What’s in a Name?


The art and science of naming

Naming things is not easy. It's a science, and an art. We need to think about the meaning of the word and the sound, what it evokes and how it rolls out.

At the same time, we factor in the business objective, the nature of the challenge (e.g., do we want to stand out in a competitive, noisy market? Or blend in a network that needs us?), and cultural assumptions (e.g., are we global or local?) 

It's your baby

Naming a business is sometimes more challenging than naming our own child–I know the feeling, the business is your baby. In fact, many spend more time coming up with a company name than they did picking a name for their child. 

Though we have some things in common, we tend to think differently about business, ideas, marketing, and selling based on experience and point of view. The way we classify people in our own mind for later retrieval depends on:

  1. what they communicate about their brand and business,
  2. how we look at the world.

As a linguist, I've been involved in naming new products and services as well as rebranding old ones throughout my career. 

What kind of name?

In addition to the communicative potential and audience, there are many considerations that go into naming a company, product, or service:

  • emotional resonance–what does it feel like?
  • identity and associative potential–who are we and whose company do we keep?
  • verbal and visual appeal–how (easy/unique/surprising/interesting) is it to represent?
  • sound–is it easy to pronounce? How about it, Alexa/Siri/Cortana?
  • attractiveness–does it have a natural flow?
  • competitiveness–does it stand out? Is it memorable?

Depending on your strategy, we might want to go counter the rest of the industry, or fit in, say we work with the system. Do we want to sound highly scientific, or very familiar? Are we relevant, yet unexpected or aspirational? Do we need to convey credibility or fun? 

Whether we're inventing something new, or our goal is to stand out in a market that has low consumer interest there are legal considerations:

  • online presence–is the URL available?
  • trademark issues–is someone else using the name? What industry/application?

Pick a category

Each naming strategy has pros and cons. Pick something too original and people won't ever remember what you do. Choose a descriptive name, and you may not be able to trademark it, or you get lost in a sea of similar-sounding names. It may also be harder to represent visually.

Or maybe you're choosing a name that doesn't fit the culture–and becomes difficult to associate with the industry. It happened in a real company, before I joined. Then it becomes expensive to establish your brand in the appropriate circles. At the same company, we named a product with much success and longevity. 

Regardless of the category you pick, the more distinctive a name, the easier to protect legally, with a trademark. Here are some categories that classify types of names for companies and products:

  • descriptive names describe what's on offer–American Airlines, E*Trade, YouSendIt, FlatRate Moving, Cartoon Network, Whole Foods
  • metaphorical language compares seemingly unrelated subjects –Target, Jaguar, Patagonia, Nike, Amazon, Caterpillar
  • suggestive names suggest an attribute, useful for positioning–Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Groupon, Pinterest, Bean Around the World, Perfumania, OpenTable
  • historical and founder focus on the equity of a brand heritage–Tesla, John Hancock, Johnson & Johnson, Ralph Lauren, Ben & Jerry's, Martha Stewart, Mrs. Fields, H. J. Heinz Company, Ford Motor Company
  • arbitrary are real words used out of context, most defensible legally require more budget to establish–Virgin (airline), Apple (tech company), Shell (oil company), Quaker (food company), Kayak (travel site)
  • neological are new words–Accenture, Prius, Xerox, Kodak, Dasani, Clorox, Zynga
  • acronyms and conjoined names, which join two words–UPS (United Parcel Service), MTV (Music Television), IBM (International Business Machines), AT&T (American Telephone & Telegraph), FIAT (Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino) and joining two words–FedEx, 
PayPal, 
Coca-Cola, MetLife
  • geographical–Nantucket Nectars, Arizona Tile, New York Life

In many industries, generic names work to identify white label products–crackers, yogurt, cookies, etc.–when they represent the actual item on the shelf, rather than a company in a different industry, as we've seen above.

Online, some companies tried to put a stake in the ground and own a market segment–like Hotels.com or Booking.com–by picking the most common word for its name. It's smart to look for a word that has room for flexibility (no pun intended).

Tell your story

Sometimes one of the criteria is that the team or founders like the name. 

A great name that fits a business purpose is the first step in the design of a conversation with its market. We look to go beyond aesthetics– is there brand story and design potential? Here we consider aspects that touch on tone, industry, audience, and a certain dose of “x-factor.” 

What adjectives would you use to describe the brand? For example, competent, efficient, thought-trough for a technical environment. Then we drill down, in which ways are we each of these characteristics?

What industry bucket do we want to fill? Who are the main customers, what adjectives would we use to describe them? Then what makes the product, service, or company unique? 

These are all elements and actors in the story we tell.

Sometimes the need to tell a new story about a company or product can drive a desire to rename. The brand that has run out of juice. More frequently, a company name is not the problem, but its representation—does the company logo need upgrading to compete in the industry? Have we told our story fully? Are we addressing the concerns and questions of the right audience?

Maybe the name is fine, but a new tagline that is more specific would tell a more powerful story. Or maybe the brand and tagline are fine, but the brand voice has not kept up with the times and trends. 

Good words need a good context around them to build the story. You can strengthen or dilute a brand based on how you package it—how you talk about a company, is as important as what you want to say.

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As for naming babies, there's a whole separate literature about that. I named both my sisters, and I'm happy to report that they were excellent names that serve them well to this day.

Sometimes we're born with a certain name, often we grow into them. As a flyer with the ability to see and sense the future, naming is in my wheelhouse.

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