The writer What makes a good name

What makes a good name?

Your name is the shortest story you’ll ever tell about your brand. And the most important. It’s the world’s first impression of you. Brand names tell people what we’re about – with structure, sound, and a good story to back it up. And of course, distinctiveness and cultural cues to consider. That’s a lot riding on just a handful of letters.

Because it seems so simple, naming is something a lot of brands think they can get away with without much thought, or just by trusting their instincts. But that can be a mistake. There’s a reason we all love an Oreo, but you’ve never had a Hydrox. Here’s what good brand naming looks like from the inside.

What are you naming?

We can name pretty much everything. When you think of it, almost everything has (or can have) a name: brands, products and services, sure – but also things like job titles, big initiatives, team and department names, blog series, and web pages.

We’ve named it all (nearly): business categories, bank features, boats, private investment firms, baby formulas, and even a few actual babies. Each naming situation has its own special considerations, and whether it’s a big new brand or a small service, it’s worth taking the time and energy to do it right.

What goes into a name: time, effort, ideas, and a dash of legal

We start by making sure we fully understand the project, your company, your culture, and your objectives. Then we get to naming. That means drawing up hundreds, if not thousands of options, and winnowing them down until we hit the right strategic and creative fit.

Here’s where legal sometimes requires some painful sacrifices. We work with your team to make sure the names on the shortlist don’t claim anything you can’t, or conflict with any existing trademarks. We might lose a few. If so, it’s back to the brainstorm. All part of the job.

Naming systems: adding clarity to chaos

Maybe your brand has tons of products, each with a name that would make Grimes and Elon Musk smile: X-1aa3, X-1aa4, X-1aa5, etc. Worse, maybe there’s no real structure behind your names at all, and it’s causing confusion for customers (and probably for some of your own people, too).

That’s where naming systems come in. When we do them, we think strategically to establish a rigorous organization schema for complicated product systems, while making sure that the names still feel memorable and on brand. And then we create guidelines to make sure that as your business and product lines grow, you’re set up for naming success in the future. 

It’s an art and a science: remember trochees and iambs?

Allow us to nerd out for a moment. Yes, naming can be a science. For example, there’s a whole field of theory around “sound symbology.” In Christopher Johnson’s book Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little, he talks about how something as small as stressed syllables can make a huge difference in brand perception. Like the difference in impact between two basic metrical units, iambs and trochees.

Iambs consist of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one (ba BUM), while trochees are the opposite – a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one (DUM dee). “Iambs tend to sound lighter and softer, and trochees tend to sound heavier and harder,” he says. Pair that with selective use of either sharp or soft consonant sounds, and you can create totally different effects.

Think of the difference between an iambic name with soft consonant sounds, like “Chanel,” vs. a trochaic name with sharp consonant sounds, like “Black & Decker.” One feels elegant, soft, luxurious. The other bold, confident, and strong. And it’s likely these types of perceptions are hardwired into us – Google the “Bouba/Kiki Effect” if you, like us, love this kind of thing.

Like politics, maybe don’t do naming at the dinner table

Another thing we’ve learned as namers: like politics, people tend to have very strong opinions and gut feelings around names. But those feelings aren’t necessarily a good indication of quality.

Maybe the boss really wants to name a product after his childhood teddy. Maybe a magnificent name reminds someone of a brand in a completely different industry. Or maybe there’s that guy that strongly believes adding -ly to a verb is surefire naming success.

Because naming is often subjective, it’s not always productive to try to balance everyone’s input. We’ve learned we can’t just be “yes people” – when needed, we push back and give you our naming point of view. Because it’s our job to help you find the objectively right name for something, whether that means coming up with 15 names or 827*. 

In short, naming is high stakes, tougher than it looks, a science and an art, and fairly sensitive material. (We’ll admit: it’s quite a lot of fun, too. At least for us.)

Got more questions? A naming project of your own? Let’s talk it over.

*We generated this number of names for a client in 2017. The winner ended up being #562.

0 min read, posted in Naming, by Antoine Loux, on 8 Jun 2021