Naming a Brand is Harder Than Naming a Child

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Think about how many business names went in one ear and out the other or made you cringe. Make yours stick.

Stop and smell the baby powder

I’m caught in a tornado of close friends obsessed with babies. They’re thinking about babies, taking care of babies, making babies (not in my presence, thankfully), everything is revolving around these miniature humans. As a twenty-four year old, it’s a cool experience watching these little beings grow and unveil their personalities to their families. But, before these kids were born, their parents had expectations of who they would be. Their desires manifested themselves in the names they gave their children.

Follow me down the rabbit hole for a bit; the names parents choose exemplify the traits they wish to see present in their kids. Notice how no one chooses a name like Judas, Benedict, Jezebel, or Lucifer? Those names have a stigma. The sound of them hitting your ears registers a negative association. Poor kid would be teased until he changed his name at 18 to something less shameful.

If you’re a junior or later down the list of suffixes, it’s likely that your parents place a high value on family and heritage. Peekaboo Street, the famous skier, had parents that admired expression and free-spiritedness. Or perhaps you come from a religious background and your parents named you David after the Israeli king. Why? Because he’s a heroic figure and the name embodies those traits.

As ambitious and wonderful as the associations with these names are, there is still one major flaw in their particularity: the child. Just because you give a child the name Angel, doesn’t mean they will be without fault. In fact it is impossible to make sure the child lives up to the standards embedded in their name. In this flaw is where we find the beauty of naming a brand: you can control whether your brand lives up to its name and the intentions that came along with it. It requires more thought, research, and diligence, but the right name can be a game changer for any brand.

Brand names have power and are your most valuable sales tool

When I say power, I mean capable of shaking the foundations of your company. Your brand’s name is often the first experience of the overall perception that creates your brand. That uniform perception is so powerful that brands spend millions of dollars to ensure that all associations with their name are held to standard. When Elon Musk acquired tesla.com in 2016, he spent upwards of six figures, because the name of his brand is worth that much.

If you watched the Founder, Michael Keaton and Nick Offerman have a scene describing the potency of the McDonald’s name:

 

When I watched this scene, I’m pretty sure I had a brain aneurysm. This sleazy, scummy, backstabber just dropped a massive branding truth bomb and I had to agree with him. Not only do I agree with him, but the numbers show he’s right. There is not one burger chain in the world that is even half the value of McDonald’s ($100B). As Keaton stated, McDonald’s embodies the idea of aspiration and happiness. You can get a burger anywhere, but you get happiness from McDonald’s. Can you imagine if they had called it “Kroc’s?” No one wants to eat at a place that shares the same name as kook-sandals. Whether eating McDonald’s actually makes people happy or not, the perception is still there. It’s intrinsically woven into their colors, imagery, and most importantly, their name.

Effective brand names delight the tongue of brand advocates and ring in the ears of prospective users

An effective brand name makes it easy for loyal customers to tell people about you. In his book, Don’t Call it That, Eli Altman uses a phenomenal scenario of two people at a cloud services expo to showcase this point:

“Hi, I’m Sarah.”
“Oh, hello there.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m the CMO for Omnitau, we make cloud apps.”
“Oh, cool,” says Sarah, maintaining an almost uncomfortable level of eye contact. You return the favor.
“So what do you do Sarah?”
“I work for Klipspringer.”
“What’s Klipspringer?”
“It’s a relative of the antelope that lives in the African grasslands. It can jump 15 times it’s height to see predators above the tall grass.”
“Ha, cool.”
“Yeah, we do cloud analytics. It’s easy to get caught in the weeds. We jump over all that stuff and look at everything from a higher level.”

Mic drop. You will never forget the name of her company or what they do. Klipspringer has literally no connection to cloud analytics, but it is a freaking showstopper. That’s the beauty of stellar, different brand names. I guarantee that the CMO of Omnitau ran into the following companies after her interaction with Sarah: Cloud X, Dental Cloud Systems,, Executive Cloud Solutions (ECS), Creative Cloud Experts, and a myriad of other sucky monikers that went in one ear and out the other. Klipspringer tells a story. It’s a name people want to repeat and tell their colleagues about.

Word of mouth isn’t considered as much in the digital world we inhabit, but the greatest evangelists for your brand is not a Facebook ad. It’s real people. People who love your brand and want to tell others about it. Do them a favor and provide them with a name that doesn’t make them sound boring.

Effective brand names support a perception

Chris Farley has a poignant line in Tommy Boy. While speaking with a waitress, he asks her what her name is and she replies, “Helen.” He responds with, “That’s nice, you look like a Helen.”

Tommy Boy and naming your brand
Image courtesy of random google search

Is he right? Maybe. The point stands that it is possible for someone to fit the name they are given and it’s a necessity for brand building. Let’s go back to the example of children’s names and pretend like we are trying to name three boys whose parents have specific goals for them:

Parent #1:

I want to give my son an athlete’s name. He’s going to grow up to be football star and make the All-American Team. Soon after, he’ll be drafted by the NFL and we’ll watch him play every Sunday. Conquest and victory will echo his footsteps. My spouse and I have narrowed our selection down to these three names: Aldus, Connor, or Ricky. Which one is the most athletic?

Parent #2:

I want to give my son an intellectual name. He’s going to grow up and go to Harvard, definitely on a scholarship. It won’t be much longer after he graduates that he opens his own firm, and gives lectures as an alumni. His brilliance and intellect is his strong suit. My spouse and I have narrowed our selection down to these three names: Aldus, Connor, or Ricky. Which one is the most intellectual?  

Parent #3:

I want to give my son a comic’s name. He’s going to grow up and make people laugh. After dropping out of college to do stand-up full time, we speculate he will join Dave Chapelle on a US tour. His entire life will be defined by putting other people in stitches, even at the most ridiculous and outlandish jokes. My spouse and I have narrowed our selection down to these three names: Aldus, Connor, or Ricky. Which one is the most comedic?

“I just see names,” you might say. How do we know which name objectively embodies the perception we are looking for? Research and fit the desired perception.

Aldus is a German name which translates to “old one, or elder.” It is also shared by Aldus Manutius, the italian scholar who helped found the Aldine Press, one of the first mass printers that distributed information around the world. Even the sound of Aldus connotes a strong, wise, and intelligent character.

Connor is a Gaelic name derived from Coachuhhar, meaning “strong-willed,” or “hound-lover.” Connor sounds like someone who wants to win, who spends time sharpening his skills. The name is also shared by alpha-males Conor McGregor (UFC Champion) and Connor Murphy (Male Model/Fitness Enthusiast/Influencer). Phonetically, the name registers a rough-and-tough persona, there is nothing soft about it.

Ricky is short for Richard. Clearly, it is a better nickname than Dick (the other shortened version of his full name), which gives Ricky a great icebreaker when meeting new people. Ricky shares his name with other entertainers like Ricky Gervais and Ricky Harris. The name sounds like someone who wears a hawaiian shirt to a wedding because it’s hilarious. He’s the guy who can find humor in anything, and isn’t afraid to ride the line for a good laugh.

These names are not perfect. However, when compared with one another, there are better options pending the circumstances and desired outcomes. Aldus could be an athlete, but Connor is better. Connor could be a comedian, but Ricky sounds more entertaining. The best option aligns itself to the goals these parents had. In the same light, the best brand names align themselves to the strategic goals of the organization.

What makes naming a brand difficult?

I have watched my parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and now some of my closest friends go back and forth for months about what name to give their child. That’s not abnormal either. Two friends of mine decided on their son’s name as he was being delivered. What’s striking is that this also happens in brand naming. The stretch between incepting names quickly and over an extended period of time is vast. Have you ever heard of Blue Ribbon Sports? How about Dimension Six, Peregrine, or Bengal? Probably not, but all of these steps eventually got Bob Woodell and Phil Knight to land on Nike.

That’s right. Between 1964 and 1971, the athletic behemoth was called “Blue Ribbon Sports,” and was almost called Dimension Six. At least until Phil Knight came across an article detailing the significance of Xerox and Kleenex’s names and decided to pick something shorter. That’s seven years before landing on the name we all know! Seven years of not being able to solidify a name.

Much like establishing the parameters for an effective logo, strategic goals need to be in place when developing a brand name. Brands need to have a firm grasp of what they stand for, who they serve, and what they want to communicate. Generating a brand name is labeling a perception you want your target consumer to feel. Without objective goals, the name falls victim to subjectivity and stays in limbo.

How to strategically name your brand

Develop a brand strategy

This is the headwaters. Describe the feelings you want associated with your brand and the beliefs it will foster. Get in tune with the needs of your target consumer and construct the persona of your brand to solve their problem. You need to have a framework for the name to align itself with.

Brainstorm and research

Get hectic with your ideation. Starbucks got its name from Moby Dick, Steve Jobs came up with the name Apple after working an orchard for six months, Xerox is practically gibberish, nothing is off limits at this stage. Notice how these names have absolutely no direct correlation to the service or products provided, but they are awesome. You never know where that zinger of a name will turn up. Stay observant. You can always remove options as you go.

Differentiate

Nike almost named itself Bengal, so as to compete with Puma. Not a whole lot of difference there and the slew of big cat confusion would’ve tanked the company hard. After establishing some ideas, survey the playing field and kick competition aside. If your name sounds exactly like a competitor’s, it will be hard for people to remember you.

Due diligence

Don’t copy someone else, you will get busted. Use the US Patent and Trademark Office to see which of your best ideas are available. A basic word mark search should do the trick. Cross reference the available names with digital vacancies as well (URL, social handles, etc.). You can play with these, and most users are understanding if your URL doesn’t match your name. Remember, Elon Musk didn’t own tesla.com for years. Don’t let a URL hinder your creativity.

Test it

Gather some of your fans and get feedback, but be weary of subjective answers. You are trying to match a desired perception, not please everyone. Pose questions like “which of these names makes you feel the most healthy, why?” Do not ask, “which one do you like?”

You’ll end up with a vanilla name.

Read these books

Zag by Marty Neumeier and Don’t Call it That by Eli Altman. These are amazing resources for developing striking brand names. I highly recommend them.

This article was not intended to help you name your baby.