5 name types everyone should know

We have a saying at Northbound, "an effective name is 90% strategy." It is true. Names are the first way your customers engage with your product, service, company, feature (the list can go on). That's why its so important to make sure it lands the way you intend it to and you think through your names in context of your portfolio. But, how do you craft a name from a strategy first perspective? Let's give you a sneak peek into it.

First, let’s level set. There is a naming spectrum. It is a legal spectrum that is used in trademarking your name. The spectrum for naming is: generic, descriptive, suggestive, arbitrary, and fanciful. The spectrum matters because it effects your ability to: ease customer understanding/wayfinding, own your name, differentiate, understand your needed investment, and again, the list can go on. But, how do you craft a name across the spectrum? Let’s go through each type of name and what to think about when ideating for it. For the sake of example, lets pretend you're naming a video game as your product to help bring more clarity to the theory.

Generic Names
What are they: Generic names are common terms that fail to distinguish one source from another. Meaning you call a product what it is. If you’re selling a video game console, you name your product Gaming Console. It doesn’t differentiate you from the other consoles, but it does allow for customers to know what you’re talking about without any added investment.

Things to think about when crafting a generic name: There is little leeway for creativity here. As they say, call a spade a spade. One way to help differentiate your generically named product is with a master branded strategy. For example, calling your game Nintendo Gaming Console helps to distinguish your product from the rest. Also, of note, there is no real way to own a generic name in terms of trademark. It’s up for grabs by everyone – this isn’t necessarily a bad thing because it also has low risks associated with it.

Descriptive Names
What are they: Descriptive names are words that literally describe what it is, what it does, or how it works. Meaning when you look at the name you should know what it is or does. A descriptive name for a video game console could be 3D Gaming. You can see subtle differences between Gaming Console and 3D Gaming. Here we are starting to get more into the specifics of how the product works by providing high definition gaming experiences.

Things to think about when crafting a descriptive name: For a descriptive name to land, you really need to understand the product, what it does and how it works. Without a clear understanding of its purpose, it is hard to describe it to your customers. It is also easy to make your names long when naming descriptively. The challenge should be to be as concise and clear as possible. While you can’t (and shouldn’t) own a descriptive name, you can create some uniqueness. For example, both Nintendo and Sega can offer 3D Gaming, but the master branded strategy helps imply a unique spin on the name (similar to above).

Suggestive Names
What are they: Suggestive names are real words that can evoke an idea or benefit and have multiple, layered meanings. They are right in the middle of the naming spectrum. They must be trademarked and trademarkable, create implied customer understanding, and start to differentiate you. They are easy-to-get names that evoke a related benefit or metaphor. A good game example of a suggestive name is PlayStation. Its starts to evoke the idea of a console as a station and a place to play your games.

Things to think about when crafting a suggestive name: As we start to move more into the suggestive, arbitrary, and fanciful names it is important to start thinking about your portfolio. If you have three products: Gaming Console 1, Gaming Console 2, and PlayStation, you are (whether you like it or not) creating gravity around PlayStation because its different. That could be a great thing, but you need to know that you’re doing it. When naming suggestively try to consider benefits, use metaphors for your product, or think about what your product can do for your customers – those can help spark the creative juices for a great suggestive name.

Arbitrary Names
What are they: Arbitrary names are common words that are used in an unrelated context. Without added support, they quite literally describe something else. Take for example, Big Fish, a mobile gaming company. Without investment in the name Big Fish you may think I am talking about a pod of orcas or perhaps a whale shark (the largest fish in the ocean). While Big Fish could be using a metaphor (more on that below), it is far-out and not commonly understood.

Things to think about when crafting an arbitrary name: As I started to hint at above, arbitrary names are great for differentiation and ownership, but they do need an investment for customers to understand what you’re offering. You also have a high ability to own this name with regards to trademark. When naming arbitrary names, I would recommend listening to how the name makes you feel and any distant metaphors it presents. Maybe for Big Fish it was about making a splash in the video game industry; something that starts to evoke the feeling that you’re trying to create.

Fanciful Names
What are they: Fanciful names are new terms for which meaning needs to be established. In other words, they are made up or new words that don’t exist. A gaming example is Xbox. Fanciful names are quite a challenge to create because you’re creating something completely new.

Things to think about when crafting a fanciful name: When creating a fanciful name, I would consider a couple things: how does the word look, is it easy to say, and how do you spell it. These can help guide some of your decisions. Try to avoid letter mashups that can be pronounced more than one way [think: tear (crying) v. tear (rip)] as that can start to dilute your offering. Also, like mentioned above, fanciful names signal a differentiation in your portfolio and should be used wisely. If everything in your portfolio has a fanciful name, you need to ask yourself – are we ready to make an investment in customer understanding? If you are, great. If you’re not, consider using them as a halo or product category offering in your portfolio.

Hopefully now you understand why we say naming is 90% strategy. It takes a lot of forethought: big picture and little picture thinking. Remember, there is no one right answer to naming and you should pick a name that is right for you and your company. Once you’ve mastered naming 101, consider checking out our post on the three elements of a successful name. These can help bring your name to the next level.

Please reach out if you’d like to learn more about naming, or if you’re interested in working with Northbound!

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