The Myths about Naming your Brand


Five Naming “Rules” You Can Break with Impunity

Spend even five minutes searching for business-naming help and you’ll discover a lot of self-proclaimed experts dispensing free advice. In many cases, those “experts” are entrepreneurs themselves with one or two naming experiences to their credit—unlike professional name developers (me, for example) who’ve named hundreds of companies and products. As a result, much popular advice is of limited value (“Use a name generator”) or utterly untethered from reality (“Allow one day for the naming process”).

Now is the time to set the record straight. Here are five naming non-rules you can happily disregard:

1. “The name has to start with a letter at the beginning of the alphabet”

Tell that to Verizon, Wal-Mart (#1 in the Fortune 500), Wikipedia, Xerox, Yahoo, Yelp, Zappos, Zendesk, Zillow, or Zynga.

This is a very old non-rule with origins in print directories such as the Yellow Pages, where Aardvark Bail Bonds had primacy over Buster’s Bail Bonds. No one is searching alphabetically now, and there’s absolutely no need to restrict yourself to As, Bs, and Cs. In fact, if your biggest competitors’ names are Aero, Ackroyd, Avanti, and Abyss, you’ll stand out by naming your company Windward or Yonder.

2. “The name has to be short: no more than five letters or two syllables.”

Again, there are many examples of companies that have successfully flouted this non-rule: Banana Republic (fourteen letters, six syllables), Travelocity (ten letters, five syllables), even Airbnb (six letters, four syllables). And there are many short, terrible names (remember Thoof?).

Keep in mind that the name is the title of your brand story. Would To Kill a Mockingbird have been more memorable as Mockingbird? (No.) Should a publisher have slashed The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich down to, say, Reich? (No.) With company and product names as with book titles, what matters is evocativeness, relevance, and clarity—not an arbitrary character count. You don’t have to choose between “Crate” and “Barrel”: Crate & Barrel (12 characters, four syllables) tells a more intriguing story.

One exception: if your name must fit into a small physical space—if, for example, you’re naming a small medical device with a tiny nameplate—then a short name is preferable.

3. “The name has to describe what we do.”

The yearning for a descriptive name is often an indicator of inexperience, insecurity, or some combination of the two. It’s also a bad idea.

Descriptive names such as Bargain Domains or Stock Photo “often cannot be trademarked,” writes marketing consultant Marcia Yudkin. “They have little cachet. Because the names are dull, they don’t lend themselves to imaginative branding or design. Their descriptiveness can inhibit growth beyond the specifics in the name.” And they’re easily confused “with similarly descriptively named entities”—eStockPhoto, BigStockPhoto, MyStockPhoto, et al.

The strongest names are suggestive, metaphorical, and evocative. They don’t limit you to a single product or service. Just Tires may have seemed like a great name when the company sold just tires. Now they have to append an apologetic slogan: “There’s more to Just Tires than just tires.”

Yes, your name is the title of your story, but it isn’t your whole brand story. You’ll have other opportunities—logo, tagline, advertising, web content—to provide context and description.

One qualification: Descriptive names can be an appropriate choice for lower-order branding—features and services, for example. For more about descriptive names, see my blog post “The Five Types of Names.

4. “The name has to be a pure dot-com domain—no modifications. And we won’t spend more than $10 for the URL.”

Unrealistic and self-contradictory. Intelligible “pure” dot-coms command prices of five figures or more, and there are many viable alternatives to the traditional dot-com.

For more, read my posts about the explosion of gTLDs and about the advantages of a “tweaked” dot-com.

5. “Everyone has to fall passionately in love with the name. And by ‘everyone’ we mean all of our employees, all of the members of our customer focus group, and all of our friends and relatives.”

Wrong in so many ways—and a recipe for failure.

Name selection should be limited to a small core group of founders or executives—people who are the public face of the brand. Three people is the practical upper limit for this core group. Focus groups—carefully constructed and professional moderated—should be reserved for user-experience testing; your customers have no vested interest in your brand strategy, and are likely to prefer familiar-sounding names to distinctive ones. (For more on this subject, read my post on name-testing.)

Finally, “love” is not an appropriate criterion for name selection. Remember: the strongest names come out of an arranged marriage, not a love match.

About Author

Nancy Friedman

Nancy Friedman, chief wordworker of Wordworking, is a name developer, corporate copywriter, and recovering journalist. She swims in San Francisco Bay, bakes in her Oakland, California, kitchen, and has been known to write rhyming toasts and song parodies to commemorate interesting occasions.


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