What’s in a Name?
On the surface, a good brand name feels like it’s meant to be. It’s clear, concise, and memorable, and it works hard to drive equity – without us even knowing it. Sometimes, it’s just flat-out fun to say. If only the process were as glamorous.
At times, naming a brand can feel deflating. It’s subjective and never straightforward. It requires patience, a thick skin, and an endless well of ideas. And that’s exactly why we love it.
As creative problem-solvers – as creative thinkers – we pride ourselves on believing that no task is insurmountable. And naming is one of the toughest hills to climb. In other words, we’ve done our fair share, we love it, and we’ve learned a lot over the years.
Whether you’re branding a new company or rebranding an existing one, here’s what to consider when it comes to naming.
Start with the basics. Remind yourself and everyone involved that there’s no perfect brand name. Or, in the words of Mike Reed, co-founder of writing agency Reed Words, there’s no silver bullet that “crystallizes everything important about a brand.”
A name should:
- Be authentic
- Be easy to understand and pronounce
- Serve as an entry point to your brand
- Be flexible enough to support a brand architecture
A name can’t:
- Tell your entire brand story
- Do the work of a messaging framework
- Satisfy every possible stakeholder
- Solve every brand challenge
There’s no sugar-coating it: setting expectations isn’t easy. But with everyone on the same page, aware that a name is merely one piece – albeit an important one – of a larger brand strategy, the naming process itself will be that much smoother and the outcome more successful.
Now for the fun part.
People feed off one another. They approach things differently. Start your namestorming by bringing in as many people as possible. Your goal here is to amass a massive list of options, so the more brains, the better.
Remember, it only takes one idea to spark a plethora of new ones, so don’t hold back, and don’t overthink it. Soon, you’ll have your whiteboard (or Google Doc) teeming with options.
Hitting a creative wall? Try thinking inside the box. In this case, that means ideating within the context of familiar naming categories. A quick Google search will produce plenty of examples, but here are some of the most common categories:
These names clearly convey what a company is or does. They tend to be mundane, but they get the point across. (E.g., Bank of America; Whole Foods; Bed, Bath & Beyond)
You guessed it: these names suggest, through evocative or metaphoric language, what a company is or does – with more wiggle room for creative differentiation. (E.g., Pinterest; Uber; Tweed)
These are wholly invented names with no obvious meaning. They’re easier to trademark and, some will argue, more apt to stand out. But fair warning: don’t neglect pronunciation. If it’s hard to say, it’s hard to remember. (E.g., Xerox, Skype, IKEA)
Other categories include founder names, like Ford or Dyson, or acronymic names, like IBM or HP, the latter tending to be evolutions of existing names. And that raises a valid question: if you’re rebranding, does your current name hold any equity? Is it worth preserving a piece? In some cases, the answer is yes.
Take Perley Health, previously the Perley and Rideau Veterans’ Health Centre. We recently rebranded the organization, and while we explored several net-new names, we landed on an evolution.
Colloquially, people had referred to the not-for-profit as “the Perley” for years, and the word “Perley” held some differentiation. But it wasn’t enough by itself. To support business growth, we wanted to establish a sense of industry – which in the Perley’s case means healthcare in all its forms: physical, emotional, spiritual, and social.
This notion of holistic healthcare was also a core brand truth – a unique value proposition – which begs another question: what key pillars or brand themes can you leverage as inspiration? (Remember, naming might be a creative exercise, but it’s equal parts strategic.)
Get used to saying no, because it’s time to narrow down your list.
Weed out the weak, but don’t rush the process. Ideally, give yourself some time to let your options sink in. At first, every name will sound weird, but that’s par for the course. As Doug Kessler, Creative Director at B2B agency Velocity Partners, puts it, “you’re trying to apply something unfamiliar to something very familiar. Invite the unfamiliar to hang out for a while, and let the urge to reject settle down.”
That said, you’ll still need to break out the red pen eventually. Turn your long list into a short list, be critical, and if you’re presenting to a client, aim for categorical diversity to demonstrate your breadth of thought.
Screen for red flags
So, you’ve zeroed in on a handful of contenders. Now what?
To start, try not to get too attached; you still need to do your due diligence. But be prepared for an emotional gamble. (You either win big or get your heart broken. Fingers crossed for the former.)
Here’s your short-list checklist:
- Do a preliminary trademark search: Better yet, get a legal team to quickly deduce any conflict. This is where most of the heartbreak lives – so tackle it first.
- Check for available domains: You might even claim them early.
- Check for available social media properties: You know what to do.
- Check for length: A longer brand name can be harder to process mentally, and while there’s an argument to be made for disfluency, it’s still risky business.
- See how things look: Assess your letter forms. Will they lend themselves to a wordmark?
- See how things feel: Do your names evoke the right connotations? Are they too similar to competitors? (Are you looking to disrupt or fit in?)
- Consider translation: If you’ll need to express your identity in more than one language, ensure it holds up as intended.
- Socialize your options: When you’re too close to a project, a gut-check is paramount.
Go back to the drawing board
Because let’s be honest. It’s bound to happen.
Make the call
As mentioned, naming is a subjective process. Everyone has an opinion, and for those involved, it can feel like editing a piece of writing, or finessing a web design; it’s hard to know when to stop.
At some point, you’ll need to pull the plug on this delicate act of art-meets-science and confidently make a decision. It’s never easy, but wherever you land – most of the time in a great place – remember that a name, on its own, will never do all of the heavy lifting.
Lean into design to bring your brand to life. Embrace storytelling to articulate your company’s value. In other words, set your organization up for success by executing a more comprehensive brand strategy. More immediately, though, take a minute to celebrate.
After all, you just conquered a mountain.