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What’s in a Name? Things To Remember When Naming Your Next Product or Brand

Derek Smith // April 25, 2017

what's in a name illustration

It’s just a word or two. Pretty straightforward, right? Not usually.

Whether you’re working to name a product, company, or overarching brand, naming can be an arduous journey for everyone involved, especially if you try to do it by committee.

Your creatives can feel excitement. Disappointment. Mental exhaustion.

Yet no matter how long the process takes, the end result is important; this new name is going out into the marketplace to be experienced by consumers. It needs to be on the money.

Here are the lessons I’ve learned from being actively involved in large-scale naming projects for Element Three clients. While I’m writing this from the standpoint of an agency marketer, all of the lessons also apply to an in-house team.

Make Sure You Share All the Critical Information

Sometimes you uncover a crucial bit of information halfway through the process that would have served you well at the beginning. So make sure your creative team has a solid creative brief that includes all the information they’ll need before they dive into the naming exercise.

Inputs for Naming a Company / Brand

  • Company history
  • Company mission, vision, and values
  • Customer personas
  • Merger & acquisition history, reasoning, and customer value (if part of a brand consolidation)
  • Customer surveys
  • Employee surveys
  • Applicable industry research
  • Public relations materials
  • Key news stories from major media outlets

Why: When you’re brainstorming names, even the smallest of details can trigger fresh ideas.
So make sure the creative team has everything they need to understand your company: where you’ve been and where you’re headed, what sets you apart from competitors, and how you’re viewed in your industry. Then the naming process can truly begin.

Inputs for Naming a Product

  • Value propositions
  • The product itself
  • Brochures
  • Data sheets
  • PowerPoint presentations
  • Sales training documents
  • Product roadmap
  • Competitive matrix
  • Case studies

Why: To name a new product or update an existing name, you need to understand what makes that product tick. You need to experience it, or if it’s not something tangible, at least understand what’s compelling about it.

Determine Your Starting Point

Rather than just unleashing your creatives with “We need a name: Go!” you need to establish the value proposition around which the new name can be built. Otherwise, you’ll waste valuable time later on trying to narrow down your options or match ideas to a key differentiator.

Ask yourself these types of questions:

  • What is truly memorable about this product or brand?
  • What distinguishes it?
    • If it’s a product, is it faster, cheaper, more luxurious? Does it empower the user to see things from a new perspective?
    • If it’s a company, is it more innovative, more dependable, or more experienced? How is this company currently positioned in the marketplace?
    • If it’s an overarching brand, what’s the common thread that unites everything? What type of idea can we rally around?
  • How is this product, company, or brand currently perceived by customers and industry observers? And if we change the positioning with a new name, will we be able to live out that new positioning?

Build Consensus on the Type of Name You Want

There are five types of names:

  • Generic
  • Descriptive
  • Suggestive
  • Arbitrary
  • Fanciful

While you can ask your creatives to ideate around each category, at some point you must agree internally about what type of name you want.

I’ve found that it’s better to build this consensus sooner rather than later to get everyone on the same page. Otherwise, you could discover that your project team focused on Descriptive names, while your executives were wanting to see Fanciful names. Then it’s back to the drawing board.

Call off the Committee

This is an important decision, so you might be tempted to assemble a bevy of people for your naming project. Don’t do that.

Trying to get a dozen people to agree on a name usually results in safe options that avoid anything perceived by the group to be different or risky. Some of the best creative options could get axed unnecessarily as the group tries to make everyone happy.

So pick a small team for the project, build consensus about the type of name you want, and trust your creative team to get it done.

Don’t Lose Sight of the Key Stakeholders

You never want to go into a presentation blind. So if your team is going to present to one or more executive stakeholders, it’s crucial to know what their expectations are.

  • Are they expecting to see six name ideas, or 20?
  • Are they going to insist on options for a certain type of name?
  • Are they expecting the name to be tied to a specific value proposition?

Hopefully, you’ve incorporated all of this in your creative brief at the outset. If not, your team might get sent back to the drawing board if the executive perceives your initial efforts to be off the mark.

Know Who Has Veto Power and Loop Them In

Sometimes an executive stakeholder might have the power to veto a name idea, even though they’re not actively involved in the naming process. So you’ll want to loop this person in early and make sure they’re not going to spike your killer name at the eleventh hour.

Explain Why You Like Your Name Finalists

Let’s face it: naming is subjective. One person might absolutely love a name idea, while another might frown on it because of a negative association.

That’s why it’s important to explain the thinking behind your name ideas when you’re presenting. Hearing a name is one thing, but hearing an explanation of why it’s compelling is quite another. In many cases, a name can grow on you once you’ve had the chance to mull it over.

So give your names a fighting chance by taking the time to explain the meaning behind them.

Don’t Get Too Attached

Naming can be an emotional process. We can all identify with certain words or ideas, and it’s easy to become enamored with a particular name. Maybe you’re the one who thought of it, or maybe you’re simply convinced it’s the best for whatever reason. But at the end of the day, it might not win out. And sometimes it can get spiked for the silliest of reasons.

So speak up for your favorites, but don’t get too emotionally invested.

Expect The Unexpected

Since a name has such a lasting effect, the process can take all kinds of twists and turns as different people try to exert their influence by adding their own ideas, pulling in colleagues, or raising last-minute objections. Or a legal review might discover that a name is already being used by another business (which is why it’s best to submit at least a few different names from your list of finalists to Legal).

Hopefully this article helps you better understand the product naming process. If you’re interested in reading more about naming, check out these articles:

The 8 Principles of Product Naming (Fast Company)
10 Most Common Naming Mistakes (Interbrand)
The Weird Science of Naming New Products (The New York Times Magazine)

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Derek Smith Team Photo at Element Three

Derek Smith's skills as a reporter serve him well as a senior writer here at Element Three – and if you need a coach for your soccer team, he's got you covered. He's worked as a content strategist as well as a copywriter, so he's always thinking about the why behind every word and every piece of every campaign.