Why most company & product names suck and how to make sure yours doesn’t

When you want feedback on your outfit from other fashion-oriented people, would you go to “Fashism”? Especially if, as the website and app said, you were “New To Fashism”?

Perhaps because fashion-forward women didn’t identify with Mussolini, Hitler or Stalin, this Ashton Kutcher-Demi Moore-backed startup performed as well as their marriage.

But if you think this is unique to tech — or to any company or product — think again. That’s because naming your company, product or service is hard.

Terrible names, ones that have nothing to do with your brand, are embarrassing or are unpronounceable, are more common than great ones. Why? A combination of trusting “naming experts” who are clueless; ignorance; narcissism; and hubris.

As for the feature photo: appetizing, isn’t it? Not only that, but Herpes offers free delivery!

Very often the founder(s) of a business insist that their own name — or a name they’ve created out of thin air — is the best. For example, and to protect the guilty, here’s a name that I’ve slightly modified from the original: Bestcof. What is that? Well, it’s the “best coffee.” This name has many problems but the worst one is that it has a hard “c” sound immediately after a “t”: try saying that. I told one of the founders (who admitted that no one had any idea what the name was when they heard it nor could anyone spell it) that you simply couldn’t have such terrible phonology (that’s the linguistic term for how something sounds).

Later on, I discovered that MIT had done a study which found that “tc” was the hardest letter combination to pronounce in the entire English language! But the other founder insisted that this had to be the name because he had conceived of it. End of story. Well, end of company. They don’t exist today.

How many times have you said to someone else, “There’s this great company/product/service, but I just can’t remember what they’re called!”? And even if you come up with a great name, selling it is harder.

Did you know that the  Swiffer was almost called EZMop and the BlackBerry EasyMail?

That’s because words like easyEZsimplequalitybestkidskidztechtek are familiar and comforting. Which is why they suck and why many of your colleagues will stridently oppose the great names. So how do you get a great name and sell it? I’m going to show you exactly how I do it.

1. WHAT YOU SHOULD NEVER DO

  • DON’T ever use a name generator. Computers don’t understand linguistics well enough, let alone branding. 50 names are 10 times worse than 5 names. Consider “naminum”, a worse-than-godawful name itself (I’m only picking on them because their own name is so bad: name generators are inherently terrible). You don’t want long lists of meaningless words. You want someone who has the wisdom to give you a few great choices–or you may as well do the work yourself.
  • DON’T vote on names. The people voting have no knowledge of linguistics or branding, so what happens? They choose what they personally like, not because it has anything to do with the business, not because anyone will remember it, not because it is evocative, not because it works.

Naming is not a democratic process. I have seen more horrible names from the “winner” via SurveyMonkey or votes around the executive committee table than through any other so-called process.

  • DON’T confuse yourself and your own preferences with those of your target audience. I despise mayonnaise. If I were to name a mayonnaise product according to my personal tastes, I’d call it Nature’s Emetic. Not a good idea! The people buying the mayonnaise are aficionados.

Substituting your own preferences for those of your target market is deadly.

  • DON’T go generic. If I want to name a new plumbing company, Sewer Rats is pretty cool. Quality #1 Plumbing is an absolute failure because it is absolutely generic, unmemorable, unremarkable, unbrandable, etc.
  • DON’T ignore intellectual property. I can’t tell you how many people have come to me saying: “I have this name, but I can’t use it.” You have to check domains. You have to check trademarks (and if you don’t understand how trademarks actually work, you won’t know how to do this — trademarks apply to different classes and the mere existence of a mark doesn’t mean you can’t use it). You have to do a google search on your name just to see what comes up. I know someone who came up with a name for a kids’ site (it was legitimate and completely G-rated, although the name was horrible). It turned out that, disturbingly, the name had already been used by a pedophile. A simple Google search would have revealed this. If you intend to go global with the same name (not always a good idea), you may need to check European, Asian and other databases, too.

2. LOVE YOUR ATTRIBUTES

  • Identify the attributes that describe your business, product or service. There are two types of attributes, positive and negative, elaborated further on below.
  • Get buy-in from all decision-makers on the attributes. The attributes, not the name! This is essential. And it shouldn’t be hard. Many of the attributes will have come from these decision-makers. The attributes aren’t controversial, because they aren’t names. They’re adjectives, adverbs and associated phrases.
  • Positive attributes are what you actually are and what to be perceived as. They could be things such as: cool, avant-garde, fast, predictable, wild and crazy, conservative, politically left, politically right, happy, melancholy, uplifting, smart, advanced, retro, sophisticated, chic, everyday, blue-collar, security, enterprise, SMB, high-tech, old-fashioned, calm, adrenaline rush, male, female, old people, teenagers, trustworthy, edgy, etc.
  • Negative attributes are things you do never want associated with your name. For example, speedy is not an attribute you want associated with brain surgeons. Precise and careful and exacting would be more appropriate. In other words, know what you are and what you are not.

3. NAMES THAT GOT GAME

Now it’s time to come up with candidate names. Or have your naming consultant or agency do this – because this is the hardest part by far. If you don’t love words and linguistics or have an ability to associate, relate, employ metaphors and allusions and to be brutally honest in your assessments, this may not be for you.

Magic, ideation and imagination – as well as research – play key parts. In some cases, a created word may be best; in many others, a portmanteau (a blending of two existing words: e.g., Facebook and Snapchat) or a portmanteau-like name, e.g., Pinterest (which deletes the doubled “in”) or Instagram (which is really a portmanteau based on prefixes and suffixes) can be very effective.

Remember that attributes are properties of names, but they’re not names themselves. You’re ultimately going to end up with some number of candidate names.

I prefer just two or three myself. But I’ll usually add a couple of extra ones in, even ones I don’t especially like. You’ll see why soon.

I have three sets of broad criteria that I use to see if a name’s got game:  Linguistic CriteriaBranding Criteria; and  Intellectual Property (IP) Criteria.

  • Linguistic criteria include: phonology (how it sounds); how easy it is to pronounce (phonology); how easy it is to spell; how quickly can you say the name (if it takes a long time or is difficult to speak, it’s a bad name); whether the name includes a substring that includes an epithet or an obscenity (happens more often than you think); memorability (linguistically — for example, Lississippi is a terrible name, but because it is just like Mississippi, it’s pretty easy to remember; whereas Grandiloquent, while a perfectly legitimate word, is too obscure and complicated for anyone to remember correctly).

Jay-Z is a lot easier to remember than Shawn Corey Carter (his real name). It’s also tougher and more “street,” both essential attributes for his business. If he’d been an investment banker at Goldman, Jay-Z’s card would have read “S.C. Carter.”

  • Branding criteria include: metaphorical and other strengths which make the name useful in marketing, advertising and promotions (e., does the name have multiple meanings that you can play on or is it one-dimensional?). Using this advertising criterion, Good Plumbers is an ”F” but Sewer Rats is an “A”; memorability (in terms of brand); close association with key attributes; distance from negative attributes; and evocativeness. Why the last?

If a name is not evocative, it conjures up nothing and is rendered lifeless, dead. If a name is evocative but wrong, you’ll eliminate more than half of your market. Mr. or Ms. Hooker may be the nicest, most caring person on the planet, but that’s not going to help them here.

  • IP criteria include: trademarkability, domain name availability, and the results of a Google search. You need to know if the name is available; owned by someone else but able to be purchased; or impossible to obtain (either because the owner won’t sell it or because their price is outrageous).

4. THE MATRIX (the naming process, not the movie)

Now comes the easy part — because you’ve already got buy-in on the attributes. Or perhaps it’s not so easy. After all, how could anyone in the world have thought that when you hear “ChubbyBrain,” you immediately think “Oh, yes, the funding recommendation engine!” But someone did.

  • Create a matrix using a simple spreadsheet. In each row, you place a candidate name (and if someone insists on a terrible one, that’s ok – put it in!). In each column – and this needs to be a pretty wide spreadsheet – you put in every single linguistic, branding, and IP criterion. Each positive attribute and each negative attribute is itself a separate criterion. Remember that there’s no disagreement over what’s in the rows or in the columns.
  • Grade your names. You’ll find that, since you haven’t agreed on attributes, this is hard. But if you have – if you’ve got that magic buy-in – it’s easy. If you’re forming a new bank for conservative retirees, do you think that Mountain’s Edge Bank reflects the attribute of low risk? Of course not. No one will think that or argue for it.

Suppose you’re creating a new security-based company and want to call it  Freebird? Even the most ardent Lynyrd Skynyrd fan won’t endorse that because “security-based” and “freebird” are clearly at odds. Instead of that person’s saying, I love  Freebird because “it’s a great name,” they’ll say “I love the name, but it doesn’t work for us.”

  • Once you’ve got every name graded against every criterion, you could simply use a decision-based scoring system, although I personally don’t believe in that. It’s fine to generate a weighted score (beyond the scope of this post), but a 90 doesn’t necessarily beat an 86. There may be other considerations. I can guarantee, however, than a 90 will beat a 40. The terrible, ineffective, boring names will sink to the bottom and the great names, if any, will rise to the top. Best of all, everyone will agree.

5. EXCEPTIONS THAT PROVE THE RULE

Now, some of you may be thinking, “But what about successful companies with crappy names?” For every Oracle, there’s a Microsoft. For every Wells Fargo, there’s a First Community Bank of Podunk (CFBP). For every Method or Tide, there’s a … well, in pure CPG, it’s harder to think of terrible names that endured, isn’t it? Consumers are tough.

When the names are bad, the companies succeeded in spite of them, not because of them. After all, there are also successful companies with mediocre products.

On the other hand, there are also failed companies with great names.

BlackBerry isn’t on thin ice because of a bad name; it’s because the company didn’t adapt to smartphones until too late. BlackBerry didn’t understand the market, the same reason that original billion-dollar-dot-commer Webvan failed. Even good-to-great names won’t save you if you can’t bring your product to market or meet an actual consumer or business need.

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