A Good Name Requires a Plan

A Good Name Require A Plan
When I first started this work, I had a romantic view of naming. I pictured myself sitting around a conference table with earnest colleagues: coffee cups brimming and post-it notes on the white walls. I saw myself in the evening looking pensive with journal in hand. This is not how naming works. Also, I don’t really look pensive. I tend to look confused. My delusion does illustrate a common mistake. When we think about naming, we think about looking for words; we think of brainstorms and bits of paper. That skips the most important step.

A name is a central piece of the brand system. When we choose colors or typefaces, we do it strategically. Yet, often we think the name will “just hit us,” or it will “feel right,” or we will “know it when we see it.” Intuition can play a part, but it should be a small part. To create a great name for you, we have to agree on some parameters. The criteria articulate those parameters in the naming brief.

Here are a few elements we consider with each project:

Most Important Sentence

We start with a distillation of why we are here. Is it to better articulate your culture? Is it to create more loyalty in your customers? Is it building a naming architecture for your products? This is the most important thing for the work to accomplish. It seems straightforward, but without saying it clearly, assumptions can muddle the project.

Summary

Next, we write one to two paragraphs about what you do to make money and where your company is headed. If we don’t understand your organization well enough to do this, we don’t have any business creating names for you. We get to know you like any good ethnographer. We moderate small-group discussions. We create surveys. We host workshops. This is the part of the process that is flexible to meet your unique needs.

Tones

The tone of a name reflects the culture of a company, the desires of the consumer. It reflects the personality of a product. We discover 5-10 tones in our ethnography to guide our name generation efforts. Are you smart like Warby Parker, named after literary characters? Or fun like Skittles? Or both? Are you accessible like Target or exclusive like Hermés? Is your product serious or silly? Established or cutting edge? Small differences in the tone of a word can have a big impact on your brand.

Meaning

The next criterion helps us narrow the sorts of words we are going to be looking for. There is a meaning spectrum ranging from meaningful to obscure to coined. A meaningful name is something like Apple. On day one, the name is established and comes with preconceptions. A name like Nike (a Greek goddess) or Yahoo (characters from Gulliver’s Travels) fit more towards the middle. Some people might know right away that the words have meaning, but many won’t. They are obscure. These names have the familiarity of a meaningful name but leave more room to create a brand narrative. On the far side is a coined name like Skype or Zillow. These names are empty containers. That can be good, but it also can be a challenge. The name gives little hint to what the company does. Where do you want to fall on the spectrum?

Mechanics

This section is nuts and bolts. Does it matter if the name is easy to spell and pronounce? If your customers will have to type, write or say it often, the answer is probably yes. Does it matter that you have a short URL with matching social handles? Does it have to be .com? Remember this can change as you grow. Tesla operated for more than a decade with teslamotors.com until 2016, when it spent $11 million on tesla.com. Twitter started with the shorter but more ambiguous twttr. We will also establish if the name needs to fit into an existing brand architecture. What is it, and what are the restrictions? Apple gets some slack for going from iPhone 8 to X and then to 11. They overcame the confusion (and maybe even capitalized on it) with millions of dollars of advertising. Creating a list of a name’s mechanical requirements will help when it comes time to make the difficult decisions of which names stay and which go.

Preferences

We can have all of the strategy in the world, but everyone has preferences that we can’t ignore. A name might be great, but if it reminds the client of a despised ex-boyfriend or classmate, the name is going nowhere. We all have irrational preferences. It is difficult, but we try to account for those at the beginning of the process. It is easier than getting to the end and killing good names.

Aesthetics

This isn’t technically a criteria but is something we think about throughout the process. It is an umbrella, the yin to the yang, the art to the science of the mechanics section. Some names sound better than others. The right word can have a poetic quality that requires us to approach the job with a poetic sensibility. We pay attention to how a word feels. Can you say it with ease, or is it cumbersome? While always relevant, it is especially important when we create a new name (think Zillow). Or if we make a compound name from two different words. Facebook feels natural where White Claw is a little jarring. We also pay attention to how a word looks. Negative associations aside, Marlboro looks great. SONOS uses the way the word looks effectively. The name looks like sound, like a wave, or an echo. While a little abstract, aesthetics are a key criterion when deciding between comparable names.

Naming is an art with a dash of science thrown in. Like how a dash of salt can make the difference between bland and decidedly delicious. Criteria are the difference between hunting in the dark for something that feels right and soberly deciding between great candidates in the light of day. We want to help you find the name that propels your growth, which helps you realize your vast vision.

Learn more about our naming process in The Naming Book.