Product naming: art, science or attack of the giggles?

Posted on July 13, 2017 By

Buildings, brands, babies: everything needs a name. If it’s your baby you can choose what you darn well like and hang the consequences. Tory MP and young fogey, Jacob Rees-Mogg, has just named his sixth child Sixtus Dominic Boniface Christopher Rees-Mogg. Go Sixtus.

If your new baby is a product or brand launch you might want to think about the name a bit more carefully. Or do you? Does the name maketh the product or vice versa? The history of naming products certainly has its share of random choices.

Take the peanut chocolate bar Snickers. Snickers isn’t a name born out of research, naming groups or late nights round the boardroom table. It’s the name of the Mars family horse. They were fond of the nag and decided to immortalise it in chocolate.

Or Kodak. Not a word plucked from an obscure language that means ‘bright image’ or something equally inspirational. Mr Eastman, the founder, simply liked the sound of the letter ‘k’ and thought it would look different.

Babies and founder brands have one big advantage when it comes to naming: they can do whatever they like. But how do you rationalise coming up with a name for a product or service when you’re doing it for someone else?

Naming projects depend on combining the random with reason. You need madness to generate lots of ideas, you need method to keep the madness on track.

We break the naming process into 3 steps:

1. Answer the big questions
2. Spin them
3. Become mildly hysterical

At any point, the magic name may appear. It’s as likely to be the first thing you write down as the last. So write everything down!

Step 1: Answer the big questions

You can define your own big questions, but these are a good starting point.

Where’s it from?

Where did the brand or product come from? Who were the founders? Were there key moments, locations, personalities in the past that might be the starting point of a name? Obvious founder names include Ben and Jerry’s, less obviously Amstrad which was born out of Alan and Marie Sugar Trading, or Tesco from Thomas Edward Stockwell and Jack Cohen.

Places are good fodder too. Adobe was named after Adobe Creek that ran behind the founder’s house. Mine the history for unusual facts – and names will start to appear.

What is it?

What is the product made of? What is the service? Coca-Cola is an obvious literal example, originally made from coca leaves and kola berries. Palmolive soap famously combined the two oils it was made from into the product name. 7-Eleven simply named the brand after the opening hours.

What does it do?

What does the brand, product or service do? This is usually a good way to find some lateral naming choices. A particular favourite of ours is Bluetooth. This technology that brings devices together is named after a Harald Bluetooth, a 10th Century Danish pirate king who unified warring factions and brought peace to the region. Lego comes from Leg Godt which is Danish for ‘play well’.

What are the brand values?

What does the brand stand for? A rich area for naming. Virgin would be a good example of a brand name born out of its founder’s inexperience as a record seller with a desire to change the market – a fresh, new take on an established sector. Think Waitrose and you think upmarket. Think upmarket fruit and you get avocado. Play around with that and you get Ocado, the delivery service for Waitrose (until they started their own).

Step 2: Spin them

If step one hasn’t solved the problem, it’s time to spin those names with a set of techniques. There’s no rationale for choosing any particular technique, it’s just a good way to put that bit of method on the madness. Here are a few ideas to get you going:

Naming mash up

With 6000 names being registered every day, names that are unique because you’ve made them up stand a good chance of standing out. Stick things together and see what pops out. Verizon is a combination of veritas (Latin for truth) and horizon. Haribo was founded by Hans Riegel and Bonn is their hometown – so Ha + Ri + Bo.

Translate it

Google translate is a namer’s heaven. Pick a language, any language and see what you get. And then change it a bit. Latin and Greek have been somewhat done to death over the decades with the likes of Xerox and Aviva. Latin-based names hit a low point with the renaming of the Royal Mail as Consignia – universally loathed and laughed at. Northern European languages are interesting. The founders of Haagen-Dazs invented the Danish-sounding name because they thought it conveyed an “aura of the old-world traditions and craftsmanship.”

Peel the naming onion

Pick one of your big questions and see what you’ve scribbled down. Now, let’s say you wrote Oak. Now peel off the layers until there’s nothing left. Think colours, seasons, nuts and more. By doing this you’ll generate lots of ideas: acorn, nut, seed, woodpecker. Just write them all down until there’s no layers left to your naming onion.

Get visual

If nothing seems to click, Google images can help. Enter one word as an image search and something more surprising or lateral will pop up. Visual imagery is extremely powerful and suggestive.

Step 3. Mild hysteria

You’re going to run out of steam at some point. Brainstorming as a group is never very successful as it’s too easy to pick holes in each other’s ideas.

But time pressure is a great liberator.

Choose several categories for your brand name from any of the methods above or add your own. Write each category on a separate piece of paper. Now find half a dozen potential namers. Sit around the table with a category per person and write as many names down for that category as you can in a minute – then pass your sheet to the next person. And repeat for as many people or sheets as you have. Then do another round with only 30 seconds per sheet.

Before long the giggles will set in along with the desperation. And that will free you up to write down anything. So instead of editing yourself before committing ideas to paper, you’ll write something down out of sheer desperation.

Let’s say there are six of you, times six techniques, times two rounds, times at least a couple of names each per go. In ten minutes you’ll have created around 150 names. 90% will be terrible. But quite often you’ll find some real gems this way.

And it’s fun, in a perverse time-pressured kind of way.

So what’s in a name?

At the end of the day, it’s not all about the name. Products or brands grow into a name and people come to associate what they do with that name.

Did Apple do well because they had a great name? Nope. They did well because of their design and their innovative products.

Did Virgin take over the travel, internet and money sectors because of the name? No, they did it because they had a clear strategy about tackling poorly served sectors.

But until your brand becomes the name, it pays to have a name you’re comfortable with. Ask Sixtus in a few years’ time.

Photo credit: Flickr LadyGeekTV

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This post was written by Richard Spencer