How to Name Baby (or Company) Without Handicapping It for Life


For someone in the naming business, Alexander McQueen’s 1922 book How to Name Baby without Handicapping It for Life is downright spooky. For one thing, it begins with a quote from Socrates that seems more appropriate as a slogan for the naming industry rather than advice for expectant parents: “The giving of names is no small matter, nor should it be left to chance or persons of mean abilities.”

On top of that, he references “the careful research employed and large sums of money expended in the selection or invention of names for new articles of commerce.” That pretty much sums up our business, though, of course, we like to emphasize the careful research rather than the (actually quite reasonable) cost.

Clearly, even ninety years ago, McQueen had his finger on the pulse of naming. It’s no surprise that his Rules of Naming Babies could have been taken straight from a modern-day marketing textbook. Let’s look at five of these rules to see what we can learn from this almost-antique wisdom.

1. The Name Should be Worthy — It should be based upon the dictates not only of affection but of sound judgment

The lesson here is twofold. First, don’t be overcome with “affection” and fall in love with a name candidate too early in the naming process. A new name needs to meet all the needs of a new company or product, and often it needs to meet those needs across countries, languages, and cultures. Becoming attached to to a name too early can blind you to serious pitfalls uncovered later on.

Second, pick a “worthy” name with long-term success in mind. Be very cautious about choosing a name that is too cutesy or overly clever. A humorous name based on a pun might grab people’s attention in the short-run, but will it stand the test of time? There are exceptions to this rule, of course. Yahoo! has done pretty well for itself over the years. But in most cases, a more solid-sounding, “worthy” name is a better choice for the long haul.

2. The Name Should Have a Good Meaning, or at Least a Pleasant or Harmless Association

This may seem obvious, but it can’t be emphasized enough. When you launch a new company or product, you want the initial reaction to be a positive one. A name with any negative connotations will work against that. It will saddle you with the need to first overcome those connotations rather than getting down to the business of defining and promoting your new brand. A name with positive connotations does the exact opposite; it does the positive branding work for you from day one.

3. The Name Should Be as Original as Possible Without Being Eccentric

Don’t saddle your new brand with a me-too name. People less experienced with naming are most likely to make this mistake. They look to successful names in the industry and try to emulate them. That might seem like a good strategy, but soundalike names leave a weak impression and make you seem like an also-ran from the get go. No only will the name be hard for people to remember, you’re subtly implying that your products lack creativity and innovation. So, in other words, if you’re not Apple Computer, don’t name your new gizmo iGizmo.

Aiming for an original and inventive name, though, doesn’t mean you should go overboard in that direction. You still want to try to fit within the norms of naming within your industry. An overly “eccentric” name may seem less trustworthy or confuse people about what type of product you are offering.

4. The Name Should be Easy to Pronounce by Persons of Average Education

McQueen says that “this rule isn’t as important as the others,” and we’re inclined to agree. A name with a somewhat difficult pronunciation or spelling isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but in most cases, both the pronunciation and spelling of a name should be immediately obvious.

In some product categories, though, a “difficult” name might be just the perfect brand. Part of the allure of Cartier, Hermès, or Gucci in the Anglophone world are their foreign pronunciations. The marketing geniuses behind Häagen-Dazs played on this European mystique brilliantly. So, let’s count this as a rule with plenty of exceptions.

5. The Name Should Be Easily Distinguishable From Names in the Same Family or Community

This rule relates to the importance of developing a complete naming architecture before creating a new name. A good name works as part of coherent naming and marketing strategy. This matters whether it’s a new company name acting as an umbrella brand for current and future product names or a new product name that needs to fit into an already existing group of product lines and names. Failing to do this careful marketing analysis can lead you with a hodgepodge of names that confuse and bewilder your customers.

Summing Up

The analogy between baby naming and branding is an obvious but instructive one. Learning from our own mistakes and the mistakes of others in one arena is helpful in avoiding those mistakes in the other. The basic principles haven’t changed much in the last ninety years and they aren’t likely to change much in the next ninety either. It’s all about creating a great first impression and making that positive impact carry on for the long term.


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