The Dark Side of Brand Naming: 5 Tips for Using “Negative” Names to Good Effect

By Mark Skoultchi

June 19, 2013

Screen shot 2013-05-31 at 4.14.39 PMIf our naming firm had a penny for every time a client worried about “bad” meanings associated with a proposed brand name…well, we’d have a lot of pennies.

Looking for potential snags when creating names is not only human—it’s important. But it’s also important to be able to distinguish between edgy yet perfectly viable brand name candidates and genuine red flags. (Like the name that’s similar to a competitor’s…or means “dog poop” in a relevant language…or is going to be too constrictive when your company expands.)

Fact is, just because a name candidate has some negative baggage doesn’t mean it’s a bad choice. On the contrary: if you’re trying to position your brand as unorthodox, at the forefront, a little riskier, etc., going over to the dark side may be just the ticket.

Consider Spanx undergarments. Urban Decay cosmetics. Fat Bastard chardonnay. Bedhead hair products. Axe deodorant. And Poison perfume. As these names show, an edgy name can convey a spectrum of attitudes: sexual savvy and adventurousness; hip cynicism; self-deprecating humor; sly sensuousness; an unapologetic testosterone-fest—and 50+ other shades of gray. And perhaps the one thing that distinguishes all of these names is their willingness to stand out and challenge convention.

Now don’t get me wrong. There are some names with negative associations so singular and repugnant they should never be used in name creation. Take Swastika, which is (unbelievably) the name of an Indian bedding line. That’s a naming blooper by any standard. (And a good argument for using a naming consultant before launching a brand name.) But when edgy words are used advisedly in name creation, and in alignment with a brand’s positioning, they can provide just that frisson of differentness which enables a brand to break through the clutter in its category.

So how do you evaluate whether a name with some darker associations will serve or sabotage your brand? Here are five tips from the naming experts at Catchword.

1. Assess your audience
Younger audiences will be more accepting and appreciative of names with shock value, as will audiences for lifestyle-oriented products in sectors such as the cosmetics, fashion, and beverage industries. Older audiences, or business audiences in highly traditional industries, not so much.

2. Imagine the impact
Brand names with negative associations can pack a lot of emotional punch. So calibrate carefully. M.A.D.D., for example, aptly conveys the anger of a constituency fed up with the destruction and death wrought by drunk drivers. But suppose you were creating a name for a lobbying group whose goal was to forge better citizen-police cooperation. Then you’d do better in your naming process to dial it down, and choose a name that wasn’t so fraught.

3. Suss out the semantics
Many powerful words have multiple layers of meaning.  “Burn,” for instance, can evoke images of devastating fire. But it can also suggest “going for the burn:” a meaning that’s spot on for an energy drink. As long as a name isn’t overwhelmingly associated with one negative meaning (as in the case of Swastika), don’t rule it out pre-emptively. This leads to another tip….

4. Consider the context
The primary association a word calls up will usually vary according to the context in which it’s used. For example, the word “virgin” can have sexual connotations. But in the context of an airline company its other meanings, like fresh and pristine, will be paramount, and its sexual associations will simply add a naughty undercurrent: perfect for a brand positioning itself as hip and youthful.

5. Go with your gut
Everything else aside, if you love a name and think it fits, don’t let its negative baggage deter you. The word “snicker” has snide connotations, but that didn’t stop candy mogul Frank Mars from naming one of his chocolate bars Snickers after a favorite horse of his. Last time we checked, Snickers was the most popular candy bar in the world.

Bottom line: don’t be afraid of the dark side of brand name creation. When used judiciously, a darker name can be just what’s needed to help your brand see the light of day.

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