How to Create the Perfect Brand Name
A step-by-step guide for executives, marketing managers, entrepreneurs, and anyone else who needs a kickass name for their company, product, or service
Congratulations! You’ve had your million-dollar idea, put together funding and a killer business plan, and assembled a fantastic team.
Awesome! We love your company/product. What’s it called?
New businesses are born every day. You kinda thought naming your brand would be fun, and pretty easy.
You came up with a bunch of possible–looked through the thesaurus, imitated existing names you like, played with Latin and Greek roots. But none of these quite fit, or if they did, you found they weren’t available as trademark.
- 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 (“Analysis + Technology. Let’s call it Analtech!” We’re not making this up. And of course there are brands like the Washington Redskins, Eskimo Pie, and Aunt Jemima with names that were once considered benign or even positive that are now considered insensitive at best and evidence of a racist worldview at worst.)
- 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, the angel investor wants the next Nest–an unexpected but instantly understandable metaphor–and the founder wants to be wowed but can’t articulate what that means.)
Oh, and don’t forget each name must creatively express your brand essence in a way that’s engaging, memorable, distinctive, concise, and will remain awesome (and relevant) as your brand evolves!
We feel your pain. Naming is much harder than it might seem, even for experts. But over more than two decades of creating brand names, we’ve developed a 7-step method that will help you find an awesome, and ownable, brand name.
Code-naming your project?
Choose a code name that’s totally unsuitable and unrelated to what you’re naming.
Hedgehog, Provolone, Room 102 ... you get the idea. That way you won’t get emotionally attached to an appealing name that ends up being legally unavailable.
Understand what a brand name can (and can’t) do
Before you can create the perfect name, you need to understand what a brand name is, how they are put together, and what names 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
Asana - "I do yoga, too!"
Häagen Dazs - "Is European ice cream better?"
Help your audience remember you
Reinforce your brand positioning
Flowers.com - where you go for flowers online
Nature’s Promise - commitment to fresh food
Help you stand out from the crowd
Humana, Anthem, United Health, Oscar
Extend your runway and grow with your brand
Express your brand personality
Fitbit Zip, Flex, Force - friendly, fun, and energetic
Communicate a fresh start or distinguish from a parent
Keysight - spun off from Agilent, which spun off from Hewlett-Packard
Brand names can’t
Salvage a bad product or failing company.
Your brand is not your name. Even the most engaging name can’t make your brand something it isn’t.
- (Gymboree–a fantastic name, but that didn’t prevent the company from filing for bankruptcy three times.)
Communicate everything you do or every value your brand holds.
Names can coherently express 1-3 main ideas. But that’s OK! 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, transparency, 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 Qualities of Great Brand Names <link>. (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
How explicitly does the name communicate the brand messaging?
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
- Cartoon Network
- The Weather Channel
- Advanced Optics
- British Petroleum (BP)
Descriptive product names
- (Thomas’) English Muffins
- (Kraft) Caramels
- (Allstate) House & Home
- (EverlyWell) Vitamin D Test
- (USPS) U.S. Flag Forever Stamp
Suggestive names suggest the features and benefits of the goods and services offered, but don’t spell it 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 a bit more marketing resources to support your brand positioning and messages but not the big budget needed to contextualize empty vessel names. For these reasons, suggestive is the most popular name style.
Suggestive naming give you many more options. Your suggestive name can express the brand’s offering (Chobani Flip), the brand’s values (Asana), or the ultimate benefit for customers (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 story but may require your audience to think a bit or need further support from visuals or tagline (Nike, Ninth Wave).
Suggestive company names
Suggestive product names
- Krazy Glue
- Mountain Dew
Empty vessel names: arbitrary or fanciful
Empty vessel names are names that bear no semantic connection to the brands in question. This lack of meaning makes empty vessel names 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 names (real words like Orange or Virgin) have meaning, but not one that connects to the brand. Fanciful names (made-up words like Xerox or Exxon) don’t have any meaning at all.
Arbitrary/fanciful company names
Arbitrary/fanciful product names
- Dove (chocolate)
Brand name building blocks: construction types
Real English Words
Mustang, Fandango, Crest, Ninth Wave, Staples
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, Greek, or Sanskrit)—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:
- Absolut vodka (Swedish for “absolute”)
- online payment service Boku (from the French beaucoup meaning “much” or “many”)
- tomato sauce Prego (Italian for “please”)
Truncated Real English Words
- Cisco (from San Francisco)
- Daptiv (from adaptive)
- MetLife (from Metropolitan Life)
- Promptu (from impromptu)
- Quintess (from quintessence)
Coca-Cola, Google, Pentium, Swashies, Zappos
Compound Words (combination of two real words or words and numbers)
Allstate, DreamWorks, Facebook, Keysight, 7-Eleven
Acronyms & Initialisms
Both acronyms and initialisms are formed from the initial letters of a series of words. Acronyms form real words or are pronounced as a word (IKEA, GEICO), but initialisms are pronounced as their individual letters (HBO, IBM).
We usually advise against both acronyms and initialisms because they’re often forced or confusing.
Occasionally, though, an acronym makes sense. For example, CORA is an agency that helps victims of domestic violence. The name expands to Community Overcoming Relationship Abuse (important information to the target audience). And the shortened form, CORA, is a woman’s name that allows the agency to leave a discreet message on voicemail. MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) is another example of an acronym that works both in its abbreviated and extended form, to powerful effect.
Okay, now you’ve got the lay of the brand naming land. Your name tells everyone something important about who you are, which you can’t do unless you know yourself. That’s why the next step in creating your perfect name is to determine the essential elements of your brand the new name will communicate.
If you’ve already done branding work, you know that brand isn’t just what a company or product does, but for whom, how, and why.
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 when values are shared, it 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 at the very start 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 answer these questions now, 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 your customers’ fundamental problem might not be the same as their functional problem. For example, does the customer who wants to hang a painting on the wall need to solve a tools and technique problem or the problem of how to make their house 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.
- Who is your target audience? Where are they?
- Who are your main competitors?
(AKA the Creative Brief)
Whether you’ve hired a naming firm or are handling the naming yourself, the creative brief is the tactical foundation for all of your naming efforts. This document should synthesize key aspects of your name strategy and provide guardrails for naming explorations.
If you’re working with a naming firm, they’ll develop a creative brief for your approval. If you’re on your own, you’ll need to develop one yourself. (And please do. Under no circumstances skip this critical step in the naming process!)
Your brief should answer the following questions.
What are you naming?
If you’re naming a company, the answer is usually pretty straightforward. For products, though, the answer is not always as simple. For instance, are you naming a totally new type of product (which could be worthy of a proprietary, branded name) or merely a line extension? Is it a standalone brand or an ingredient brand? And could the individual product you’re naming now become a suite of products in the not-too-distant future?
How will your name be used?
Include all types of marketing contexts (website, brochures, signage, packaging, cold calls, ordering situations, etc.) as well as any qualifying language that might surround the name in print.
In what arena are you competing?
Sounds simple, but the best answers might not be immediately obvious. For instance, if you’re introducing a bottled, coffee-infused health drink, your competition might include health drinks, coffee drinks, and energy drinks. Or you might narrow your field of focus. It’s your strategic decision as to where your product fits best, and what categories you want to take on.
Who are you competitors and what types of names are they using?
Once you’ve identified your competitive space, assemble a list of your competitors and the names they’re using. Be thorough. Often, you’ll be able to discern naming patterns, which will allow you to spot opportunities for differentiation. It will also allow you to make informed decisions down the road when reviewing trademarks for potential conflicts.
Who are your customers?
Are you selling to mainstream consumers or business customers? Tweens or teens? Fortune 500 companies or mom-and-pop stores? The more focused and clear your target audience is, the easier it will be to reach them.
What’s different about you that your audience will care about?
Lots of companies get so involved touting all of the things that their brand embodies that they wind up standing for nothing in particular. Or they focus on simply being superior or high-quality, which is something every competitor likely claims. A good brief will identify a few things you do well that are important to the people you want to reach.
What do you want the name to communicate?
Is speed one of the key attributes of your brand? Accuracy? Maybe your product has a really unusual shape. Or perhaps you see your company as forging a path through uncharted territory, in the manner of mythical heroes. Although messaging themes may change once the creative process begins, you want to establish four to six themes at the outset that are relevant to your brand and its audiences.
Do you want the name to overtly describe what you do or sell or what you value and believe? How quickly do you want the audience to understand the name’s relevance to your brand?
Names communicate overtly through meaning and association. Think about your audiences and how you will be reaching them. How explicitly you want to communicate what you offer or who you are? For example, an economy warehouse for refrigerator filters whose main marketing channel is online might reach their customers best with a descriptive name like Cheap Fridge Filters. Or a B2B tech brand whose primary message is stability might choose an “on the nose” suggestive name like Granite so that the busy engineers they are speaking to can immediately understand the connection.
What tonalities and constructions seem most appropriate?
Dropbox, Evernote, and FireEye each convey something about the nature of the company’s services in styles ranging from fairly descriptive to suggestive, but they all use the same construction: coined compound. Names can communicate through construction, tonality (sound and personality), and rhythm. Using a simple, real English word construction like Clover for your brand suggests down-to-earthness and authenticity in addition to the word’s actual meanings and associations of fresh, green, good luck, or success. Reddit, with its propulsive rhythm and sharp “t,” has a strong, energetic tonality, whereas Hulu’s softer, rhyming sounds convey a more playful personality. Wii, with its evocations of “whee!” and “we,” sounds like sharing a whole lot of fun.
Are you open to words derived from other languages?
For example, French can convey a certain cachet (think cafe Au Bon Pain or bottled water Pureau). Swahili is playful and lively (online classifieds Kijiji). Latin words tend to sound stable and traditional (data protection company Veritas). Keep in mind though, it’s especially important to check your names for negative meaning or associations when using non-English words and word parts.
What countries are you targeting?
Make sure to secure trademark protection in any countries where the name will be marketed.
Any legal or linguistic constraints?
These might relate to the industry, the product or packaging, or your intended audience. For instance, are there words you can’t use for legal reasons? (In the food industry you can only use the word organic if your product meets certain requirements.) Will your product be so tiny that it literally can’t accommodate names with a lot of letters? Are you targeting countries where certain sounds or letters could be a problem? (For example, Mandarin speakers sometimes transpose l’s and r’s.)
If you’re developing a product name, does it need to be proprietary?
If you don’t want to steal a master brand’s thunder or you have a small marketing budget or a product you expect to be short-lived, you might be better off with a descriptive, non-proprietary name.
Should each name within a product family share a common element?
The common element could be a particular structure (alphanumerics, like Audi’s A3, A4, A6), a word part (the final o in Lingo, Deco, and Tempo phones from Kyocera), or a shared thematic direction (Ford Explorer, Escape, Expedition, which share a theme and a word part, with that initial E!).
Does your company already have naming architecture or conventions that apply?
Naming architecture refers to the way brand names in a portfolio are organized. It’s a plan to ensure that all your product and service names make sense in relation to each other so that customers can clearly understand which of your products they want. It also saves time and stress by providing your company guidance when naming new products. You wouldn’t expect Toyota to come out with a model called LT88—or BMW to roll out a 4-door Lightning.
Will a domain name be needed?
If the answer’s yes, consider whether you’ll need the exact domain name. You can often do just fine by simply adding a descriptor or some other relevant word to the name for domain purposes. For instance, you’ll find Method cleaning products at methodhome.com and Catchword at catchwordbranding.com.
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 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; one needs 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.
There are lots of online resources that can help you with vocabulary and wordcraft. At Catchword, we use online and print references such as traditional and visual thesauruses (Power Thesaurus and Visuwords are favorites); visual, idiom, rhyming, and foreign language dictionaries (try The Free Dictionary); general references like The Way Things Work and; online collocation tools (to see what other words appear most commonly with a word we’re exploring); word nerd sites like Wordnik; and more as well as resources and references we’ve developed in-house.
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 and hobbies of the founder. 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.
Assembling evocative images is a fun way to generate name ideas. Try making a collage, Pinterest board, or some other kind of mood board with visuals related to different directions you’d like to explore.
Review, refine, repeat
After you’ve put together a substantial amount of creative, it’s time to combine all your ideas and look at your naming list as a whole. You’ll find when you do this that new names will start to form. Continue to play around: modify spellings, combine different roots or word parts, push your metaphors a little farther. If a word part, idea, or sound in a name you’ve created so far resonates with you, pursue it. Then look at the whole list again and repeat.
Stuck? You're not alone!
Coming up with engaging, memorable names that are likely to be available isn’t easy. If it were, naming services wouldn’t be a growing sector for creative agencies. If your team is spinning its wheels, and you think it might be time for some professional help, give us a shout. Catchword has service packages and naming partners who can accommodate almost any budget.
Once you’re satisfied you’ve explored every direction 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. Reminds me of the jerk who bullied me in high school.” Try to stay open. 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.
10 Guidelines for Selecting Names
1 | Don’t rush it
From the development of a naming strategy through creative exploration and evaluation, a thoughtful naming process usually takes at least four to six weeks, not including time for formal legal (trademark) vetting and, when required, focus group research or global linguistic screening. Build in ample time, and carefully consider your options. You’ve heard the old saying “Never enough time to do it right, always enough time to do it over”?
2 | Play the field
We know, we know. You thought of a name, and it was the biggest epiphany since you saw your future spouse across a crowded room. There’s no other name like it in the whole world and….Wait. Hold on. Before you get hitched there’s a little detail known as legal screening. And when you submit this name you’re so smitten with to legal counsel, you may discover it’s already taken. So do yourself a favor and select at least a couple of other names you could live with, and have them all screened together. It could prevent you from getting wedded to any name prematurely and end up in a messy split.
3 | Don’t decide by committee
Rarely is a name embraced equally by everyone on the naming team. Good names take a few risks (iPad was ridiculed when first rolled out, and now on one bats an eye), which means someone is bound to be uncomfortable. They may have a rational reason for why they don’t like it, but that doesn’t mean they’re right. Your goal is not a name that no one objects to, but a name that expresses your brand in an engaging way. Otherwise you’ll wind up with a bland, lowest common denominator name. Structure your decision-making process so that only those with veto power get to play—and make sure they’re involved as early as possible in the naming process.
4 | Don’t expect your name to tell the whole story
No name is an island. Web copy, packaging, logo, advertising, and every other audience touchpoint give context and help tell your brand’s story. Don’t expect your company or product name to say it all. Names that try are usually awkward or dull. Besides, a story that begins and ends with your name isn’t likely to hook your customers. Leave them wanting to know more.
5 | Don’t get (too) hung up on .com availability
A memorable name that needs to be modified with a descriptor for domain purposes is often a better marketing choice than a less distinctive name that’s available as an exact .com domain. Unless your sales are generated predominantly online, don’t squander one of your biggest branding opportunities because of overly rigid domain-name considerations.
6 | Trust your audience’s intelligence
Avoid being overly literal and rejecting a name because of an inconsequential association, even if it’s slightly negative—as long as the name’s other meanings work hard for your brand. Your audience will figure it out, and your other marcom will give context. No one is confused that Dr. Pepper isn’t spicy. Dodge cars aren’t associated with being conned or dodging responsibility. Whirlpools are usually thought of as dangerous, but no one makes that connection with the appliance brand.
7 | Forget about “virgin” names
Don’t get mired in hunting for a name that’s never been used before. Most names have been around the block a few times, in different industries or contexts. That’s okay. You can usually adopt a name that’s similar (or even identical) to a name being used in an unrelated space—as long as it’s not in your space. Think Ford Explorer and Internet Explorer or Safeway’s O Organics and O (The Oprah Magazine). These brands happily coexist. So, use common sense (and check with your attorney). Many a great name is rejected out of an excess of caution, or a misunderstanding of marketing differentiation.
8 | Get past your personal associations
It doesn’t matter if a name candidate reminds you of that cousin you don’t get along with or the rough neighborhood where you grew up. These are idiosyncratic, personal associations that few others on the planet are going to share. Look beyond them. Otherwise, you may reject a name that would resonate with your target audience for reasons that only matter to you. Similarly, make sure any negative association you may have is likely shared by your target audience. If your customers don’t watch horror films or if they are under 30, it doesn’t matter that a name candidate is the same as the title of an 80s slasher flick that still gives you nightmares.
9 | Embrace the unusual
You want your brand to stand out in the marketplace, right? So don’t shy away from ideas that may seem a little strange at first. Be brave. Sure, it’s only natural to be more comfortable with ideas you’ve seen before in some form. But if you’ve seen those ideas before, chances are so has your audience, and they’ll be much less likely to take notice of your brand. The best names are a little different. Would SuperKicks have gotten the same traction as Nike?
10 | Avoid perfectionism
It’s okay to want a name that’s short, easy to pronounce, original, totally cool-sounding, relevant in meaning, absent negative associations, and available as a .com domain name. (Most of us would like to win the lottery, too.) Prioritize your wish list, and be prepared to go with a name that only meets your top criteria, because no name has it all. Imagine the objections raised when Häagen-Dazs was first proposed. (“How do you pronounce that?”) Or Wii. (What’s it mean?”) And let’s not get started on Virgin. The point is, every name has potential downsides and no name will seem perfect at the outset.
See 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.
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 a high risk of being rejected by the government trademark office. Yet no matter how diligent a naming company is in its initial trademark screening, you will need to have a qualified attorney evaluate your names for potential conflicts, no exceptions. What’s more, everyone has a different tolerance for risk, and trademark law is notoriously open to interpretation.
Here are some of the most important considerations when evaluating a name for trademark availability (though note that this should not be construed as legal advice— consult an attorney!).
Brand Names & Hurdles
Brand names face enormous legal hurdles, and many of your candidates will fall by the wayside. Set expectations accordingly, and be sure to choose several candidates for vetting. You’ll stand a much better chance of emerging with a viable name the first time around.
Relevant trademark classes and countries
The first step in the legal vetting process is determining in which trademark class(es) your name will need to be registered. Trademarks are grouped into 45 different international trademark classes (or descriptive categories)—34 for products and 11 for services. In general, to protect your trademark you only have to register your name in the class or classes that are relevant to your company, product, or service. At the same time, you also want to look as far into the future as possible and anticipate likely extensions of your brand to determine other relevant trademark classes so that you’re not shut out when you’re ready to expand your offerings. So even if you aren’t doing business internationally now, for example, make sure that your choice to register in the US only is not going to bite you later.
Likelihood of confusion
If legal review turns up other names similar to yours in relevant trademark classes, perhaps the most important question you can ask yourself is whether there’s a likelihood of confusion. That is, are the two names so similar as to potentially confuse a customer? If two names look and sound similar, are in the same business space, and share associations, the answer is probably yes, and the name should be eliminated.
On the other hand, someone else’s brand name can be identical to yours, but as long as it’s not in your industry space, it may be fine. For instance, no one’s going to confuse Dove soap and Dove chocolate or Delta Airlines and Delta faucets.
In addition to appearance, sound, and associations, other factors that courts consider before finding a likelihood of confusion include
- distribution channels
- whether the products or services compete directly
- distinctiveness of the marks
- similarity of customers
- similarity of pricing
Strength of a mark
Let’s assume your legal counsel has reviewed your name and determined that it’s legally available and clear.
Now your major worry isn’t mistakenly using someone else’s mark but making sure that the name is a strong mark in and of itself. You want to be able to protect your name and prevent other marketers from using the name for similar (or even dissimilar) products.
The key will lie in how distinctive the name is. The more distinctive, the stronger and more legally protectable it will be. (Remember what we said about being brave when you choose your name?)
The courts use a number of factors to gauge a name’s distinctiveness, including whether
- the name is coined (that is, invented, like Google)
- the combination of word parts is creative (e.g., Simple Human)
- the name carries other meaning (e.g., A Pea in the Pod for maternity clothing)
- the visual identity is unconventional (e.g., Yahoo!)
- the name is arbitrary in nature (e.g., Apple for a technology company)
If you want to be unique in your space and preclude others from using your name, try a name that incorporates some of these approaches. It can give you a big edge.
Catchword's Law of Inverse Name Availability
The more you like a name, the less likely it is to be available. (There’s a reason for this–people tend to like what’s familiar, which may be familiar precisely because it’s in use by others.)
Domain name availability
As long as .com reigns supreme, you will have to be very creative—and prolific—to create or find a good .com domain name. 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! (That’s why Catchword often screens 200+ names when .com domain availability is required.)
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, Afternic, or GoDaddy. (We’ve bought and sold many domains through these services. They are fast, easy, and trustworthy.) But even if the domain isn’t listed as for sale, you can always contact the owner and try to negotiate directly. Find out who the owner is by searching “Whois” records at a site like Network Solutions.
Sometimes there’s a privacy protection set up, so you can’t see the owner’s name, but most of the time the site will tell you who owns it. If the owner is open to selling, be sure to use an online service like 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
- 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 word 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 SwiftAppraisal.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
If you don’t have the money to buy a domain outright (or it’s unavailable), consider modifying your chosen brand name with an intuitive descriptor. (Our own URL, for example, is catchwordbranding.com.) After all, having the exact domain isn’t critical unless you’re an e-biz marketing directly to consumers online. Don’t let the tail wag the dog by choosing your company or product name based on exact-domain availability. Usually it’s better to modify a memorable name than to settle for a mediocre one just because the domain’s available.
Make sure you doublecheck any domain you choose for unfortunate misreadings. The first word in housepainting site paintit.com could be paint or pain. The site whorepresents helps you find talent representatives, but what kind of talent? And I know the US has a reputation for toughness, but recycling site americanscrapmetal is next level.
Registering a domain name
Once you’ve registered your domain with a reputable domain registrar, be sure to set it for auto-renewal. You don’t want to lose your domain because you forgot to renew. (You’d be surprised how often companies, even big ones, forget to renew. Symantec forgot to renew norton.com, and Microsoft once forgot to renew passport.com. Even Google forgot to renew its German domain, google.de, in 2007!)
You’ll also want to register close variants of your domain name, and have them point to your main URL, so that competitors, critics, or ne’er-do-wells can’t snag them.
Finally, REMEMBER THIS: registering a domain name does not give you rights to the name as a trademark. Nor will trademarking a name give you rights to the domain, in most cases. (The exception would be if you were to trademark a name and then someone else registered the corresponding domain and tried to sell it to you. In that case, you might be deemed the rightful owner of that domain.) In general, even if you really, really want a domain, you can’t force its registered owner to sell it or give it up to you.
As experts in the biz, Catchword offers a wide array of domain name services, and might be able to help. Check out our domain services page for how we can help you secure the .com you want–and need.
But if you’re having trouble creating an available, appealing brand name in the first place, and want an exact .com, you might prefer a more turnkey solution. Online domain name portfolios like our sister company, The Catchword Accelerator, list hundreds of brandable domain names at every price point.
Social media handle availability
Most brands these days will need a fitting handle on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, etc. You’ll want to include screening the name’s use on social media as part of the common-law usage check noted above.
As with domain names, social media handles don’t need to be exactly the same as your brand name to be great. Adding a descriptor before or after your name such as Inc, The, US, Company, Team, Join, HQ, and the like can help give your name market or regional context or function as a call to action. We happened to land @catchword on Twitter because we’ve been around for a while, but @catchwordbranding would have been fine. Keep the handle short and intuitive. If at all possible, use the same name + descriptor for your domain and for all social platforms —consistency makes it easier for customers to find you. The New York Times is often abbreviated NYT by customers, but its domain is nytimes.com and Twitter handle @nytimes.
Determine linguistic and cultural associations and decide on consumer research
Linguistic and cultural checks
It’s easy enough to weed out name candidates in your native tongue that are unpronounceable or freighted with 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. And you 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, and their degree of concern about different issues. (Thankfully, when Catchword vets a name that has to work in other countries, we can draw from a network of qualified native speakers who speak virtually every language and dialect in the world.)
A thorough global 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 which may cause confusion.
To avert disaster, you’ll want to test name candidates with native speakers of each language or dialect your target audience is likely to speak. 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:
- Only ask native speakers who’ve lived in the target countries for a long time
- Make sure they’re in your target audience
- Always ask more than one person or your results may be skewed by personal preferences
Also, don’t hesitate to probe if you don’t understand a response. For instance, one respondent told us a name didn’t “sound popular.” What does that mean? Does it mean “I’ve never heard of this name before”? If so, that could be a good thing! So, if you don’t understand a response, ask questions until you do.
Once you’ve gathered all your feedback, interpret the results with care. For example, if two or more respondents flag a competitive brand, this indicates a likely problem. But if only one person mentions that brand, you’ll want to dig around online to see if the brand is really relevant.
As with any kind of marketing research, it’s important to distinguish patterns from idiosyncratic responses—and not to be put off by personal preferences.
We get it. No one wants to be the next Daihatsu Charade (the automaker wanted to suggest the illusion of looking small on the outside but feeling big on the inside and didn’t understand the negative connotations of charade), Mercedes Bensi in China (where Bensi means “rush to die”) or Puffs tissues in Germany (where puff is slang for “brothel”). Catchword’s global linguistic team is the best in the industry. If you need help with linguistic checks, just let us know.
Consumer research is a way to gather opinions about something 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 consumer research to help evaluate naming candidates?
Well, it depends.
If you’re looking for consumers to make name decisions for you, you’ll almost certainly miss out on some great name opportunities. Consumers 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 uninspired and borderline generic 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 if 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 where a lot of marketing context is provided via packaging, ad copy, and even product placement in the store. Absent that context—which is how it appears in market research—it’s usually the most familiar or literal names (read: boring) that are the most popular.
Tips for conducting naming research
- Limit the number of names you test to a small group of serious finalists that has passed legal screening (unless you are doing early-stage concept testing, in which case you can test a broader range of name styles and messages).
- Determine whether your research needs to be quantitative (surveying a lot of people for a short time) or qualitative (interviewing a few people for a long time and getting in-depth feedback). Quantitative research is often best when you’re only testing a few names and looking for discrete responses from a statistically valid sample.
- Present each name in exactly the same way, rather than customizing each name with its own logo or other distinguishing graphic elements. (Otherwise, the customized elements will influence respondents’ feedback in ways that have nothing to do with the name itself.)
- Take care to distinguish between relevant and idiosyncratic responses when evaluating your research. (A professional research or naming firm can be key here.)
- Don’t ask people which name they like best. You’ll only get a confusing array of personal preferences. Consumers are in no position to gauge how effective a name will be when properly contextualized and marketed. That’s your job (with the help of your naming firm, if you have one).
Naming research is a data point, not a decision point. As long as a name reflects your brand promise and doesn’t carry overtly negative associations, it need not win any focus-group popularity contests.
Hurray! You’ve got a brand name!
But you’re not done yet. “It may be tempting to rest on your naming laurels, but don’t delay securing assets and turning your name into a bona fide brand. From submitting a trademark application to developing a descriptor or tagline to designing a logo, these must-dos cannot be postponed or ignored.
We’ve broken down these responsibilities into the following five general categories with some examples of the work involved. For a more detailed checklist of tasks, visit our Naming Guide.
Legal and Administrative: Trademark registration; formal name change; updates to tax, bank, directories, and other listings
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: Securing buy-in from internal stakeholders, announcement to staff
External Communications: Publicity planning and execution, announcement to customers explaining the name change, launch website and social media
Technology: Domain name registration and forwarding; email address, signature, and server update
Whether you tackle naming on your own, or choose to use a professional firm, keep in mind that your brand name is critical to building brand equity and ensuring brand success. As you go through the process, remember that a name that pops is good, but a memorable name with a clear, compelling message is even better–helping you to grow a brand that stands the test of time.
We definitely get it: naming projects are hard, even with a crackerjack step-by-step guide like this one. They’re high-pressure–with a lot riding on the results, and most people have little experience with them. We’ve thrown a lot of information at you in this guide (it’s ok to reread!), and we don’t expect you to become a star namer overnight. That said, be sure to keep these five guidelines in mind and all should go smoothly.
Insider Tips for Naming Project Success
(Want to know more? The guide on our Resources page explains each tip.)
- Take your time.
- Involve all key stakeholders.
- Know your audience.
- Don’t let .com be a hang-up.
- Don’t get too attached to one name: hedge your bets with several options.
And don’t forget Catchword is here for you if you decide you want a little help. We think everyone deserves a fantastic brand name, whether they use a naming agency or DIY it. Feel free to share the love by sending our guide to folks who may find it useful.