Trying to name your new business?
Here’s how to do it like a pro
If you’re a business owner, start-up launcher, or marketing professional, chances are you’ve found yourself with the difficult (yet highly rewarding) task of naming a business, service, product, campaign, or other initiative. Things need names for several reasons. Names give us a common vernacular for which to refer to an item or concept. They lend gravitas – creating differentiation between one thing and another. But maybe most importantly, names – wonderful names – evoke a feeling about a product or service, creating an instant positive impression. Good names create meaning or a story that people remember.
We like to say that a great name will do the work of a million dollars worth of advertising. But what makes one name better than another? Why are some catchy and others forgettable? Why do some feel unnatural or forced, while others roll off the tongue with ease?
Naming is not easy. But it doesn’t have to be extremely difficult either. As a full-service branding agency, we consider naming our favorite assignments and love guiding clients through the process.
This resource is designed to help you understand the naming process if you’re trying to tackle it yourself, the hallmarks of a good name, and some insight into name architecture. It can’t replace the experience of working with a team of naming professionals, but it can give you enough guidance to get you started if you want to take on the process yourself or help you understand what’s involved when working with a naming agency.
By the end of this article, you’ll likely understand the following:
- The multiple jobs a name needs to do
- Qualities of good names
- Common constructs and practices
- Naming architecture
- Selection and decision criteria
- How to create a successful naming brief
Ready? Let’s start naming!
Running a successful naming project
Before beginning, think through and capture the following items. Laying the groundwork at the outset will not only improve the final output (your new name!), but also reduce the complexity and stress of the process itself.
- Project definition [what are you setting out to accomplish?]
- Audiences [who does name need to speak to?]
- Differentiation [what competitors, market forces, or cultural norms do you want to stand out against?]
- Requirements [does this name have to align with existing brand elements?]
- Desired positioning & personality attributes [what do you want your name to sound like?]
- What emotions must it generate?
- Deliverables [are you creating a standalone name, a family of names, or a naming system?]
Understanding the fundamentals of naming
What can a humble name create for your brand or service?
That’s a lot of responsibility for a name, that’s why so much effort and consideration needs to go into the process.
Qualities of great names
- Magnetism: captures interest, creates buzz
- Enduring: flexibility preserves relevancy
- Evocative: creates images in our minds
- Appropriate: connects to brand
- Sonorous: pleasurable to pronounce
- Ownable: trademarkable IP
- Pronounceability: easy to say and spell
Names gone bad
Why do we feel these names fall short? It might be that they have foundational issues – don’t accomplish the primary goals of telling people what you stand for, what you do, or why you’re the right choice.
Or, they may have creative issues – they sound weird, give off the wrong impression, aren’t ownable, or sound cheesy.
- Undefined brand connection.
- Uncourageous: No risk. No reward.
- Myopic: Lacks broader perspective.
- Good concept. Bad execution.
- Skipped the homework.
Wall of shame
- Cadabra: Amazon’s original name, creates ambiguity with meaning.
- Bulldog Painting: painting requires finesse, not brute strength. We wouldn’t want these guys working in our home.
- McDATA: while we get what they “serve,” it evokes a sense of cheesiness. And it feels lazy to borrow so blatantly.
- Pee Cola: a brand from Ghana which must have a very different meaning there.
- Unique Dental: in addition to being un-ownable, dentistry is an area where you want your smile to look like everyone else’s, not a one-of-a-kind result.
Let’s define the namescape
Just like brand personalities, there are many types of names:
- Descriptive [SilverCar, Whole Foods, KitchenAid] Evocative [Izon, Lucky, Bon Ami]
- Invented [Pixar, Trex, Virgin]
- Lexical [Drink Pink, Garden of Eatin’, Lulu Lemon]
- Acronyms [BMW, RAND Corporation, 3M]
- Geographic [Boston Market, Texas Roadhouse, American Express]
- Founder [Ben & Jerry’s, Levi Strauss, Deloitte]
And there are many ways to construct a name
- Real words: Caterpillar, Twitter, Polo
- Word Hybrid: Snapple,ThinkPad, Chapstick
- Truncated: HP, Dunkin, Moto
- Original Creations: Google, Spotify, Jacuzzi
The rules of the road
Great names require creative thinking, grounded in a strong process and clear goals. To get all members of a client’s team on the same page, we use this chart to quickly understand their preferences. Along the left, we have three types of naming expressions. Along the bottom, we have types of name construction.
Names as part of a system
Growing and established brands both must consider how one name will work with their other service of product offerings. That’s where naming architecture comes in. While you don’t need to commit to one type of architecture if you are just starting out, you should have a plan for how you will name assets in the future.
The blueprint: naming architecture
Brands can adopt one of several naming hierarchies
- Branded House
- Sub Brands
- Endorsed Brands
- House of Brands
Defined by many products and offerings under one Masterbrand (also called mother brand or umbrella brand).
Works well when a company targets a similar audience with different products, and wants to build the same proposition and the same associations for different offerings.
- More efficient to build the strength of the Masterbrand through marketing, rather than disparate organizations.
- Not as sexy, products and offerings have limited flexibility
- One corporate crisis affects all brands
In this framework, the Masterbrand drives the branding, but those brands have the ability to be recognized as their own entity.
This brand architecture makes sense when many products and offerings live as separate brands, but they are supported by the Masterbrand. In this case, the endorsed brand has its own identity, but is grounded by the Masterbrand’s endorsement.
House of Brands
Many products and offerings marketed under separate brands, with unique identities.
- Target different audiences within the same broad product categories
- Target the same audience across many product categories
- No direct connection between one another (re: crisis response)
• Less efficient use of marketing dollars
The framework: naming guidelines
Pre-define a brand naming approach that is aspirational and connects to the vision with concrete, granular directives.
People, Process & Practice
- Define who manages, ideates, and decides
- Gather relevant insights and resources
- Create an informational brief to guide ideation
- Develop naming options and refine
- Review, evaluate, and select the shortlist
- Vet options for available trademarks, domains, and social handles
- Connects to positioning and brand vision
- Fits in naming architecture and established conventions
- Promotes brand or product strategy
- Appropriate structure, format, tone, and style
- Easy to say and remember
- Conjures positive associations
The naming brief: what to include?
- Project Overview Deliverables: What are we trying to accomplish? What are we creating?
- Objectives: What do we hope to gain?
- Audiences: Who are our targets?
- Requirements: What are the mandatories?
- Competitive Landscape: Who are we up against?
- Timing & Roles: Who is doing what and when?
- Key Messages: What do we want to convey?
- References: Where is there more information?
PART 2 – Naming Names
Here’s where you begin creating
The first thing you should do is get a handle on the competitive landscape
In this phase, we would compile a list of similar competitors in your category. There are two main purposes: we want to make sure we don’t overlap with existing names, but also to better understand the common vernacular for how people think of solutions or products like yours.
You’ll also want to gather any important internal stakeholder points-of-view. We recommend collecting them before you begin naming as it will help set expectations amongst the larger team, inform your process, and inspire the creative directions you are able to go in.
Depending on the client, we might also interview some of their key customers or potential customers to understand how the brand is currently perceived, and if we’ll need to overcome any hurdles with this new name. Admittedly, this is an extra step that few agencies or internal teams will take, but we believe there is no better time than now to gather this valuable insight.
All of this said, naming is still an incredibly creative process. This research should inform how you work and create guardrails for your naming endeavor, but it shouldn’t dictate how you name your new brand, service, or product.
PART 3 – Creative Development
The fun part
Creative guiding principles
FIRST GUIDELINE: A name is one part of a brand or branding system.
It must work with all elements of the brand.
If you are creating a new brand, the name should not be the first thing you create. The best brands are anchored in a system of values or core beliefs of what the brand stands for. From there, the name is born.
A name is supported by other elements – it does not exist in a vacuum (it has a lot of work to do, but it has friends who help).
SECOND GUIDELINE: Most good names are already in use.
You know sometimes you hear a brand’s name and it sounds contrived? It’s likely because the branding team was forced to trade some naturalness for ownability. The aim is to create a natural-sounding name within the reality that:
- There are only 180,000 words in the English language
- There are about 2 million trademarked names in the U.S.
We counsel clients to be open to creating new words or reimaging what words can mean to their customers.
THIRD GUIDELINE: Naming is incredibly subjective.
Understand that there are many “perfect” names, but we need one that satisfies all requirements and conveys meaning to those who use the client’s service or product.
A name ”becomes valid” once you begin using it – even if at first it feels like it’s not a real word. A name is part of a system and gains credibility when designed as a logo, placed on a website’s masthead, spoken in conversation by your sales team, seen on social media, and ultimately, when used by your customers.
If you are rebranding or updating the name of a service – the new name can take time to be accepted by the public. Repeated use and awareness speed this up.
The iterative process
- Bring all inputs and research together.
- Begin ideation, creating “name trunks” with branches and roots. A trunk is a theme or conceptual direction. When working with our clients, we may have between 5 and 20 trunks.
- Then, let the names flow. It’s not uncommon for us to generate 250 or more names.
- Next, we encourage you to select your top 50-60 for a preliminary screening, searching online for identical names, and checking relevant URLs and domains. This is not a USPTO search, but a simple usage analysis – is the name currently in use? Does it have any negative colloquial meanings in English or in languages spoken where your business operates today or may operate in the future? Are there any obvious translation issues?
- Pre-presentation cut and screening.
By this point, you’ve lived with those 50-60 names for a few days or weeks as you perform the preliminary screening. Now it’s time to pick some favorites, trimming down the pile to 25-30.
At this phase, we generally perform a more thorough, but not final IP screening. We will search the U.S. Federal trademark database for identical names in all international classes. Again, this is not a final legal screening, which should be done by a competent legal professional.
Presentation and refinement
We’ve written this section as if we were presenting our work to a client if you, the newly empowered namer, have to present your work to an internal team of decision-makers. If you are the decision maker, use this guidance to help you make your choices.
In our first-round presentation, we will share 20-30 names with our clients. We break the list down into groups (remember the trunks we referenced earlier?). At this point, we recommend weeding out the ones that have no chance of working.
You may find a few names you absolutely love. If that’s the case, we can move on to IP screening. But since naming is so subjective, understand that your decision-makers may want to see another group of names just to confirm how awesome your first round was.
For the second round, you should present any revisions requested to the first round, as well as another round of new names, likely 5-10. If you do
not have clear winners in round two, it’s time to ask some questions before doing another round of names.
- What is missing from your second round of names that don’t align with the research you did before beginning creative development?
- Is it a creative issue, meaning you don’t like the way it sounds, the spelling, or the emotion it evokes?
- Are there some leading contenders that you can work with, modifying to better suit your needs?
Your goal is to bring 4-5 names into IP screening in the event a preferred name is not available.
PART 4 – IP Screening
The legal part
Legal screening is a critical step in making your new name ownable. If someone else in your category is using it, you can’t without financial or legal risk. Don’t build a business on a name you can’t defend in court!
Hiring a trademark attorney is the right way to go. Yes, you
can go through the USPTO process yourself, we’ve done it just so we understand what it’s all about, but it’s really not all that much fun and we say, leave it to the professionals.
Here’s how we do it.
Submit selected names to our IP counsel for review. You’ll know within a few days or weeks which names are problematic, which are cleared.
USPTO review may take up to six months; international trademarks (if deemed necessary) could take up to 18 months.
PART 5 – Case Study Creating Duopio, a new name
Bringing a brand to Life
Medipost is a leader in stem cell research and regenerative medicine, working to help patients with incurable diseases. The firm’s advancements are well known in South Korea where the company was founded.
To launch their North American division, company leadership wanted a new brand that conveyed the spirit of their mission, namely more humanity. Medipost is what we call a descriptive name (see page 9 for more name types), and as that, it works well. But to telegraph their mission to improve the quality of lives and patients with unmet medical needs, the new name would need to create meaning beyond a description of Medipost’s work. When a brand is able to create meaning or emotional value beyond its product or service, it becomes far more tightly linked with people. This can happen through customer experience, visual identity, the company’s actions, or other elements of a brand.
In this case, our job was to create that sense of meaning by conceiving a new name that succinctly captured not just the work Medipost does, but the results they achieve, the benefits people feel because of Medipost’s technology, and the connection they share with the company – an alignment of interests (living a longer, better life).
We worked closely with 3 members of Medipost’s leadership team. From the very first call, they knew what they wanted their new name to convey – eternal life. In more detail, they described their value proposition as helping people live longer, healthier, and younger. OK, so we just needed a name that expressed the ability to create eternal life or eternal youth, in the highly regulated field of innovative cellular medicines where we could not overpromise a result. So, yeah, we had our work cut out for us.
But one preference the clients shared with us made our path much easier – their openness to exploring other languages for the name’s foundation.
The clients had done plenty of homework, proactively bringing us some name trunks at the project kickoff (see above to learn about name trunks). With these trunks, we had seeds for inspiration, and many paths to explore.
In our earliest conversation, they shared that they wanted us to consider Sanskrit as a root. There was a solid thematic connection here, with Sanskrit giving birth to many languages, which aligned with Medipost’s work giving birth to new medical potential. The team also liked the sound and feeling captured in the Hawaiian language, and were open to Romance languages (including French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, and Catalan).
The naming process, while creative, is built as much on research as it is on brainstorming. In fact, without substantial research, you run the risk of creating a name that may sound great but does not connect to the product, service, or brand. Names that lack meaning can feel arbitrary and may eventually limit brand growth or product extensions.
Working with the Medipost team, our first step was to gather as much understanding of their work, the objectives they aim to achieve through their research, and competitors in their field – and then translate that into ideas that would have deep meaning to the brand’s key audience (medical practitioners and consumers).
We also spent considerable time understanding how our work would intersect with the existing Medipost name, and any positive or negative cultural significance in the company’s native home of South Korea.
From there, the process was relatively standard: hours of solo brainstorming between members of our team, meeting occasionally to share work and see how our ideas can play off of each other. That’s one thing that sets us apart from many other naming agencies – we each do our best work solo and then come together to see how we can inspire each other to push ideas further.
In total, we created more than 300 names that expressed ideas of new life, rebirth, therapy, immortality, healing, curative medicine, endurance, youth, blossoming, vitality, forever, time’s passage, and many others. Some names were expressed in one language, but others mixed more than one, for instance, Chronosalm merges time in Greek with life in Korean, while Amaragen blended “amara” which means immortal in Sanskrit with the idea of regeneration. This name in particular, Amaragen, feels very familiar, in fact, there are many medical and scientific companies that have similar names. While it made it past the initial round and had deep connection to the brand’s purpose, it didn’t pass our own “ownability” test compared to other options we presented.
The construction of some names were based on brand’s mission of helping cells regenerate, using repeating phonemes. One option that didn’t make it far in the process but showed how the arrangement could work was Olinolino, which means brilliant in Hawaiian. We liked the sound, but realized it lacked the gravitas and red thread we searched for.
So how did we narrow a list of 300+ contenders down to the one winner? Internally we begin by categorizing the names, putting them into buckets to ensure we have covered the topics we set out to. If we see any holes, we will put a few more cycles against that area. If not, we will begin ordering them in terms of how well they achieve our stated goals for the brand name and against our criteria for a good name (see page 7 for the 7 criteria used to judge all of our names against).
With our short lists prepared, we engaged in multiple rounds of client voting, using a Yes, Maybe, No ranking system for the early rounds. Once we had some clear directions, we moved on to ranking names on a 1-5 scale.
We always try to leave ample time between presenting work to clients and asking people to make decisions about the name options. Why? Because naming is an abstract art, essentially generating something from nothing and asking people to imagine that this name has always existed. When people see something as new, we will naturally start to question its validity. Additionally, we are seeing the name in a vacuum – not within the context of other brand elements like logo, tagline, or color palette.
When a name is chosen, and incorporated into a brand’s visual identity or placed on the top navigation of a website, it becomes more “real.” But at this stage, where we are presenting a long list of names in a spreadsheet, it’s our job to ensure that each has the opportunity to live, to at least have the breathing room to be considered a possibility.
During this project, our client team was incredibly collaborative, trusting us each step of the way and following our instructions and guidance.
Duopio stood out early on but it was not given any special treatment by us or our clients. We allowed the process to take shape. The name’s genesis is from two languages – Italian and Hawaiian. While duo is a very recognizable word in English, meaning a pair, its origin is Italian, and further back from Latin (meaning two). Opio means youth and young in Hawaiian. We used the shared “o” in the center of the word to create a compound word that flows naturally, and gave it the meaning of “double life” or “second youth” to express the brand’s aim to use its stem cell research to extend the lives of patients.
Not all coined words sound natural, but as naming experts we know that this characteristic helps to promote name acceptance and usage. Duopio sounds like a real word, but it is not in use in any language that we could find. The benefit is that our clients can have an ownable name that doesn’t sound contrived.
And while many coined words do not sound like real words because they are difficult to pronounce or have odd arrangements of letters, Duopio’s number of vowels makes it feel soft when spoken and makes it easy to pronounce. And it’s easy to remember.
Another challenge in creating a coined name is the length. However, Duopio is just six letters. This makes it easy to spell and express graphically on digital or printed assets.
This also meant that the URL for our newly created six-digit word was available – an incredible feat in 2024. While the client also reserved the full brand name, Duopio Bioscience, they could also purchase the shortened domain. Think about that and consider that companies like Peloton, Nissan, and Alphabet do not own their exact-name domains, but have to either add a word or two to the domain or use a domain extension other than dot com.
We are incredibly proud of our partnership with the Medipost team. They believed in the process and allowed us to bring them many good name options, and then gave us incredible direction and feedback to arrive at the final name of Duopio. Read more about this case study.
If you’re not ready to create a world-class name for your product or business, we can give you some one-on-one guidance. Just reach out, we’ll be happy to help.