Choosing the right name: emotional vs. logical approaches

There are many ways to slice and dice types of names. Here we’re going to talk about two general levels of naming: emotional naming and logical naming.

Names are read and received by their intended audiences once they are out in the wild on a package, on a website, or in a newspaper article. A name creates an instant impression, and sometimes can also provide more logic-based clarity, depending on what kind of name it is. And depending on the level or altitude for the name, the name will generally work in one of these two ways. Each level has different goals, and that guides what kind of name is needed, which then informs how the name works.

If you’re trying to evaluate between name options, before you can think about choosing a final name with confidence, you need to have a few things clear first. For a name to be successful, you first need an understanding of the right scope and tone of the name, and a mapping of the level at which the name must work.

Emotional naming is best for primary brands

This level is for primary brand names (like a company name), or a hero product name within the portfolio of a primary brand (like Nest in the Google portfolio, which also was once a primary brand name), or a product that is first-to-market in a category but whose primary intention is to provide a halo for the primary brand (like Zestimate for Zillow).

The scope and tone of these names is generally larger, meaning that while the name is intended to include specific functionality, attributes and benefits today, the goal is also to potentially stand for a broader and higher altitude set of benefits in the future. For example, Nest was a smart thermostat, but they didn’t name it something closer-in, like “Warm.” Instead, it was named something that alluded to the feeling and benefits of a broader home comfort solution. Now as they produce a wider variety of smart home products like security cameras, communication hubs, speakers, door locks, and alarms, they’re not boxed in with a logical “thermostat-y” name.

At this level and with this intention, the name needs to work at an emotional, intuitive, non-logical level that taps into heuristics or metaphors that give a gut understanding of what a thing is or what a company does without being overly accurate or descriptive.  In this case, Nest offers more clarity to the purpose of the solution set than something descriptive like “Home Smoke and Poison Detector” would, as the latter would be far too limiting and would not light up the emotional part of the brain.

In behavioral economics, you would ascribe the lightening-quick understanding and projection onto a name like Nest to the workings of what psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls “System 1.”  These kinds of names garner understanding at a gut level, without necessarily eliciting understanding at a rational, accurate, or logical level.  Names such as Apple FairPlay, Nest, Google, Humana, Slack, and Echo all work in this way.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman's popular science book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, discusses two thought modes that the author labels System 1 and System 2.
Logical naming is best for most names within a portfolio

This level is not for primary brand names but applies to most of the names within a brand’s portfolio. For example, products that may be more of a category parity offering (like Messenger for Facebook’s messaging platform, or Docs, Sheets, and Slides in Google Workspace).

For names at this level (typically portfolio names), the scope and tone of the name is more precise and specific, and it’s generally important for the recipient of the name to derive that precision and specificity for them to engage further with the product or feature being named.

At this level, the name is intended to delineate an offering from other offerings and to clearly state what an offering does or is, often as part of a list or as a comparison to comparable offerings from competitors.

These kinds of names are intending to provide logical, rational information and wayfinding to what Kahneman calls “System 2,” the more logic-based thinking process of our brains. Most names that need to work in this way are being presented or encountered within a preset context (for example, Microsoft Teams, or United Explorer) and therefore much of the emotional setting is already established.

By aligning the naming strategy with the intended level of engagement—emotional or logical—brands can effectively communicate their value and foster a stronger connection with their audience.

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