What's in a Name?

February 1, 2015

by Forward Branding

At the core of any brand or product is its name. Names are the means by which we identify and categorize the things we experience in the world, the way we tell our friends about them, the way we find them, and the way we remember them. Names are without a doubt the most enduring element of a brand, product or offering, and a key tool to for positioning in competitive packaging spaces.

Naming 101

There are four gut-level things we look for in a good name:

  1. Impact - you have to get noticed to be considered at all.
  2. Memorability - people need to be able to easily recollect your offering. Pronounceability plays a key role in memorability.
  3. Association-building - people need to understand what you're offering and why.
  4. Protectability - you want a name that fends off the "me too's" of the world and clearly stakes out your position in the market.

At best, we find names can only achieve a few of these objectives at a time, so it's very important that we ask and understand what any particular name needs to do and select the type of name that best suits its unique goals. We group names in to three distinct categories, each with its own set of advantages and disadvantages:

  1. Descriptive names speak directly to the heart of the offering, telling consumers exactly what you're selling them. (Bank of America Cash Rewards) These names aren't flashy or exciting, but their overt nature makes little marketing investment required to educate your audience. The downside? Descriptive names are rarely memorable, and are also difficult to own and protect - figuratively or literally. 
  2. Associative names allude to the emotional payoff of your offering, but don't come right out and say it. (Kellogg's SmartStart) These names work well when you're trying to identify value and build positive associations. They also are more ownable and protectable than purely descriptive names. They are not, however, a "quick get" for consumers and can require a lot of resources to make them effective.
  3. Inventive names neither allude to nor come straight out with what the offering is, but instead are intriguing, impactful and easy to say. (Apple iPod) They also tend to be more protectable / trademarkable. The downside? In some cases, they may hinder memorability, plus you need big marketing dollars to explain what it is you're actually selling.

Oftentimes, we see groups getting hung up as they search for a name that says it all. The truth is, no name can. Modifiers and descriptors can help add meaning to a name. (Bank of America Cash Rewards Credit Card, Kellogg's SmartStart Cereals, and Apple iPod Mobile Digital Device) and nomenclature systems can help lend understanding and build associations across various segments or lines of business (Apple iPod touch, Apple iPod nano, Apple iPod shuffle, Apple iPod classic, and now Apple iPhones and iPads).

Finally, don't forget about leveraging icons, tag lines and other branding elements. These handy devices are great ways to say more about the nature of your offering and the benefits it carries.

Get smart on process

Naming isn't easy. In fact, it's one of the hardest things we do. One quick namestorming session never delivers the best answer. It's really not until a third or fourth round of rigorous naming that the real gems reveal themselves. With over a decade of naming experience, though, we've got some things figured out.

  1. Diversity is important. To elevate the robustness of a naming study, we assemble teams with people of varying backgrounds, personalities, strengths, mindsets, and vocabularies. If you're just starting out, be sure to ground your team in the basics of naming and define the unique attributes and benefits of your offering from your audience's perspective.
  2. Brainstorm strategically. Bucketizing name candidates into strategic directions keeps studies organized and digestible.  There's nothing worse than an overwhelming pile of words with no clear structure. It makes review next to impossible. Worse yet are the endless strings of clever puns and wordplays that in no way help you meet your strategic business goals, but always seem to fill the lists of brainstorming sessions we get from struggling clients.
  3. Evaluate objectively and independently. To avoid groupthink and gain consensus among groups, we always encourage that names be considered and scored one at a time and individually. (We use a simple Excel score card with our clients.) Tension or politics can be sidestepped or diffused when "winning" results are automatically compiled and presented further discussion. Remember that if you're looking for a trademark name, your trademark searches will be the deciding factor for which name is the true winner. Trademark searches can be brutal, depending on the saturation of your market and how stringent your lawyers are.

Above all, don't rush. Remember: a name is the most used and enduring element of your brand or product. It needs to be right. And it needs to be prominently displayed.

Brand Development by Design