The Anatomy of a Great Name

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The Anatomy of a Great Name

Reading Time: 5 minutes
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Have you ever met a child with a ridiculous name and thought, “What kind of parents would name their kid Zebulon?” Poor guy is being set up for a lifetime of teasing and spelling clarification, which is exactly the reaction you want to avoid if you’re bringing a product or service to the market. If you want your startup or burgeoning enterprise to grow up to be as successful and recognized as a Nike or a Rolex, you’ll want to start with the foundation of your brand — the name.

Most iconic brand names aren’t happy accidents — there’s a creative algorithm that agencies and big product teams use to generate them. Even if you decide to hire a specialized naming firm, it will be helpful to know what makes a great name and what could set you up for failure (can you say Edsel or Nova?).

Not all brand names are created equal, but if yours can optimistically answer these five questions, you have a better shot at becoming a Facebook someday.

First things first, can you legally claim your brand name? Falling in love with a name and then realizing it’s already trademarked is like craving ice cream that you hid in the back of the freezer, only to get home and discover that your spouse already ate it. Before you order custom shirts with your new brand name, do a search on the United States Patent and Trademark Office website to make sure it’s available. Better yet, hire a trademark attorney who can help you navigate this tricky process and help you secure a legally available and defensible name.

Example: The Beatles founded several companies, including Apple Corps and Apple Records, and they were not happy when Steve Jobs named his company Apple Computers in 1976. They sued him for trademark violation in 1987 and settled when Jobs promised that Apple Computers would never enter the music industry, but iTunes broke that rule in 2003. They settled once again after Apple Computers agreed to change its name to Apple Inc. and agreed to license certain trademarks back to Apple Corps, a lucky break for Jobs. He could afford these lengthy legal battles — most of us can’t.

2. Is it easy to understand?

People are drawn to names that immediately make sense, like Saladworks, WebMD or QuickBooks. These names come packed with meaning and reduce the barrier to comprehension and recall — something that can help you build a long-term brand. Comprehension (or lack of it) is why abbreviations and acronyms can make bad names, especially for brand-new companies or products. Why? Because abbreviations by themselves have no inherent meaning and, as such, do little to communicate any abstract or concrete attributes about your brand.

Example: Even if you had never heard of Netflix before, the root words make it pretty obvious that it’s an online video streaming service (net = internet, flix = flicks, as in movies), and it’s way more interesting than “Movie Stream” or VSS, which is a faceless, feckless abbreviation of Netflix’s core offering.

3. Is it short?

There’s a reason why phone numbers are seven digits long — they’re easier to remember. The same logic applies to names, which is how the law of three syllables came about. If you limit your name to three syllables or less, it will be easier to say, easier to read and easier to remember. And, yes, we know there are exceptions (Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, Barnes & Noble Bookseller, Liberty Mutual Insurance Company), but notice that the human brain will always attempt to shorten these (hello, B&N), so why not do the work from the beginning and make sure that you remain in control of your brand.

Example: Nike, one of the most iconic brands in the world that evokes feelings of determination, triumph and power, almost had a lot of lame (and long) names. Founded by Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman in 1964, the company originated as Blue Ribbon Sports (BRS), a U.S. distributor of Japanese running shoes. In 1971, BRS attempted to launch their own line of shoes under a new name, and on a tight deadline. 24 hours.

It was the night before their first big shipment, the shoe boxes hadn’t been printed yet, and they had no name. Thankfully, they already had their now-famous swoosh logo, but mediocre names like “Dimension Six” and “Peregrine” (a type of falcon) and “Bengal” began to swirl around. BRS’s first employee, Jeff Johnson, went to sleep that night pondering names, and awoke at the crack of dawn with a revelation: Nike, the Greek winged goddess of victory. Neither founder liked the name much, but Johnson talked up how it needed to be short (two syllables) with an exotic sounding letter (k, z, or x), like successful Kleenex and Xerox. They defaulted and went with Nike since they had nothing better, and lucky for them, a legend was born.

4. Is it memorable?

A great name forms an emotional connection that taps into your audiences’ mood memory. When that happens, consumers will associate your brand with whatever you want them to feel — happy, sporty, smart, clean, practical. It should also be expressive while holding on to a little bit of mystery.

Example: It’s hard to think of a world before Starbucks, but perhaps that’s because the coffee retailer decided, from its inception, to choose a name inspired by Starbuck, the first mate in Moby Dick, which in turn inspired the siren featured in the logo. Legend has it that Starbucks founder Howard Schultz considered naming his company Pequod, after the name of the ship that carried Ahab’s sailors on their ill-fated hunt for the white whale, but eventually settled on the now-famous brand name that is at once memorable and mysterious.

The Naming of BlackBerry

BlackBerry was almost named PocketLink or MegaMail — definitely not as catchy. Thankfully, big-name firm Lexicon Branding had a few people on their staff who were able to see beyond the obvious. This 1998 PDA/Smartphone combo from Research in Motion (RIM) was the first of its kind with a wee little keyboard, making it desirable for businessmen and bigwigs who sent a lot of email. The team at Lexicon held a few brainstorming sessions and came up with hundreds of possibilities until someone happened to mention that the keyboard reminded them of the skin of a fruit, and the name grew from there.

Strawberry came to mind, but someone raised the concern that strawberry is spoken too slowly, while the device is instantaneous. Other fruits floated around, until they landed on blackberry—the color and texture matched that of the fruit AND the phone. The decision wasn’t instantaneous, but RIM finally settled on BlackBerry with two capital Bs because the letter is supposedly reliable across many languages. The name worked, and RIM found so much success in this one product that the execs decided to rebrand the entire company to be called BlackBerry in 2013.

5. Does it leave room to grow?

Even if you’re only selling to a niche market right now, avoid being too specific and give your brand the option to expand in the future. Avoiding niche names does not mean you have to be abstract, though. Consider field-focused references over a product-exclusive position — think school supplies vs. pencils, pet food vs. cat food, fruit vs. oranges. Be broad and optimistic.

Example: Amazon started out as one guy (Jeff Bezos) selling primarily books out of his garage, but the name didn’t really have anything to do with books. Bezos chose Amazon because it made him think of enormous, and the company is now the world’s largest online retailer.

As always, there are exceptions to the rule, but we can’t all be a Google or 3M. If the name of your product or service meets these requirements, you could be on your way to building a brand with staying power. If not, you might need to head back to the drawing board. After all, Blackberry wasn’t named in a day. A few other tips and tricks:

  • Try alliteration (Charming Charlie)
  • Use rhyme (Laffy Taffy)
  • Alter real words (Infiniti)
  • Make sure it sounds good out loud
  • Use a name that has meaning to your core audience
  • Check for and avoid embarrassing spelling in other languages

As a strategic communications agency serving science- and R&D-driven organizations, we specialize in highly technical markets where complex ideas and information must be conveyed with clarity. Our team includes writers, designers, strategists and content architects, all working together to help you reach — and engage — your internal and external audiences.

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