Naming the no-tears way

Beware the familiar-sounding name.

Over the years I’ve been involved in a number of projects to name products, services and companies. And these projects can go pear-shaped in ways almost too numerous to contemplate, from endless free-for-all brainstorming to unilateral executive decisions  — only to discover later the exec subconsciously found a choice comfortingly appropriate because it was the name of a largely forgotten competitive product.

So I’ve developed a series of steps to avoid the most egregious mistakes while still coming up with a solid name."Hello" badge (not recommended for product branding use) And note that I don’t say the perfect name. No name is perfect out of the gate; it has to be used consistently for a product, service or company that actually delivers what is promised.

How do you get started? Here’s the short four-part version.

1) Set naming criteria. Before brainstorming, before seriously considering any name, take a step back and establish a short list of naming criteria, as few as three to five. Obvious criteria can be general (“sounds active”) or specific (“starts with the letter F”).  The critical part of this step: the criteria must be agreed upon by all the decision-makers in advance.

Criteria can run the gamut. For products or services, some criteria may be that they fit within a product family identity or otherwise take into account a key benefit or marketing/creative requirement. An organization may have different needs.  A boy’s soccer club located near Mt. Rainier might have as naming criteria that a name be active, gender-neutral, and have dual soccer and mountain meaning.

Some standard criteria are that a name is easy to spell, say and remember. But even these don’t have to be requirements, if a name is purposely supposed to be trendy or unusual.

What’s most important is that there are naming criteria. Rules allow focus in brainstorming and something to throw a name against to see if it sticks.

2) Go brainstorm. This is the part everyone seems to understand. However, whether you brainstorm with staff  or with third parties (including customers), make sure everyone has the naming criteria and everyone has a deadline. After the deadline, map each name to the agreed-upon criteria to come up with a list of candidates.

3) Cull candidates. Next, filter the candidate names through a series of sieves.

Existing uses. Find out who else is using the name and for what purpose. Start with a quick search on Google. Ideally, also do a trademark knockout search on a public database. An existing use isn’t necessarily a problem if it’s in a different industry, but you should know before you decide on a final name. And have a complete list of competitors’ company, product and service names and their acronyms on hand– even if your candidate isn’t identical, it’s usually a bad idea to have a name that is confusingly similar. Or so lawyers tell me.

Available domain. See if the Internet domain for your candidate is available by doing a WhoIs database search, ideally with a service that doesn’t register domain names such as DomainTools.com. Seven years ago, when I wrote an earlier naming advice piece for the Software and Information Industry Association, grabbing a related domain name was a nice-to-have. Now it’s a must-have.

Customer reaction. Contact a few customers and prospects, formally or informally, and see how they react to the name. A neutral reaction isn’t necessarily bad; many names only stick after repeated exposure or when placed in the proper context with a physical product or logo. But consistently negative reaction should raise a red flag and make you take pause.

Some organizations may have other culling steps — such as verifying a name meets corporate identity guidelines or absolutely can be protected by trademark — but the above usually apply in all cases.

4) Make the decision. By now you should have a handful of finalist names, ideally no more than three but sometimes as many as five top candidates. All should meet the naming criteria. And they should have passed most or all of the culling steps.

Prepare a bullet point list of pros/cons for each finalist name. These can outline unusual results from the culling process (“really positive reaction from customers,” “exact Web domain available”) and other observations.

If you have the time and budget, prepare simple graphic/logo treatments of each finalist to help the decision-makers visualize how a name might look in actual use.

Now, make the decision. And know you have a backup name or two just in case you hit an unforeseen snag with the chosen name just as you get ready to implement.

Naming can be difficult and contentious. Sometimes even the throw-away names jokingly tossed off in brainstorming can become a finalist. Naming is, after all, a creative activity. By channeling that creativity through a process, you can minimize disagreements over what constitutes a “good” name, and maximize the odds of instead developing the best name for your specific needs.

3 Responses to “Naming the no-tears way”

  1. Bob Jacobson Says:

    Dear Frank,

    I agree with your basic premise, that criteria function as necessary constraints without which brainstorming becomes a meaningless meander. These are the nuts and bolts of collective decision-making.

    However, it would be useful for you now to explain how people come up with names in the first place — how they must reach inside and discover connections and allusions that make it possible to pull out metaphors, similes, and analogies that lead to compelling names. For example, it’s one thing to name a kid Bob, another to name him Thor or Laurence or Victorious. How does one reach deeper? With greater resonance among the target audience?

    The same goes for products, services, and events.

    To me, this is the naming challenge that too often goes unspoken and thus unmet.

  2. Frank Catalano Says:

    Bob: First, you bring up a great point — when all is complete, the name has to work for the target audience. But knowing who the target audience is shouldn’t be a completely limiting aspect in brainstorming, since avoiding names that wouldn’t make sense to a target audience would likely be factored into some of the naming criteria or would be addressed in the later culling phase.

    On one level, the naming criteria build a creative sandbox in which to play with a well-defined boundary. However, the criteria themselves can lead to making connections across criterion; e.g., what word or words means both A and B? So in some respects, just having criteria can provide creative fodder.

    It also helps if you have brainstorming participants who read and experience broadly outside of their industry. I’ve found this really helps my own brainstorming. So organizations should solicit participants of varying backgrounds and levels (if the organization is a large one) or add outside participants. And I still adhere to having not one, but several dictionaries and thesauri at my disposal (including those with archaic words and not just the ones in Microsoft Office or found via Google). These may not have the exact words, but may spur other ideas.

    And you just have to have people willing to think creatively. That’s perhaps the hardest. Sometimes people don’t give themselves permission to be speculative, worried about how it might look. But having criteria can give them a safe sandbox, if they’re willing.

    All in all, the creative process is the hardest part of this to analyze. And I’m afraid if I did it too well, it would become the analog Swiss watch I took apart that I’d never be able to reassemble for my own use.

  3. Lee Wilson Says:

    Great post – one thing I would add is that you should designate one person who makes the final call. They need to be someone who will respect the process you outlined – but in the end I’ve found someone has to “own” the name – either the VP Marketing or CEO. After all the research and testing it will still be a judgement call and you are likely to have someone unhappy with the result.

    Probably better if it is the VP – if it flops the stink won’t adhere to the CEO.