Table of Contents
6 Steps to Create a Great Brand Name
How to develop a perfect name for your company, product, or service
Congratulations! You’ve got your million-dollar idea, put together funding and a killer business plan, and assembled a fantastic team. Awesome! The world loves your concept, but what’s it called?You thought naming would be fun and easy. You looked through the thesaurus, riffed on existing brand names you like, played with Latin and Greek roots, brainstormed with a friend. But none of these names bowled you over, or if they did, you quickly learned they weren’t available as a trademark.
You’re not alone! These days, name candidates must meet unprecedented requirements before launch:
- Trademark and domain-name availability
With 30 million small businesses and thousands of large companies in the US alone, the competition can be fierce.
- Linguistic and cultural acceptability
Marketers face serious linguistic hurdles as they look to appeal to consumers globally. And brands that were formerly regarded as benign or evspen positive—think Washington Redskins, Eskimo Pie, and Aunt Jemima—have all rebranded due to much lower tolerance for names reflecting racial insensitivity and cultural appropriation.
- Consensus among multiple decision-makers
The marketing team wants an epiphany in three letters, the engineers want a name that says what the product does, and the founder wants a name like Apple. How do you make everyone happy?
Oh, and don’t forget that the name must creatively express your brand essence in a way that’s engaging, memorable, distinctive, and concise, while remaining awesome (and relevant) as your brand evolves.
We feel your pain. Naming is much harder than it might seem, even for experts. But over the course of over two decades of creating brand names, we’ve developed a 6-step process that will help you find an awesome, and ownable, brand name.
Code-naming your project?
Do your homework
Understand what a brand name can (and can’t) do
What’s a brand name?
A brand name is a very, very short story that helps you connect with the people you want to reach. It introduces and piques curiosity about your brand. Your name will help your audience understand and remember you, differentiate you from your competitors, and ultimately serve as a mental shorthand for all your audience’s experiences with you. And that’s before you even spend a cent on marketing!
BRAND NAMES CAN
Tell your brand story
Engage your audience and pique curiosity
Help your audience remember you
Extend your runway and grow with your brand
Express your brand personality
Communicate a fresh start or distinguish from a parent
BRAND NAMES CAN’T
- Salvage a bad product or failing company. Your brand is not just your name. Even the most engaging name can’t make up for serious shortcomings or market failures. Gymboree – a fantastic name, but that didn’t prevent the company from filing for bankruptcy three times.
- Communicate everything you do. Names can coherently express two or three main ideas. But that’s okay! Your logo, packaging design, and marketing copy are there to convey and reinforce your messaging. The Honest Company – honesty for sure, but Jessica Alba’s baby and beauty brand is also about safety, wellness, community, and more.
- Be all things to all people. Trying to please everyone will usually result in a bland, lowest common denominator name. Think about your core audience, and speak to them. Spanx – risks turning off very conservative consumers but grabs and holds the attention of its target audience.
How do I know if a brand name is good?
The most important quality is that it be engaging and memorable, but there are other attributes, 9 in fact. We’ve summarized them in our 10 Guidelines for Selecting Brand Names. (You’ll refer to this list when you evaluate the names you’ve created.)
Brand names are so varied. How do I think about them?
Though there are a seemingly infinite number of brand and company names out there, all of them fall into a few basic categories. So, if you’re going to be naming something, it’s good to be acquainted with these styles and structures so you can focus on the ones that will work best for you.
BRAND NAME STYLES
Names can semantically communicate messaging directly, not at all, and all points in between.
Descriptive names very clearly describe the goods or services being offered: what you do, where you do it, or who you do it for.
Descriptive names usually work best when you want to
- reinforce a strong master or parent brand rather than launch a new brand
- reach an audience that just wants to know what the thing does (often the case with B2B companies)
- name products with short lifecycles and low marketing budgets
On the other hand, purely descriptive names are difficult to trademark because they use generic language that doesn’t distinguish the brand from others in the same category. So if you are looking for a legally protectable name, a less descriptive name is a better bet.
Descriptive company names
Descriptive product names
Suggestive names suggest the features or benefits of the goods and services being offered, but don’t completely spell them out. They are the middle ground in naming: more evocative and memorable than descriptive names and more communicative than empty vessel names (see below).
Suggestive names are easier to trademark than descriptive names, but not as easy as empty vessel names. They require some marketing resources to support your brand positioning but not the big budget needed to contextualize empty vessel names. For these reasons, suggestive is the most popular name style.
Suggestive naming gives you a lot of messaging flexibility. Your suggestive name can express the brand’s offering (Chobani Flip), the brand’s values (Asana), or the ultimate customer benefit (Attain by Aetna).
Suggestive names also range in terms of how explicitly they communicate your message, from quite telegraphic (Netflix, Popchips) to metaphoric with multiple layers of meaning. Metaphoric names tell the richest stories but may benefit from further support from visuals or taglines (Nike, Ninth Wave).
Suggestive company names
Suggestive product names
Empty vessel names (arbitrary real or coined words)
Empty vessel names bear no semantic connection to brand messaging, and as such, are a bit of a headscratcher without the context of visuals and marcom. Empty vessel names are the easiest to trademark because of their distinctiveness, but they can require a serious marketing budget to help consumers engage with the brand and cement the association with who you are.
Empty vessel names come in two flavors. Arbitrary real word names (like Orange or Virgin) have meaning, but not one that obviously connects to the brand. Arbitrary coined names (made-up words like Rolex or Exxon) don’t have any meaning at all and really are a completely empty vessel.
Empty vessel company names
Empty vessel product names
BRAND NAME CONSTRUCTION TYPES
You can potentially build a name from any combination of letters and sounds—real English words, words from other languages, parts of real words, completely invented words, phrases, and more.
Real English Words
Real English words include standard vocabulary, jargon, slang, and archaic or obsolete words—basically every word that is or has been used by English speakers somewhere in the world. For a brand whose primary market is English-speaking, descriptive names are always real English words, whereas suggestive and empty vessel names can be of any construction. For the past couple of decades, the most popular type of name has been a real English word used as a somewhat unexpected but perfectly understandable metaphor (as in Nest).
The main benefit of using an English word for your name is clear communication to an English-speaking audience and beyond (since English is the lingua franca for the world, particularly in business), including clarity of spelling and pronunciation as well as meaning. The main drawback is the challenge of ownability: the most obvious English word choices in your space have probably been trademarked already, and forget finding an unregistered .com domain name for an English word.
Names derived from other languages—whether a Germanic language (like Swedish), a Romance language (like French or Spanish), an entirely non-Indo-European language (like Chinese or Swahili), or a dead language (like Latin or Greek)—can help create a different tone or feel for your brand.
Exploring other languages in your naming exercise is an obvious approach when the target market includes many non-English speakers. But non-English names can also be appealing to native English speakers, especially when they’re familiar or very similar to the English.
Swedish for “absolute”
Italian for “please”
German for “over” or “above”
Sanskrit for “way of sitting” or “posture”
from San Francisco
from Federal Express
Invented (coined) Words
Invented, or coined, names run the gamut from a real word spelled slightly differently to a seemingly random collection of sounds. In general, the closer coined names are to real words (what we call “lightly coined”), the more they suggest the messaging.
Compound names are a combination of two real words or words and numbers.
Acronyms, Initialisms & Alphanumerics
Okay, now you’ve got the lay of the brand naming land. The next step in creating the perfect name is to determine the essential elements of the brand your new name will communicate.
Clarify your brand
and develop a creative brief
Before getting to the all-important creative brief (which lays out the strategy and parameters for your creative development), it’s important to ask yourself key questions about your brand. Remember, a brand isn’t just what a company or product does, but for whom, how, and why. It encompasses every aspect of your company, from external-facing things like advertising, packaging, and corporate philanthropy to internal ones like product development, the layout of your office, and company culture.
So, who are you?
Defining your brand is easy and hard. It’s easy because it’s the process of identifying what you care about most, your own passions and goals as an organization. And it’s hard because it requires a consensus about things that can be highly personal, like your motivation for doing what you do, your view of the world around you, and what role you play in that world. But the effort is worth it because sharing values strengthens connections within your company and leads to a more enduring relationship with your audience. We highly recommend that everyone engage in robust brand-defining exercises right at the inception of a new company or product, whether a new name is involved or not.
Understanding your brand is also crucial to the naming process so that you can select the messages and name styles that will communicate your brand most effectively, and authentically.
As you soul-search through the following questions, think about what you’ve just learned about the elements of brand names.
- Why does your brand exist? What fundamental problem do you solve for customers?
That’s your core purpose. (Note that solutions can be functional or aspirational. For example, if your customer wants to hang a painting, is the problem finding a hammer and nail or making their home more beautiful?)
- What shared beliefs govern your attitude and behavior as you carry out your purpose? Those are your brand values.
- If your brand were a person, how would you describe them?
That’s your brand personality.
- Is it likely that your brand offerings will evolve significantly in the coming years?
Don’t restrict your messages and positioning to your initial product or sector if you expect to expand or evolve. (For example, if the sole product you offer now is a tool to prevent identity theft, but you plan to add a broad range of cybersecurity products over the coming years, don’t limit the messaging for your company name to identity or fraud.)
- Who is your target audience? Where are they? How might your target change as your brand evolves?
- Who are your main competitors? How might that list change as your brand evolves?
What’s a creative brief, and why do I need one?
WHAT ARE YOU NAMING?
HOW WILL YOUR NAME BE USED?
IN WHAT ARENA ARE YOU COMPETING?
WHO ARE YOUR COMPETITORS AND WHAT TYPES OF NAMES ARE THEY USING?
WHO ARE YOUR CUSTOMERS?
WHAT’S DIFFERENT ABOUT YOU THAT YOUR AUDIENCE WILL CARE ABOUT?
WHAT DO YOU WANT THE NAME TO COMMUNICATE?
DO YOU WANT TO DESCRIBE FEATURES, BENEFITS, OR VALUES? HOW QUICKLY DO YOU WANT THE AUDIENCE TO “GET IT”?
WHAT TONALITIES AND CONSTRUCTIONS SEEM MOST APPROPRIATE?
ARE YOU OPEN TO WORDS DERIVED FROM OTHER LANGUAGES?
WHAT COUNTRIES ARE YOU TARGETING?
ANY LEGAL OR LINGUISTIC CONSTRAINTS?
IF YOU’RE DEVELOPING A PRODUCT NAME, DOES IT NEED TO BE PROPRIETARY?
IF YOU’RE DEVELOPING A PRODUCT NAME THAT WILL BE PART OF A FAMILY, SHOULD EACH NAME SHARE A COMMON ELEMENT?
DOES YOUR COMPANY ALREADY HAVE NAMING ARCHITECTURE OR CONVENTIONS THAT APPLY?
WILL A DOMAIN NAME BE NEEDED?
People often ask us how we come up with names. Are they computer generated? Do we sit around drinking wine and jotting down thoughts on cocktail napkins? Or maybe we shuffle Scrabble tiles around until we find that perfect combination of letters? If only.
Maybe once upon a time these methods worked. But today, with all the hurdles faced by potential naming candidates, you need to develop an enormous pool of names just to have a few good choices left at the end of the day. (To give you an idea, at Catchword we typically develop around 2,000 names for a project.) So creativity isn’t enough; you need a very methodical process for exploring all kinds of relevant ideas, in depth and in quantity.
Here are some of the phases in our creative process which you may want to adopt if you’re a DIYer.
For all but the most abstract projects, it’s a good idea to begin by creating a project vocabulary. Your thesaurus is your best friend here. Check the list of naming messages in your creative brief, and put together as many synonyms as possible for different words in these messaging buckets. This is a great starting point for free-associating and getting some naming ideas down.
Beyond just mixing and matching your vocabulary words to form compound or blended forms, you might take key vocabulary words and translate them into Latin, Sanskrit, Italian, Hawaiian—whatever languages suit your communication and tonality needs.
Or you might take interesting prefixes and suffixes and add them to different words. Or play around with word endings or truncations of words.
Word up online.
BLUE SKY CREATIVITY
After exploring all the obvious ideas—what we call “due-diligence creative”—it’s time to take off into blue-sky territory. This might involve pairing a short, obvious word from your project vocabulary with something completely unexpected. Or looking at various metaphors, arbitrary (but interesting) words that have the right sound, and posts and videos in your industry space. If you’re naming or renaming a company, you might play with ideas that springboard off the personal interests of the founder or the company’s early history. You can even run your eye down the song titles in your iTunes library for inspiration. Truly, anything goes. At this stage in brainstorming, the more ideas, the merrier. Look beyond the obvious and let your imagination roam. At Catchword, we also make sure that several people work on each project so we can riff off each other’s ideas.
Look at the big picture.
REVIEW, REFINE, REPEAT
Stuck? You're not alone!
Choose name candidates
Once you’re satisfied you’ve explored all the relevant directions and have a vast pool of name options, you’re ready for what may be the most important part of your process: selection. You will narrow your list considerably—what we call shortlisting—and then select a handful of your favorite candidates for legal (trademark) and possibly linguistic, social media handle, and domain-name vetting.
Shortlisting is a nonlinear process that can take a few days as you hone and rehone the list until only the very best candidates remain. A good rule of thumb is to shortlist 10% of the total names, then look at your shortlist with fresh eyes a day or two later and prune it some more.
While shortlisting, keep an eye on the parameters you set out in your creative brief. They will keep you grounded. But don’t rule out a name that has a lot of positives simply because it pushes beyond the edge of your map. Sometimes those dragons and sea monsters are just what you need.
Interestingly, when reviewing possible name candidates, most people tend to make snap judgements and see the worst. “No go. Sounds like that annoying character from that movie.” Try to stay open and inclusive, and self-aware about idiosyncratic associations that aren’t relevant for your audience. The following 10 Guidelines for Selecting Names, along with the 10 Qualities of Great Brand Names we touched on earlier, will help you get the best from your creative output.
Shortlist more than you think you need.
Screen for availability
trademark, domain name, and social-media handles
Now that you have your shortlist of name candidates, the heartbreaking process of vetting them begins. We say heartbreaking because in legal screening—not to mention domain screening and foreign-language vetting, which we’ll cover in later sections—you WILL lose many of your favorites. But if your creative process has been robust, there will still be good name options standing at the end of the day.
Note that Catchword is not a law firm, and we are not presenting the following as legal advice. Please consult an intellectual-property attorney for all your trademark questions and needs.
The very first thing to determine about any serious name candidate is whether it’s legally available. Most naming firms (including Catchword) will conduct a preliminary (or “knockout”) screen in the United States trademark databases to check for registered uses of name candidates. In addition, they’ll conduct a Google screen to reveal common-law uses of names (that is, unregistered uses of names that may still pose a legal risk).
The point is to eliminate names that are at high risk of being rejected by the trademark office. No matter how diligent you are in your pre-screening though, you will need to have an attorney evaluate your final name(s) for potential conflicts. What’s more, everyone has a different tolerance for risk, and trademark law is notoriously open to interpretation.
Some of the most important considerations when evaluating a name for trademark availability include relevant trademark classes and countries, likelihood of confusion, and strength of the mark. Note again that we are not attorneys. Consult an attorney on all trademark matters!
Catchword's Law of Inverse Name Availibility
Domain name availability
You will have to be very creative—and prolific—to develop a good name that is also available as a .com domain. The awful truth is that almost any domain you want has already been registered. In fact, every word in a typical dictionary has already been registered!
Checking is free and easy—just go to a service like checkdomain.com or domaintools.com and type the name in. If the name shows up as available, you’re golden. (And congratulations!) But if the name’s taken, all’s not necessarily lost. Many registered domains are purchasable.
BUYING A DOMAIN NAME
Sometimes a domain will be listed as “for sale” and you can click through to the sales site—often Sedo, Domain.com, or GoDaddy. (We have extensive experience with these services, and they’re fast, easy, and trustworthy.) But even if the domain isn’t listed for sale, you can always contact the owner and try to negotiate directly.
Find out who the owner is by searching “Whois” records on the WhoIs website. Note that, after the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was implemented in 2018, the owner’s records on WhoIs are privacy-protected, so you may need the help of a third party (such as a domain consultant) to find the owner.
If the owner is open to selling, be sure to use an online service such as Escrow.com to keep everything transparent on both sides. They’ll hold the money until the domain is released to you (a polite way of making sure no one cheats).
Using a third-party to negotiate
If you’re working with a naming firm, they’ll often handle domain-name negotiations for you. Or you can consider using a domain-name consultant to assist with the acquisition. An experienced domain negotiator can save you significant time and money by taking care of the following:
- assessing the fair market value of the domain, and what budget you should set aside
- gauging the likelihood that the owner of the domain will sell
- providing information on the owner, including other domains they may own
- shielding your identity if you’re a large company or anyone else who might be presumed to have deep pockets
By the way, there are no hard and fast rules for figuring out a domain name’s value. (Sorry!) In general, real-word domains are worth more than coined domains, and short domain names are more valuable than long ones, since they’re easier to type and remember. Online domain valuators like Estibot.com and FreeValuator.com may help you establish a ballpark price, but these work much better for keyword-oriented domains than for what are known as “brandables.” In the final analysis, a domain name, like a piece of art, is worth as much as someone is willing to pay for it.
MODIFYING A DOMAIN NAME
Accelerate your process.
Social media handle availability
linguistic and cultural checks and customer research, as needed
Linguistic and cultural checks
It’s easy enough to weed out name candidates in your native tongue that are unpronounceable or weighed down by negative connotations. But what do you do if your name is headed for countries or audiences whose languages you don’t speak?
For your own peace of mind, your best bet is to hire a global linguistic analysis service. You’ll want a service that only uses native speakers who live in the target country or countries, are knowledgeable about naming and marketing, and speak excellent English—so they can effectively communicate pros and cons to you as well as their degree of concern about different issues.
A thorough linguistic analysis should include feedback on ease of pronunciation, intuitiveness of spelling, meanings evoked, brand fit, and existing brand names that are similar to your name candidates and that may cause confusion.
When Catchword vets a name that has to work in other countries, we draw from a network of qualified native speakers who speak virtually every language and dialect in the world. Here are some examples of names we’ve nixed because of their associations outside the US:
- Cozm: sounds like kotzen, which means “to vomit” in Germany
- Reego: too close to rego, a Mexican Spanish word for “he screwed up”
- Kizmo: associated with kizumono, meaning “defective gadget” in Japanese
If you don’t have the budget to hire a global linguistic analysis service, you can try vetting a name internationally yourself, if you follow these caveats:
- Ask native speakers living in the target countries who (ideally) are in your target audience—they will be up on current slang, pop culture, and industry vernacular.
- Ask more than one person to avoid idiosyncratic associations or personal preferences.
- Interpret the results with care. For example, if two or more respondents flag a competitive brand or cultural issue, it’s likely a problem. But if only one person mentions it, you’ll want to explore further.
It's OK to ask for help.
Customer research is a way to gather opinions from a diverse group of people in your target audience. It can be extremely useful for figuring out whether a new cereal tastes good to a lot of people, or whether a new mobile phone is easy to use. But should you use research to help evaluate naming candidates?
Well, it depends.
If you’re looking for potential end-users to make name decisions for you, you’ll almost certainly miss out on some great naming opportunities. Customers tend to gravitate toward the most literal and least enduring and unique brand names because those are often the names that “map” to the product descriptions most closely. Plan on opening a chain of coffee shops? Ask consumers whether they prefer Coffee Connection or Starbucks and they’ll choose Coffee Connection. It’s a coffee shop, right? What does Starbucks have to do with coffee? And yet, it’s hard to imagine that coffee giant becoming nearly as successful with a name as bland as Coffee Connection.
For some things, however, naming research—whether through focus groups or online surveys—can be useful. For instance, it can be an excellent way to
- find out whether a name has damaging associations in slang or regional varieties of English
- convince your CEO that certain name candidates are acceptable to your target audience
- help determine what messages a name effectively communicates
However, it’s very important to remember that naming research is simply one data point among many. Unless it’s kept in perspective and handled with care, it can steer you away from the very names that stand the best chance of distinguishing your brand. People are used to seeing brand names with a lot of marketing context via packaging, ad copy, and even location within a store. Absent that context in market research, it’s usually the most familiar or literal names (read: boring) that are the most popular.
If you think you might carry out naming research, refer to our 5 Tips for Conducting Naming Research for help.
Not a popularity contest.
What comes next?
Hurray, you’ve got a brand name! But don’t pop open that champagne quite yet.
It may be tempting to rest on your naming laurels, but now it’s time to turn your name into a bona fide brand. That process looks a little different depending on whether it’s a company name, product or service name, or a rename, but they all include trademark registration and communications.
Company name launches are the most complex, so we’ve broken out the responsibilities involved into four general categories. For a more detailed checklist of tasks, check Creating the Perfect Name, our complete (and downloadable!) naming guide.
- Legal and Administrative: Register your trademark. File your name (or name change) with relevant government authorities. If this is a rename, you’ll need to update your name in all legal, financial, and administrative documents, such as articles of incorporation, bank accounts, and online/print directories.
- Verbal and Visual Brand Identity: Develop tagline, brand story, and other brand copy. Design logo and visual ID. Create/update website, brochures, and other collateral.
- Internal Communications: Secure buy-in from internal stakeholders and announce to staff.
- Technology: Register your domain name (if you haven’t already). Create/update email addresses and signatures. If this is a rename, set up forwarding from your old domain and update your servers.
We’ve thrown a lot of information at you today (it’s ok to reread!), and we don’t expect you to become a star namer overnight. Don’t forget Catchword is here for you.
We think everyone deserves a fantastic brand name, whether they use a naming agency or DIY it. So feel free to share this how-to, and all the great Catchword naming resources (including the complete naming guide, videos, and naming tips) with folks who may find it useful.