity. In fact, naming can be the most challenging aspect of the branding process. But once you decide on a name and build a look and feel around it, you have a foundation you can be proud to own.

Before you begin, consider the five truths of name development.

ONE: Ask yourself: “do I really need a name?”

As someone with a branding agency, it may seem strange to begin by asking potential clients whether they really need my services. Those who only think they want a new name rarely commit to one. If you don’t need a name, you can delay the decision indefinitely.

Those who commit to a new brand name do so because:

  1. they are starting a company or launching a product that needs a name, or
  2. they have received a Cease & Desist letter from a lawyer letting them know that continuing to use their existing name may see them spending time and money on court dates.

Unless you have too much spare time and money, don’t begin the naming process unless you need a name.

TWO: Understand how subjective naming can be.

We all possess inherent preferences. Consider the name Helen for example. For some of us, the name brings back memories of that awful girl who stole our lunch when we were nine years old. For others, it may connote a warm and generous friend or relative. And for others, it may have no meaning what so ever. If the name Helen can bring about such extreme reactions, imagine generating a company name. To help guide clients in their choices, we build a decision-making process around name development to help focus on the effectiveness of the options, rather than a knee-jerk reaction.

THREE: Define what you need. Then define it some more.

What are you trying to communicate in the name? And please don’t say: “We have a passion for what we do.” No one needs to hear that phrase ever again. As you begin the naming process, take time to clearly define your brand, its attributes and aspirations, then reflect on the types of names you like and don’t like. Are you looking for a coined word that you can fully own? (upside: distinct, downside: challenging to get right.) Or do you want a name that already evokes a certain sentiment, one that perhaps is inspired by mythology or geography?

In addition, consider the type of URL you need to go along with your new name. Everyone wants a short, ownable, distinct name with availability. And I wanted a pony when I was seven. Just as I got over my disappointment of not riding to school on a Shetland, you will likely find a way to make a modified URL work.

FOUR. Wait for legal. Really.

The best name in the world means nothing if you can’t own it. We’ve developed what we considered to be creative, defining, targeted brand names only to suffer from heartbreak when a legal search uncovered a small company in the middle of nowhere that was already using it. So in this business you quickly learn to avoid falling in love with a name until it passes legal.

FIVE: Decide and move forward.

Naming a company, product or initiative can be an inspiring, exciting process. But without the right structure, it can turn into a never-ending exercise in list-generation, where names are created then forgotten in favor of the next series of names.

Naming is not for the faint of heart. Go forth, choose wisely, and prosper.