Our naming rules, revisited

We do a lot of naming, sometimes after a company launches a DIY effort, or (worse yet) tries the sure-to-disappoint employee contest gambit, the dismal results of which lead to a renaming effort two years later. We gently remind you of the mantra of every professional outsource:

“Do in house what you do best; turn to pros for all the rest.”

Here are our always-evolving criteria for company and product naming and re-naming:

• It’s better to provoke questions than to answer them all. Memorable and provocative trumps merely clear; functional is forgettable. The best answer to “that name doesn’t completely explain us” is, “Good!”

• If it’s a for-profit company, the name must be available as a .com (not .net, .biz, .tv, .ignore, .crap …) It should also be available on Twitter.

• Names made up from initials are an unacceptable mistake. See this white paper for reasons why.

• Adding “Solutions” is not a solution.

• Easy to spell. Crucial rule of thumb: can you say it over the phone, once, and be clear? Avoid dots, asterisks, numerals, non-standard spellings or puns. Especially no hyphens or underscores. Do you really want to spend the next ten years telling callers, “that’s o-u-r-hyphen-n-a-m-e-dot-com”?

• Easy to remember. Use common rather than obscure words. Rhymes or unexpected imagery will help.

• Easy to type. Shorter is better than longer.

• Check its meaning in the most widely used languages in your market area. You probably don’t want to be saying something rude in Mandarin.

• Should not be geographically limited, unless you intend never to expand.

• Shouldn’t be category limited, either, if you might outgrow your name by expansion, acquisition or new capabilities.

• Must be unique (in the category) when Googled. Self-congratulatory names (Paragon, Pinnacle, Superior, World’s Best _____) are stupid, overused and boring.

• Must be eligible to be trademarked and eventually registered. Combine a clean search of uspto.gov with url ownership to be 90% confident. It’s never 100% at that point, because trademark challenges can come as a sneak attack many months after you file for the mark.

• Must be only as dignified as the market demands … but never “expected” or “ordinary.”

• Does the category permit your naming to be playful, whimsical, irreverent? (Yes for combo meals, no for funeral parlors.)

• Does not need to be “complete” … but does need to engage. Remember, other elements (logo, tagline, brand narrative, tone of voice) also contribute. It’s pure bonus if the name helps convey differentiation.

Obeying every naming rule, which is commendable, difficult* and rare, does not by itself guarantee success. But breaking two or three rules might handicap your brand name for years.

*Difficult, but not impossible. That’s why we earn the medium bucks.

Comments 7

  1. an excellent list of criteria! The only thing I would add it to consider the geographic territory and the languages that the name will need to be used it. (check meanings in other languages)

  2. A good list Bob.

    Pity the folks at NetFlix didn’t have access to your thinking eight months ago when they launched the ill-fated Qwikster.

    Speaking of which, I would add to your list that the name should also be available on Twitter.


  3. Great article – Your naming rules, rules!

    I’d add to watch out for other cultural / language meanings. There is a long history of brand name blunders when not enough cultural or historical research is done.

  4. Good list. I read a couple of your white papers too. Congratulations on finding the time to put your thoughts out there!

    Another point to consider, especially for young companies, is not to use the same name for the product and the company. It’s a common mistake that becomes apparent as soon as you want to introduce a second product!

  5. I recently had a client refuse to hire me to design her logo because she insisted on naming her company with initials that meant nothing, didn’t look good together and were not at all memorable. I explained why I wouldn’t recommend going that route, and even sent her an article to back up my reasoning, she disagreed and went elsewhere. I think that was a good lose!

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