The Laws of Attraction: What OkCupid Can Teach Us About Name Creation


Recently I stumbled upon a fascinating study conducted by the online dating behemoth OKCupid. It was designed to shed light on the mating game, yet I couldn’t help seeing the parallel to branding, and what helps product and company naming attract customers.

OKCupid had a group of male subscribers rate the physical attractiveness of 5,000 of their female subscribers. They then compared the popularity of those women (as measured by the number of email messages they received) with the attractiveness rating they received from the men.

What they found was startling.

Among women who were rated “above-average” in looks, the ones who got the most messages often weren’t those consistently rated attractive but rather, those who provoked the widest range of male reactions. Some men were REALLY into them; others, hardly at all. (And while some men probably felt that the most universally attractive women were out of their league and didn’t bother to email them, that wouldn’t explain the strength of the phenomenon as a whole.)

The bottom line? Being different, even in ways that might be off-putting to many (a large nose, for instance, or a fuller figure) was very appealing to enough men to give these women lots of traction. And the women who went to great lengths to hide their quirks—with photos of only their faces, for instance, if they were overweight—were missing the boat. By trying to fit in and be like everyone else, they were making it harder for those men who’d be really into them to find them.

And so it goes with product and company naming. As a naming consultant, I’ve often observed that one of the biggest obstacles clients face is their own fear of being different. I can’t tell you how many of our naming agency’s clients say they want to stand out from the crowd, yet lean towards (and have to be talked out of) unremarkable names more likely to blend into their competitive landscape. And I bet other naming consultants have similar stories.

Why? Because when push comes to shove, most of us are just plain uncomfortable being different. What’s commonplace seems so much more credible and attractive somehow, even if it’s the surest path to marketing oblivion.

Yet the savviest marketers have the courage to differentiate rather than imitate. Would you say that the choice of the name Virgin was an attempt to be universally appealing? Hardly. Most older, more conservative brands wouldn’t have touched that name with a ten-foot pole. And the brand probably raised lots of hackles and eyebrows when it first launched. Yet the name conveys an edgy freshness that maps precisely to the brand’s positioning, and the younger, hipper audience it set out to attract. And its daring has paid off handsomely.

Now don’t get me wrong. Product or company naming that’s different simply for difference’s sake—and isn’t tied to the brand’s positioning—is just lazy name creation. But when that difference signals something that’s relevant to both the brand and its audience, you’ve got the naming equivalent of an aphrodisiac.

So if you want a whole quiver of Cupid’s arrows to magnetize your brand, here are five steps to follow for name creation:

  • Assess your brand’s assets. Frankly. And figure out which assets are meaningful to the folks you want to attract.
  • Fashion a positioning that showcases one way you’re different that’s relevant to your target customers—and don’t worry if it might be a turnoff to others.
  • Check out your competitors’ names and look for trends. Then steer clear of those trends in your own name creation. Seriously.
  • Be true to yourself. If you’re not a decades-old multinational corporation, don’t try to sound like one.
  • Strut your stuff. Pick a name that celebrates what makes you unique. Sure, you won’t appeal to everyone….but to those in your sweet spot, you’ll be very, very hot.

And have courage. There’s an old French saying (originally celebrating the differences between the sexes but just as serviceable here): Vive la différence! Consider it your rallying cry.


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