Great product and company names are 99% impossible.
After three decades of naming companies and products, here’s what I’ve learned.
I was contacted out of the blue a few weeks ago by someone on LinkedIn. It was Thursday night at 9:14 PM. We were not friends on LinkedIn, but they knew a lot of the creative people I knew so I accepted the invite. They immediately (as in 15 seconds later) sent a message that asked if I had the bandwidth to do a small company naming job. I was definitely interested. Then they told me they had $100 and needed the names that evening.
I was no longer interested.
I’ve worked on names for educational toys, B2B service firms, news organizations, tech and software, podcasts, consumer electronics, medical tech and devices, defense electronics, insurance, building products, government programs, plastics companies, metal forges (two of them, strangely enough) and even a regional public broadcasting organization. So as a result I knew that $100 worth of naming would be a waste of the client’s time and money. So I declined. Politely.
A good name requires more than $100 and an hour or two. A lot of creative people hate naming projects because while naming seems like it should be easy, this stuff is actually hard! And complex. And involved. And fraught with disappointment. But I love it. First, because I tend to gravitate toward projects where one needs to generate a lot of ideas. And second, because it’s a challenge. And I dig a meaty challenge.
In my opinion, naming something well is just about as close to impossible as any commercial creative endeavor can be. 99% impossible. At least. And I get really juiced by finding that unexpected 1%. Why is naming close to impossible? Here are the reasons.
One: Great names must meet five strict criteria.
All winning names have a few things in common. They are: memorable, simple, meaningful, unique, and incorruptible. Let’s tackle each of these traits on their own.
Memorable. A great name that sticks in people’s heads gives a brand an added advantage. “Wait,” you say, “what about all of those great companies whose names are just acronyms? IBM and ABC and CVS? They do just fine.” Maybe, but they have had to invest decades and billions into their brands to get you to remember what those letters mean to you. Most new ventures don’t have years and billions of dollars to help them overcome a bad name. And a number of the naming projects I have been asked to do involve coming up with new names for client organizations that originally had too-long names that were then turned into acronyms. *Facepalm.*
Simple. Coming up with a simple name sounds easy. But it’s not. In fact, it takes a massive amount of thinking, planning, understanding, and back-and-forth discussions. Partly because a lot of the simple trade names are already spoken for and partly because human beings (and many clients are, in fact, human beings) often operate on the principle that if one idea is good, two or twelve ideas smashed together is even better. Often, there is a detailed backstory built into a winning, powerful, simple name. This leads us to our next trait.
Meaningful. A winning name usually has a rich narrative attached to it — a “why” gets constructed and sewn into a name that makes sense and can be quickly and easily understood (An Apple is the fruit of the tree of knowledge, for example). Sometimes, a company is named after a person (Tesla, Leonardo, Edison) and that person, whether they are a founder or not, needs to embody the ethos of the company. Sometimes the name has either a literal or figurative meaning, or both, that fit the company or product (like Mint, PowerPoint, and Ring). Without meaning, a brand has to work extra hard to get its value proposition across.
Unique. In a world with millions of brands, developing names that are unique gets harder every day. Fortunately, or unfortunately, many companies and marketers strive to emulate other brands instead of being different. Swimming in a sea of sameness, a truly unique name stands out like a hot pink umbrella among a sea of black ones.
Incorruptible. I often refer to the last trait of a winning name as the 12-year-old boy test. An incorruptible name is one that can’t be twisted or mispronounced in a way that is unflattering to the brand. For example, some people refer to Neiman Marcus as “Needless Mark-ups.” Not good. There are worse examples, to be sure. Any name that can be corrupted, or turned into potty talk by the average 12-year-old boy is bound to live in a world of hurt in the era of ubiquitous social media discussions.
Two: A winning name doesn’t feel like it should cost a lot. But it usually does.
I’ve written a bit about the economics of creativity. My basic thesis is that one creative person can do a lot of work quickly and relatively inexpensively. It’s the most efficient way to generate ideas and get work done. But naming, when done right, is more often a team sport. And teams ramp up the cost. Even a small creative team needs lawyers to vet names and researchers to help develop strategic paths and project managers to keep things on schedule. And the best naming projects make clients equal partners in the success of the naming process, which means multiple meetings and several rounds of ideas with corresponding levels of approvals. I can go into a quiet room and generate 100 names in a small amount of time and charge a client a few hundred dollars for my efforts, but the likelihood of those names succeeding is low. Teams provide accountability and sanity testing. Teams battle-harden the creative product. Teams buy into the work. Teams ask good questions and probe deeply into a brand’s reason for existing. And someone has to pay for that.
Three: URLs are a bitch.
Most clients want a winning, simple one-word name and the corresponding dot-com URL to go with it. And that’s doable. But in nearly all cases, you need to have the cash to buy the dot-com URL. In 2020, Bullish.com was purchased for $1,080,000. Engage.com went for $803,025. And Kick.com sold for $276,077, which is a steal, as far as I’m concerned. Anyone who wants to buy my domain Caffeinated.com, which I’ve had since the mid-90s, is free to make an offer, but be sure to come with enough cash to allow me to buy a 1961 blond Fender Telecaster and a 1968 Fender Competition Mustang with the cream-colored racing stripe and matching headstock. Fortunately, a single-word matching URL is not a must-have these days simply because, if one builds the right web site and adheres to SEO best practices, people can find any brand without knowing the URL. But owning the matching URL does send a message to your audience that you’re not fooling around.
Four: Naming is highly susceptible to boss-sabotage.
It has happened to me hundreds of times. We do a lot of great work that we are proud of, and just a few steps from the finish line, our client shows their boss the work and she hates it. We have to go back to the drawing board. This is especially true in the naming game because bosses on the client side are often geared to say, “no.” Add to that the fact that many have a set of expectations and criteria for a winning name, but that critical info, for one reason or another, does not make it to the factory floor prior to the naming process. There’s a solution for this: make the boss part of the creative team. Many folks might think this is a bad idea. Not so. When the people who can say, “no” to a name are in the room when the names are generated, they see the work that went into the process, they understand the thinking behind the names on the shortlist, and they have a sense of ownership for the resulting work product. I’ll let you in on a little trade secret here: if the ultimate client boss does not plan to be part of the naming process until the approval stage, I will usually double my bid for the project. Because we will usually end up doing twice the work. If the final approval has to go to a committee, I will triple or quadruple my bid. Fair is fair.
Five: the best process for generating names is the most involved.
While we are revealing trade secrets, why don’t I go ahead and spill the beans on how to pull this task off? Here’s an outline of my preferred naming process.
- Input. Conduct a fact-finding meeting to understand the need and the expectations the client has. This is usually a meeting or call that takes a minimum of one hour but can require several hours and multiple stakeholders.
- Research. Do some preliminary digging on the names of other players in the client’s space. The glossary of industry terms. The thinking and personalities in the marketplace.
- Finding and hiring subject-matter experts outside the client organization. In my experience, if you can find a subject-matter expert who also has experience as a writer or artist, it can make all the difference. Once, for a knife company, I hired a chef to be part of the team. For the name of an online newspaper network, I hired a seasoned reporter. For a highly technical medical product, I brought in an MD who also knew the world of creativity. This level of firepower will boost authenticity and help weed out the names that don’t make sense to an insider audience.
- The one-day name-storming session. Anyone who has the power to say, “no” to an idea is invited to meet and generate names with the team. Coffee, snacks, reference books, and toys are within arm’s reach. Laptops and phones are locked away. The rules of engagement are discussed. (No idea is bad, never squash another team members thinking, all ideas are recorded.) For the first four hours, we generate names. We play with the toys. We do creative things. We consume caffeine. After we break for lunch, we take off our creative hats, put the toys away, bring back the laptops, and start vetting the many candidates we have looked at. By 2:30 PM, the caffeinate lag hits and we have a sober look at a half-dozen workable names that everyone on the team likes. If you don’t feel completely drained at this point, you’re just not doing it right.
- Next day analysis. This is a sanity check to make sure all of the names on the shortlist still feel right in the sober light of the next day. A short report is generated and recommendations from the creative leads are offered.
- Legal clearance. This is when the lawyers step in and let us all know where the legal pitfalls might lie. Expect half of your favorite names to be killed by the lawyers at this point.
- Graphic explorations. This is an optional step that is costly but can help clients choose among three or four favorites based on which ones lend themselves to creative graphic treatments.
- Final approval. This can be the hardest part of the process. Sometimes clients can’t commit. Other times, if they have walked every step of the way beside you, clients have already fallen in love, so the choice is easy.
How much does a process like this cost? It’s not inexpensive. We can usually scale the process up or down to meet the needs and budget of individual clients. And even though the process is 99% impossible, we’ve had many successes.
Unfortunately, if the client only has $100 and an hour, all bets are off. That’s actually 100% impossible.
Grant Sanders is a father, husband, dog trainer, short-order cook, cold-weather swimmer, electric piano restorer, jump rope enthusiast, podcaster, ad industry veteran, and the founder/lead of SAND. Which, it so happens, follows an interesting creative and strategic agency model that can expand and contract to meet the needs of the clients we serve. It’s built to work speedily and is tailor-made for a global viral apocalypse, strangely.