As any good naming specialist will tell you, successful product naming or company naming doesn’t begin with the creative process. It begins with the development of a successful naming strategy. And that involves asking questions, and lots of them. Here are five of the most important ones.
1. What’s essential to the brand?
Business plans change, technologies evolve, competitors proliferate. When product or company naming, it’s important first to clarify what’s at the heart of your brand that will never change. This will be the foundation for your product naming explorations—and all of your other branding initiatives. Consider key benefits and values, as well as the type of personality you want to project. Then hone it down to what’s most essential, your brand DNA, and let your name grow out of that. Household products based on long-term sustainability? Seventh Generation. Pure and gentle skin care? Dove. Non-toxic cleansers that are fun to use? Method.
2. Who are your competitors, and how are they naming their offerings?
Once you’ve determined what product or industry category you want to be competing in (not always a straightforward exercise), you can survey the competitive landscape to observe naming trends and patterns. Are competitors’ names mostly descriptive? Then something more evocative and metaphorical could be powerful. (Virgin Airlines and Orange Bank, for instance, were highly disruptive and differentiating names in their respective industries.) Are a lot of the names in your space two-word compounds? Then a one-word name or a coined name could help you stand out. Is there a word that keeps popping up in your competitors’ names? Stay away from it.
3. Who are your customers?
It helps to keep your customers clearly in mind when company or product naming: their interests, their language, their dreams, and their temperaments. Wired is a perfect name for a magazine for techies, while Fortune is great for the Fortune 500 crowd and its wannabes. Not only do these names speak to the aspirations of these two demographics—they also speak their lingo.
4. If you’re naming a product, how will it fit into your company’s portfolio?
Besides communicating about the brand at hand, a product name often needs to telegraph its relationship to other brands in a company’s portfolio. Will this product be part of a family of products that are already named according to a particular naming protocol—like the car manufacturers who use alpha or alphanumeric names (e.g., the Lexus IS, ES, GS and LS sedans)? Then that’s the convention to follow; this isn’t the time to be original. Is this the first product in what you hope will be a family? Then consider what naming convention you might adopt when product naming that will allow you to link future product names together, whether structurally or thematically, and be extendable well into the future. (Kyocera’s Lingo, Deco, Tempo all end in “o,” for instance, and Apple’s old operating systems were all named after big cats.) And if it’s an ingredient brand or an upgrade to an existing product, then maybe you don’t want to brand it at all, but simply append the name with some kind of descriptive terminology (as in Kindle, Kindle Paperwhite, Kindle Paperwhite 3G) so as not to overshadow the mother brand.
5. In what contexts will the name be used?
Asking this question can often unearth naming requirements you’ve overlooked. For instance, if the name will be appearing on a tiny product, then there may be a character limit. If the name will be spoken on the phone all the time, then it’s important that it’s intuitive to spell, and its sounds are unambiguous and distinct. If the name will be traveling to different countries, then how it will play in those other languages, both in terms of meaning and ease of pronunciation, is relevant. You also want to consider if the name will have a descriptor to go along with it to tell part of the brand story (“technologies, ” for instance), or if the name will stand alone. This may not only affect the messaging directions you explore, but also the length of the name and even what letters and sounds you use. If the name is going to be used as a domain name (or part of one), remember that you won’t have the luxury of capital letters and spacing to make the name crystal clear (as domain names like teacherstalk.com sadly demonstrate). And if you absolutely positively must have the exact domain name (and often, if you really think about it, you don’t), then get ready for an exhaustive product or company naming exploration, because finding an available domain name that works for you, or buying one that won’t cost you five figures or more, can be really challenging.
These are only a few of the questions to ask before embarking on a company or product naming exercise. Take your time answering them and thinking through what your naming strategy will be. While a good naming strategy won’t guarantee a good name (there is a place for creativity and linguistic invention, after all), it can go a long way towards getting you there.