What to expect when you’re expecting a new brand name

You probably gave your child's name some thought. Probably quite a bit actually. Is it the right name? Does it sound good? Is it the right amount of trendy? (Liam and Olivia, you're topping the trend charts this year.) What are the potential nicknames? Will they get teased? (Note: there is no name that cannot be tease-ified, children are the most creative, and mischievous!) The right name is also highly subjective, and it can even be polarizing. You've probably heard or experienced the advice of waiting until the baby is born before sharing his or her name if you don't want any unsolicited feedback.

Brand names share a lot of these same considerations, and these are some of the same questions we might ask when creating a new name. We took a look at this article "10 Expert Tips To Choosing a Baby Name" and evaluated the advice applying it to the work we help clients with every day.

Top 10 baby naming tips:

  1. Avoid passing trends
  2. Remember that classic names don’t have to be boring
  3. Take a look at your family tree
  4. Honor your culture
  5. Look up meanings
  6. Contemplate all possible nicknames
  7. Consider the importance of the middle name
  8. Don’t forget about the initials
  9. Say it out loud
  10. Don’t stress too much

Now let's take a look at how you could apply these tips to brand naming.

Avoid passing trends. We're probably all familiar with the techie trend of dropping letters, or changing out Y for I, or adding -ly to the end. That's typically done to acquire an available URL rather than a trademark, since trademarks are evaluated on a phonetic basis. Respelling generally won't make your mark more unique. But another trend that is becoming overdone is the requirement for a short, single English word brand. Brevity ≠ memorability. Some of the most famous, popular brand names are multisyllabic: Harley-Davidson, National Geographic, American Airlines, Cheesecake Factory. If you sound like everyone else, then you could be signaling to the market that you don't have anything new to offer.

Remember that classic names don't have to be boring. What are classic names in the brand world? The oldest brands were often named after the founder. Colgate (William Colgate, 1806), Jim Beam (Jacob Beam, 1795), DuPont (E.I. du Pont, 1802), Macy's (Rowland Hussey Macy, 1858). One of my favorite uses of this strategy is the emergency kit JUDY. When asked about their name, they say, "JUDY isn’t our Founder’s Great Grandmother’s name nor is it an acronym. We tested 100 different names and none of them stuck. Until JUDY. One of the challenges in our safety movement is getting people to pay attention and take emergency preparation seriously. In order to do that we needed a name that was (almost) impossible to forget and we think JUDY is it." The classic name combined with the striking visual identity says something new, fresh, and unexpected.


JUDY emergency prep kits

Take a look at your family tree. Do your product names fit well together as a family, do they sound like they come from the same origin, and if not, why not? A company's brand architecture can spin out of hand fast when you have many teams working on different projects and creating names in silos. Consider what products or services will live next to, above, or below whatever you're trying to name, map it out, and evaluate whether it's a family fit.

Honor your culture. With baby naming this may refer to nationalities or religions or identities. Honoring your culture in brand naming can mean looking at your internal culture when navigating the task of creating a new name. What do you value as a company? What is your purpose, and how can you orient your naming to follow through on it? At Northbound we can also help you navigate those bigger strategic questions to get clarity and direction before generating names.

Look up meanings. We probably index most heavily on semantics (the meaning of a word) when considering a name. If a name has a real dictionary definition, we generally snap to that to make inferences about the company or product. Going straight to the thesaurus is one direction for generating name concepts, but that's low-hanging fruit. Another approach is to use linguistic corpus analysis tools like COCA or Sketch Engine to explore meaning further, looking at parallel instances of a word and its other associated meanings and contexts.

Sketch Engine

Sketch Engine dashboard

Contemplate all possible nicknames. Brand names, particularly longer ones, frequently get abbreviated for better or for worse, like FedEx for Federal Express (awesome) or LiMu for Liberty Mutual (meh). It's something to consider when creating longer descriptive names, thinking about how they might get abbreviated or potentially botched in pronunciation. But don't force a nickname.

Consider the importance of the middle name. Middle names are not as directly comparable to brand naming, but some of the key questions we ask early on are: will this name stand alone, or will it be endorsed by another name, and if so, how? Is it locked up to the company name? All the time or some of the time? This has strategic implications to your brand architecture and how things relate to one another, as well as practical trademark implications.

Don't forget about the initials. Like nicknames, this one is big when you're creating lengthier descriptive names for products, solutions, or business units. You don't want to be the head of the Strategic Action Division. If you're creating a name with 3+ words, you can pretty much guarantee it'll get abbreviated down to its initials, so be sure those don't have any negative associations.

Say it out loud. Finding a word with a great meaning is one thing but pay attention to its phonetic quality or connotations. Which name sounds like a more attractive (fictional) skincare brand: Radiant or Effulgent? Some sounds aren't as appealing because they remind us of other words we know. The sound "mor" appears everywhere from Mordor to Voldemort to Moriarty to Mordred, a dark and villainous context perhaps derived from Latin mors meaning “death” (mortal, mortuary). Syllables with what are called low back vowels [o] and [u] tend to sound bigger, heavier, slower, potentially more ominous than their high front vowel counterparts like [i] and [e]. The way a name sounds phonetically can carry strong associations when the word's meaning isn't readily apparent.

Don't stress too much. We live and breathe this stuff. But customers generally won't overanalyze names like we may be tempted to do. Does the name sound believable? Does it support a story or message you want to convey? Remember a name can't do everything; it's one element of a total brand experience. An important element, and it should work together with the brand's positioning, messaging, visual identity, advertising, packaging, and so on.

So there it is! 10 tips to choosing a brand name, which sometimes can feel like choosing a name for baby. Need help landing on a name that's just right for your business? Contact Northbound and let's think through it together.

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