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The science of naming
There are stories about how perfect names have come to business owners in dreams, in visions, on sailing trips or, in the case of Steve…
There are stories about how perfect names have come to business owners in dreams, in visions, on sailing trips or, in the case of Steve Jobs, at farmers markets. While these lucky few were blessed with moments of creativity, for most of us mere mortals naming isn’t an art — it’s a science. Here’s our guide to naming 101.
by Sorcha Daly, Associate, Wilson Fletcher
Many of the naming tasks that we face are in the early stages of product development, concerned with a new service which performs a unique role. That’s not as easy as naming a new car or a new crisp flavour — not only does the new name have to suggest expectations for the brand and position itself, but it also has to tell people the function with a single word. The full sell.
A great name is something that cohesively suggests what something does and how it does it, and the skill in naming is balancing the suggestive and descriptive elements in a strategic and creative way. So you’re going to need a bit of process, a few tools and some cheats — all the best creative exercises have them.
1. Write a brief
It might seem odd to set a brief for naming if the team has been close to design and concept development, but thinking about the function of the name — beyond titling the product, of course — is so important, and so often overlooked.
Take a second to write a basic elevator pitch that describes the product and the audience up front. Then think about what exactly the name will need to do, for launch and beyond. How will people discover the product? How much does it need to do the job of explaining functionality? How will the name be used in one month’s time, compared with in one year’s time?
For a tool or functional piece of software, it might be more important that the name does some of the job of explaining what exactly the product does — think Dropbox. The same goes for a product or service that’s launching into a crowded space. Most health and wellbeing apps, for example, have simple names that pitch the USP of the product — see 7-Minute Workout, Calorie Counter and Yoga Studio — because an app store discovery means that the name needs to say its benefit to the consumer instantly.
On the other hand, launching a service that introduces new behaviours or has broader functionality often calls for a more abstract, suggestive name. In these cases, discovery may be softer, with the product promoted alongside campaigns or other descriptive material. If a product or brand stands for something beyond primary functionality, go bigger with the name that predicates purpose over function — the function is likely to change, but the purpose won’t.
2. Think brand before name
Your brief must be anchored in the brand itself. If naming within an existing brand, include brand values in your brief and highlight those which are most important for the product you’re naming. If you’re starting completely from scratch, include all brand collateral that already exists and stop to think about three or four important brand differentiators.
If the naming team has also been involved with concept development, stopping to articulate brand values is another useful focusing exercise. Having common reference also provides a much better foundation for discussion; rather than saying ‘hmmm, something about that one’s not quite right’, the team can use common language.
It’s also important to think about brand ambition for when and where the name might be used. Let’s take the difference between Travel Supermarket, Hotels.com and Mr & Mrs Smith as an example. Here are three services that have the same core functionality, where the difference in naming conventions shows exactly the difference in positioning. Mr & Mrs Smith is a suggestive brand name, whereas the other examples are descriptive, functional names. You can imagine a Mr & Mrs Smith mattress, but not a Travel Supermarket mattress. However, it’s worth noting that Mr & Mrs Smith probably had a larger marketing budget at launch, so could afford to invest more in describing their offer beyond just the name.
3. Don’t rush the brainstorm
With a brief and brand in mind, you’re ready to brainstorm. The ideal conditions for a great brainstorm are simple: a quiet room, more than one brain and time. It’s important to allow yourself ample time for a productive naming brainstorm. A rush or a need to get options generated quickly will limit your thinking.
Pick three or four words which describe different aspects of the service and brainstorm on those. Keep branching off all branches until you have a wall covered. Use either a whiteboard or as big a pad of paper as you can get your hands on. Try not to write lists or group names too much as your brain will dismiss words based on those they’re close to. Typing isn’t the same — you’ll want to underline, circle and rule things out as you go.
Of course, a good thesaurus is vital for keeping those branches going. My favourite online service is vocabulary.com for the myriad ways it finds related words. I also keep a list of prefixes and suffxes as a resource for creating new compound words. If all else fails, have a bookshelf nearby. Your linguistic brain may get stage fright, so leafing through books for inspiration can be a handy crutch.
Let it stew. Spending two half-days on the naming brainstorm is better than one full day. It’s important to give yourself time and space to let those brain cogs process and mull over the ideas you’ve had so far, as well as making sure energy levels are high throughout.
By this point you should have a board full of words — think hundreds rather than tens. Type them up, randomise in a spreadsheet and circulate with a wider group — the further from the project, the better. Ask them to feed back on what resonates and why, and informed by their and your preferences, cut this longlist in half. Ask for positive feedback only — you only need to know what works, not what doesn’t.
Now it’s time to test those words. Reread the brief and score each name against the criteria set out. Additionally, ask the following questions of each:
• Does the word itself sound nice?
• How does it look typographically? Do round, tight, straight or long letters chime with the brand values?
• Does it have a universal, easy pronunciation?
• Does it mean anything in other languages? If so, is it a positive connotation?
• Does it differentiate itself from competitors in a way in which you want to differentiate the brand from competitors?
• Is it memorable? Try this. Give people the elevator pitch using the name, then go back an hour later and see if they remember it.
If you answer no on any of these, discard the name. Now you should have a shortlist of 10–12 names. Test them with your legal team to find out what’s feasible and defensible.
5. Use it
The number one most important criteria for choosing a name is that you’re happy to use it. This quote from expert namer Nancy Friedman sums it up perfectly: “You want a name with a good background (meaning, spelling, pronunciation) and good prospects (able to stand the test of time) that won’t embarrass you in front of strangers or bore you at home.”
So the final test is to start using the name. Say it out loud. Use it in context. Try to present the product or service to a friend using the names you’re left with and sense which you’re feeling most proud of saying. That’s your name. It might have taken you longer to find it than Steve Jobs’ Isaac Newton experience, but you know it will work.
Now go out and spread the word.