The best names support business success – the worst names help you fail!
Choosing a great name for your company is much trickier than most founders first believe. The best brand names wander into our subconscious unnoticed. They assimilate smoothly into different parts of our lives and take on real meanings, from jumping in an Uber, to going on a Tinder date, to Whatsapping a friend as soon as you get home. But, they don’t just sneak into our sentences, they stick in our minds, and roll off the tips of our tongues, too.
But there is more to a great name than just being memorable. A great name needs to be solid, and offer the right foundation for a company to build upon. In the same way that modern companies need to be agile and optimized for speedy growth and strategic changes, company names need to be strong enough to support a company’s weight, regardless of which direction the enterprise decides to grow in.
And if all of this wasn’t enough, a frequently overlooked factor is the fact that the perfect name needs to be available.
In the early 1900s, you could choose just about any name without running into problems, but considering there have been 6.7 million trademark applications over the last three decades, modern companies really need to bring their teams together and think outside of the box to find names which not only stick, but won’t end up motivating a dreaded cease and desist letter further down the road.
So with this overwhelming list of requirements in mind, how can companies find a name which makes their brand explode, rather than their brains?
1. Know your audience
Considering there are so many existing trademarks out there, fishing something amazing out of the dregs of the word well can inspire some, lets say, interesting name choices. By interesting, we mean terrible.
As such, to avoid choosing a name which bombs, we recommend that brands start on the right foot, by first identifying WHAT they want their name to represent about their brand.
Starting with a clear idea of exactly WHAT message you want to send, and WHO you want your brand to resonate with, will help you first choose a style (Preeminent, Playful, Pragmatic, Modern, Intriguing, or Powerful) which will be the north star to keep you on track through the sometimes long, windy road to choosing a brand name.
For example, if you are selling consumer-based products, and your target consumers are Millennials, or Generation Y or Z, then you have a bit more flexibility to think outside the box with intriguing names like Urban Decay or playful names like Squatty Potty. However, if you are a corporate company aiming for Baby Boomers and above, maybe better to choose something which sounds more classic, like Stone Eagle Advisors or Zenith Capital.
Once you have a clear idea of WHO your target audiences are, and then WHAT you want your brand name to convey to these people, you can then choose a brand name style which encompasses this. After working on more than 18,000 naming projects, we have found that the majority of great names can fit into one of five categories: classic, clever, emotional, experiential, or intriguing. So take a look at your product or service, and your brand mission and values, and work out which bracket your company best fits into.
Once you have decided on a central direction and style, create a one- or two-sentence project statement to keep your naming efforts laser focused. Here are some examples:
- Our company needs something that’s modern and really shows that we’re on top of all the best things in the market.
- Our company needs something that’s descriptive and shows just how unique we are within the market.
- We need a strong name that establishes us as a preeminent solution. However, we also want to stand outside from the standard industry names.
- We need an elegant name that immediately sounds like a high-end women’s fashion brand.
2. Start with the right foundation
Now that you have a style in mind, the next step is to come up with the different ideas and images that you want to convey in your name, which are inherently linked to your brand. Instead of focusing on the descriptive element — i.e., what you sell — we often advise clients to focus on expressing one or two other core concepts which are essential to their brand, their culture and their values.
For example, if you are a food delivery startup, your ideas could convey images of healthy living, ethically-sourced products, or great customer service and quick delivery time. You could also try and sum up some of your brand attributes using big picture ideas and concepts such as reliability, transparency, quality, clarity … the sky’s the limit!
Zappos, one of today’s ecommerce success stories offers a great example of this. The brand began its journey as ShoeStore.com. However, as the company scaled, the founders went back to the laboratory and whirled up Zappos, a modern name which depicts speed but also has links in the Spanish word for shoes, “zapatos.”
But while this caliber of naming comes from a lot of experimentation, at this early stage of the process, less is definitely more. Instead of starting off with a whiteboard resembling a scene from A Beautiful Mind, try to hone your many ideas down to between three to six of the words or themes that are most essential to your brand, and you want your potential customer and partners to immediately associate with you – then move on to the next stage.
3. Know the danger zones
Once you have your style, themes and purpose clear in your heads, then it’s time to get out the lab-coats – and lots of coffee and snacks – and really start experimenting!
But before you start trying out different names, it is important to know which areas to avoid. With so many trademarks, the chance of being able to use a single English word is becoming very slim. The common danger zones are:
- Single English words
- Power words – like Force, United, Omni and Icon
- Symbolic words – like Bridge, Spring, Sage, Rocket
But just because you can’t use one stand alone word, doesn’t mean you can’t integrate these words into something more original. Some of the most successful brand names out there use an interesting mix of real words and phrases to convey powerful messages.
Types of names that allow you to integrate more common English words include:
- Transmutations – Zappos, Zumba
- This & That – Haute and Bold, Crate & Barrel
- Compounds – SnapChat, WordPress
- Phrases – Mechanical Turk, Pliny the Elder
- Visual Story – Ice Mountain, Red Bull
- Blends – Groupon, Instagram
However, while compounds, and transmutations are great, we always recommend our clients to say the words out loud first to make sure they stick within the following three guidelines:
Is the name easy to say? Remember that the end goal of a great brand name is that it is used regularly. The name should roll off the tongue, rather than twist it. We generally recommend clients to limit their names to a few syllables but more importantly test saying the word out loud to make sure it flows.
Is the name easy to hear? We live in the search engine age, so consumers should be able to hear a brand name, and quickly tap it into a Google to find you online.
A good test of this is to do a roleplay in which you call a colleague and ask them, “I’m thinking about choosing [insert name] as our new brand name?” If the person has to ask “What’s the name again?” you should probably reconsider.
Is the name easy to spell? Simple misspelled names such as Flickr, Xero and Lyft are much easier to trademark, but if they are too hard to spell, this could cause problems down the line when people have to search for your brand online. In this case, predictive text and spell checkers could become your online enemy.
Unfortunately, some of the most meaningful names must be scrapped because they are not easy to use.
4. Harness the collective genius, and weirdness!
Considering there have been more than 6.7 million trademark applications, and there are only 171,476 words in the English language, choosing a great new name which is awesome, and also available, requires a lot of creativity. Generally, we have found that brands who harness the collective genius of the crowd, hit the jackpot much quicker.
Once you have whittled your list (from steps one and two) down to three to six different themes/images you want to convey about your brand, and a few different styles which would be appropriate, bring your team together and try out some different brand name types for size.
From visual descriptions to compounds to plays on words to foreign phrases, bringing your team together for a high intensity no-holds-barred brainstorming session will inevitably get the creative juices flowing, and produce some interesting — and some terrible — ideas. But embrace the terribleness!
Encourage your team to contribute the weirdest, and most wonderful ideas that pop into their heads. You will find that the power of the crowd will allow team members knock ideas off each other, and often the most ridiculous suggestion can offer inspiration for the best ideas.
We have found that the collective creative genius of the crowd is especially useful, especially when using more abstract name types such as transmutations, this and that names, and compounds.
Spotify, Bloomio, Grammarly. Over the last couple of years transmutations — using a real word but adding a suffix — have exploded in popularity.
The joy of using transmutations is that companies can include pretty much ANY base word which relates to an element of their product, their service, their industry, their values or their mission. However, having such a wide scope means that it is important to follow a clear process.
Starting with your list of more obvious keywords, themes and ideas, get out the thesaurus, think of slang and use horizontal thinking strategies, to come up with a second, more creative, and unique list of words, based around the same themes. For companies looking for a more modern touch, suffixes io, -a, ify, ity, and ya, are your best bets. For companies aiming for a more classic, sophisticated air, classic suffixes like eus or ian, may well be more suitable.
Snapchat, YouTube, WordPress, Facebook. Compounds offer a relatively simple, but effective means of finding names which have not already been trademarked.
Go back to the base list of words, and themes which your team created earlier, pick out any words which are only one syllable, and then start mashing words together, or making clauses out of other short words you can think of.
These tactics can allow for some really powerful sounding brand names, which sound like global brands rather than mom and pop stores. Think DigitalFuel or GrowthQuest: the only limits are your imagination.
Creating this & that names:
Think Hall & Oates. Doubling up can create some killer combos, that simply might not work on their own.
Generally, the best this & that names do not use descriptive elements related to actual products, or services. We are unlikely to see the next big accessories company brand themselves as Zippers & Leathers, or Patches & Purses.
We recommend clients to focus on exploring both concrete and abstract nouns, and trying a mix of both. For example, Lily and Moon for sleep products startup, or Diamonds and Petals for a wedding planning company. Don’t be afraid to use intriguing, modern, or metaphoric phrases. People love plays on words, and coming up with clever word combos could be a recipe for success.
Later down the line, when your creative geniuses have created a shortlist of potential brand names made from transformations, compounds and this & that words, you should bring on-board a group of impartial judges to help you choose the best of the bunch.
Find a diverse group of people, preferably who are in the same demographics as your target market, then present them with a shortlist of four to seven names that meet your initial criteria. At this stage it is important not to overshare, or influence their decisions. Simply ask the judges which brand they’d be most interesting in learning more about, and to choose the name that most aligns with your core principles. You may be surprised with the results!
So, if you follow these tips, you and your team should be able to come up with a kick-ass brand name that will capture attention, stick in people’s minds, and stand the test of time.
When it comes to naming a brand, fortune favors the brave!
Here’s what these successful companies probably heard when choosing their company name:
- Apple – You can’t name a B2B computer company after a fruit!
- e.l.f. Cosmetics – What are you thinking? An elf is just a silly mythic creature!
- Hulu – Don’t ever use that name! It’s means nothing. No one will remember Hulu.
- Mechanical Turk – You have to avoid long names. Your name’s gotta be short!
Set yourself some guidelines and then experiment the hell out of your ideas to see what sticks. And if you and your team end up firing duds, you can always browse through business name ideas for some inspiration, or work with the naming experts at Squadhelp who can help you move past the roadblocks, and realize real results.