Fly or Fail? 10 Ways to Evaluate Name Candidates

By Beth Gerber

March 21, 2013

6874balance_scaleLet’s say you’re naming your company or a new product or service. You’ve hired a naming agency—or have done the name creation in house. The creative exploration is over, and you have a variety of options to choose from. Great. Now comes the hardest part. Before selecting those names that you send to your attorneys for final vetting …

Beware. Name selection is probably the most important stage in the naming process—and the stage most fraught with peril. It’s here where unconscious prejudices, an urge to conform (or communicate every benefit), or a simple lack of awareness can sabotage even the best creative efforts.

The simple fact is that names are very personal, and will inevitably trigger TONS of subjective associations and reactions. But just because Sasha is the name of an ex who dumped you doesn’t mean it’s a bad name for your latest product. And just because Cheap Psych Textbooks Online communicates everything on your messaging checklist doesn’t mean that it’s a good name for your brand, either.

Having a set of naming criteria firmly in place against which you can critically evaluate prospective names will help you recognize both the potential and the pitfalls of names you’re considering, and keep you on course and on strategy.

Here are some of the things our naming company looks for and questions we ask when we evaluate names:

1. Availability
Is it likely to be available? As with dating, this should be your very first question before you get serious. While your attorneys will need to evaluate any final naming candidates, screening names for obvious trademark or domain conflicts at the beginning of your evaluation process will save you from wasting valuable time on names that don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of going forward.

2. Distinctiveness
Will it pop in your space? You want to differentiate from your competitors, not sound like one of the gang. Don’t be afraid to be different—or even edgy. A name that’s similar to others is a name that’s far less likely to get noticed. Virgin is a great example of a brand that wasn’t afraid to take naming risks (risks that paid off handsomely).

3. Alignment with Positioning
Does it fit with how you see the brand? For instance, Verizon (verity + horizon) has all the right associations for a cellphone company aspiring to be visionary, span vast distances, and offer true-to-life sound quality.

4. Tonality
A name has the power to capture an attitude for your brand  How closely does the tonality of a name match the desired personality for the brand name? And how different is it from competitors’ names? If competitive names sound “techy,” for example, a friendly, fun name could really separate the brand from the pack. Witness the difference between Microsoft and Apple, for instance.

5. Messaging
Does the name convey the desired message(s)? This is rarely a literal equation. Besides semantics, factors like sound, rhythm, tonality—even construction—can convey messaging, and often more effectively than semantics. Remember: an evocative name is usually a much smarter play than a drily descriptive one. (Would Amazon have been better off named Books & More?) Besides, no brand name lives in a vacuum. There will always be contextualizing messaging (whether it’s a logo, website, package copy, etc.) to convey whatever your name doesn’t. So your name doesn’t have to say it all.

6. Construction
Does a name go against the grain of the industry’s naming conventions? Great. This is one good way to gain visibility. For instance, if competitors’ names are all highly coined, consider giving more weight to real-word names. On the other hand, if two-word compounds are common in the space, single-word names or truncations might be especially interesting.

7. Sound
When said aloud, is a name pleasing to the ear? For example, alliteration (e.g., Best Buy) or assonance (the repetition of vowels, as in Hulu) is almost always a plus. Ditto rhyming. And what sorts of evocations do the letters and syllables of a name convey? Are the sounds smooth, evoking a certain fluidity (e.g., Rolex)? Sharp, conveying a kind of precision (e.g., TACTIC?) You don’t want the feeling conveyed by the sounds in the name to be at odds what you want to convey about the brand.

8. Pronunciation
Is the name intuitive to pronounce and easy to say? For instance. consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel construction (e.g., Boku) is usually very accessible across different languages.

9. Looks
Yes, even in naming looks count. A name whose letters are collectively distinctive from a graphic standpoint has a built-in edge. Consider Kijiji, an online classified community, where the dots in the letters in the name make the name look like a collection of people. Or a brand like Volvo, where the lack of low-hanging letters and the two “o’s” give the name a grounded, solid look much in keeping with the feel of the brand.

10. Name Length
If packaging real estate is limited, name length may be a serious consideration. Otherwise, don’t worry about it.

Pay attention to these 10 criteria when evaluating name candidates, and you’re far more likely to wind up with a name that will showcase your brand rather than sabotage it. And remember: no name is perfect. Some names will score high in one area, and lower in others. Your mission is to find names with tradeoffs you can live with. Finally, be sure to leave room in your deliberations for that elusive thing called chemistry. A name that’s likely to grab and intrigue your audience is worth a dozen names that simply convey a message.

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