by Paola Norambuena
When it comes to brands, the name is one of the most important elements of its proposition. A name is often the first act of public branding and helps establish the tone for a product, service, or company. It acts as the primary handle for a brand: It’s a recall and recognition device, it communicates desired attributes or specific benefits, and, through time and consistent use, it becomes a valuable asset and intellectual property.
However, many organizations take a very haphazard approach to naming, often omitting crucial steps that end up making the naming process longer, more arduous—and more expensive.
Following, we’ll explore some of the most common mistakes made when creating or choosing a name, and some tips to avoid them.
1. Treating naming as an afterthought
Any serious brand manager approaches a product or company launch with a systematic and clearly defined path—from concept development through to implementation. But naming can often be an afterthought, and usually results in a mad scramble.
Naming is a far more complex process than most people imagine. Creative names are only the beginning of the journey, with many legal and linguistic hurdles that follow—hurdles that often mean the name you thought was great is not available or even that it’s inappropriate.
Start the naming process early in the development phase. Outline the critical steps and build your timing around these. While legally cleared names can be used as early as a month into the trademark process, full trademarks can take anywhere from 12 to 18 months in the U.S. And that’s after you’ve decided on a name.
However, even if after careful planning your timing is tight, call in the professionals. They will make sure you have a name you love and that you legally own.
2. Forgetting that naming is as strategic as it is creative
Companies often don’t spend enough time defining—and agreeing on—the strategic role of a name. But a great name is rarely that simply because it is different or creative. A great name is one that clearly communicates the positioning and personality of the brand.
In today’s highly competitive environment, the strongest brands are ones that transcend the physical attributes of a product, service, or company to form emotional connections with customers. Names can help do this.
Set out clear strategic objectives, and you’ll find it also gives you clear criteria by which to measure and choose a name. Take into account what the name needs to do today, as well as how it can continue to meet business objectives in the future.
Remember, naming is as much an art as it is a science. Your brand strategy will help you create a name that is relevant and that has stretch and flexibility as your business, and the market, evolves.
3. Underestimating the importance of a good creative brief
Even after clear strategic criteria have been established for a name, many companies underestimate the value of a focused, detailed creative brief. For the creative team, however—whether an internal team or an external agency—it’s an invaluable tool.
While a creative brief will contain much of the same information as the brand strategy, a good naming brief gets specific, highlighting what elements of the strategy (or attributes) should be communicated in the name and setting clear parameters for the approach and construct.
As you pull together a brief, you’ll find that the process forces you to answer very specific questions for your audience—the creatives who’ll use it. It crystallizes the white space in the competitive landscape, personality, tonality, word types, constructs, and areas to avoid.
Your brief will focus your creative, and it becomes the lens for assessing and choosing names that are on-brand and are a comfortable, natural fit for your organization.
4. Confusing the need for information with the need for differentiation
When choosing a name, companies often fall back on descriptive terms, based on the belief that they are easier to sell and require less marketing investment. They might think that the more overt the name, the more likely to be understood—and so picked—by customers. Or they might choose them simply because these types of names feel safer.
But descriptive names aren’t always the answer, particularly because they can be limiting as your brand promise evolves. To effectively decide, it’s important to define the role the name needs to play—whether it’s to describe a function, signal a departure from where you are today, or to position something new and different.
Neither approach is right or wrong. Strong brands and mindshare can be built on both. Think of names like The Container Store or Bed Bath & Beyond versus names like Target or IKEA. All successful brands, each with a different name approach.
Spend time deciding on the best approach for you, and don’t always settle for safe. It’s the difference between creating a name that is easy to remember versus a name that’s hard to forget.
5. Overlooking complex trademark issues
One of the most overlooked challenges in naming is the highly complex trademark process. But consider that there are over 2.5 million active trademarks in the U.S. alone, and over 13 million globally. And then there’s over 108 million URLs registered globally.
Then consider that there are (arguably, because it’s impossible to count) only some 250,000 words in the English language—and not all of them are useable as a brand name. In fact, almost every word in every major language has been trademarked. This means that someone, somewhere, owns the name you want.
Securing viable trademarks is becoming increasingly difficult—but definitely not impossible. To overcome legal challenges, weave trademark prescreening throughout the creative process. It identifies, early on in the process, names to avoid so your creative team can keep searching for the right, legally viable name.
Don’t leave legal to the end, so you don’t have to settle with just any name. Prescreening avoids wasting valuable time and money evaluating (and falling in love with) names that are clearly unavailable for use.
6. Ignoring global implications
Every company wants to avoid linguistic disasters. We’ve all heard the many stories (or myths) around names that fail the transition across borders—like the Chevy Nova in Latin America or Microsoft Vista in Latvia.
Yet it’s surprising how many global brands continue to launch names that are inappropriate in a culture—or even many—by ignoring the rigor of a linguistic disaster check. This happens, particularly, when a brand or product is only being considered for local launch or with limited expansion into other markets.
In today’s global economy, a thorough global linguistic evaluation is a must. With greater access to information, more and more people can pick up on issues—and talk about them. And with greater influences from other cultures and the rich cultural diversity of people in most countries, even when it’s local, it’s global.
Check names with native, in-country linguists. Idioms, slang and cultural associations vary from country to country, even if the same language is spoken. And, this way, make sure your name says only what you intend it to say.
7. Choosing names subjectively
When choosing names, the decision can be very subjective. We’ve all had experience naming someone, or something. We all carry with us personal associations around certain names. And we all have preferences, usually based on other successful brands in the market or brands we personally like or respect.
So it’s important, when choosing a name, to choose based on clear criteria for success. We’ve covered many of the ways to do this early on in the process—a strong brand strategy, clearly defining the role of the name, and identifying the key attributes it should communicate.
But, once you arrive at a final shortlist of name candidates, research can be a powerful, quantifiable tool. By carefully testing names with the people who will ultimately determine the success of your brand—your target audience—you can determine appeal and weed out any unanticipated negative reactions.
Research can’t tell us everything, and it should not be the only way by which to decide on a name. Nor should it limit you from taking (calculated) risks. But it does help guide your decision and build consensus among your key stakeholders.
8. Thinking everything needs a name
New products, innovations, technologies, ideas, and acquisitions: As organizations expand and grow, there are more and more opportunities for the launch of new products and services—and the need to name them.
It’s in these cases where it’s important to ask whether a new brand or product truly needs a name. Too many names and brands in a portfolio often add to customer confusion—as opposed to signaling expansion or innovation—and can work to dilute your main brand.
This is where brand and naming architecture is vital. Create an organizing principle based on your brand strategy to guide decisions around naming so you can determine the ideal relationship between your main brand and any new sub-brands, line extensions, and flankers. Then choose naming approaches, for each, from there.
Not everything needs a name. Find the right locus for branding so your naming strategy always pushes equity to the brands that matter—and so your offerings always help your customers make the best decisions they can, quickly and easily.
9. Keeping names that are no longer relevant
As it often happens, the more we use a name, the more it becomes the right name—one that we are comfortable with, one that we associate with and understand, or even one that comes with an acquired brand. But many companies mistake this for the real equity in a brand name: the ability to drive consideration and choice.
Brands, by nature, evolve based on new and updated offerings, changes in the market and in customer demand, and innovation. In some of these cases, existing names may not be able to stretch with the offering or may not have the right fit and relevance to meet longer-term business objectives.
So it’s important to test names for fit and stretch. If you find the name no longer works, or it doesn’t have customer permission for a new definition, avoid abrupt changes that may alienate any core audience invested in the name. And make sure that any equity that does exist transfers to your new brand name.
Plan your re-naming and migration strategy carefully to smooth the transition from old to new. And keep your brand names relevant to truly position your company well.
10. Ending the verbal identity process at a name
Given all that we’ve covered on the importance of naming, we know that a brand is so much more than just its name. While names are vital, valuable assets, they are only one part of your brand’s identity, particularly its verbal identity, or how we use the power of words and sounds in our brand expression every day.
Language is one of the most powerful tools we have to connect, not only with our customers at every touchpoint, but also very importantly with our employees and partners. And yet language—and how we empower each of our brand’s authors to use it—often lacks codification and activation.
The language of your brand starts at the strategy: your brand story, brand idea, and brand personality. Carefully chosen words set the inspiration and tone for your brand and impact how and what we communicate, how we speak, how we look—and even how we behave.
Create a distinct language for your brand by focusing on voice and messaging, and make sure you train all your brand’s authors to use it. It impacts advertising campaigns as much as job postings, and packaging as much as digital—and everything in between.
Paola Norambuena is Senior Director, Head of Verbal Identity for Interbrand, and leads the practice of naming and verbal identity. Paola is passionate about language and believes it is a powerful tool that can impact behavior and help brands create an emotional connection with customers, employees, and key stakeholders.