A name is important. Think about it: What would we do if we didn’t have them? How much harder would it be to navigate our world?
And for brands, names are critical because a name helps customers make the best choice they can. It’s a shortcut to a good decision. And this decision is where awareness, choice and loyalty live.
A name 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.
Unfortunately, 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.
Outlined below, we explore some of the most common mistakes made when creating or choosing a name, and some tips on how to avoid them.
1. Treating naming as an afterthought
The launch of a company or a new product needs a systematic and clearly defined path—from concept development through to implementation. But if naming isn’t solved early in the process, it usually results in a mad—and costly—scramble.
Naming is a far more complex process than most people imagine. Great, 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 may not translate globally.
Start the naming process early in the development phase. Outline the critical milestones 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 differs from country to country. And that’s after you’ve decided on a name.
However, if your timing is extremely tight, call in the professionals. They will make sure you have a name you love and that you can 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 name is rarely great simply because it’s different or creative. A truly great name is one that sets you apart, that clearly captures what you promise, and helps people choose you every time.
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. If you set out clear strategic objectives, you’ll find they will give 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 one 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 it be 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 great 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 the creatives who will ultimately use it. It crystallizes the white space in the competitive landscape, narrows in on personality, tonality, word types, and constructs, as well as areas to avoid.
Your creative brief then becomes the lens by which you assess and choose names that are on-brand and do what you need them to in the marketplace.
4. Confusing the need for information with the need for differentiation
When choosing a name, companies often push for real word (as opposed to made up) names. This is based on the belief that such names are easier to sell and require less of a marketing investment. Companies might think that the more overt the name, the more likely it is to be understood—and ultimately purchased—by customers. Or they might choose real word names simply because they seem safe, less uncomfortable, less risky.
But real word names aren’t always the answer, especially as a brand evolves and takes on new meaning. It’s important to define the role the name needs to play—whether it’s to describe a function, signal a departure from where the company is today, or to position something new and different.
Names don’t have to be coined or abstract to differentiate, just as they don’t have to involve real words in order to connect with people. 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 naming approach.
Spend time deciding on the best approach for your organization, 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 underestimated challenges in naming is the highly complex trademark process. Keep in mind that there are over 28 million active trademarks globally. And there are also more than 200 million URLs registered globally—a number that continues to grow, especially with the advent of gTLDs (top level domains).
Then consider that there are (arguably) only some 250,000 words in the English language—and not all of them 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, and it could be in use just about anywhere, even in some small, random app.
Securing viable trademarks is becoming increasingly difficult—but definitely not impossible. To overcome legal challenges, weave trademark prescreening throughout the creative process, it can help identify areas to avoid so that your creative team can keep searching for the right, legally viable name.
Don’t leave legal until the end of the naming process, and don’t assume that a generic term can simply be used because it’s common or is not immediately associated with your product. Prescreening prevents you from wasting valuable time and money deciding on (and falling in love with) names that aren’t available 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, which could be read as “doesn’t go” in Spanish, or Kraft’s coining of Mondelez, which supposedly contains a sound that, in Russian, has vulgar/sexual connotations.
Yet it’s surprising how many global brands continue to launch names that are inappropriate in other cultures (or even our own richly diverse one) by ignoring the rigor of a linguistic disaster check. Oftentimes, this happens when a brand or product is only being considered for a 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. In this day and age, 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. This way, you make sure your name says only what you intend it to say.
7. Thinking everything needs a name
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: new products, innovations, technologies, ideas, and acquisitions.
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 and confuse your customer.
This is where brand architecture comes in. Create organizing principles based on your brand strategy to guide all naming decisions. This will help you to determine the ideal relationship between your main brand and any new sub-brands, line extensions, and flankers. Then, you’ll be in a position to choose the right naming approaches for each.
Not everything needs a name. Ensure your naming strategy always pushes equity to the brands that matter. This, in turn, will ensure that your offerings always help your customers make the best decisions they can, quickly and easily.
8. Making it emotional
When choosing names, the decision can be very subjective. We’ve all had experience in naming someone or something. We all carry 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. In the points above, we’ve covered many of the ways to do this early on in the process. 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 you decide on a name. Nor should it limit you from taking (calculated) risks. But it does help guide your decision-making and build consensus among your key stakeholders.
9. Underestimating the story you need to tell at launch
Once the name has been chosen, the leadership team and the board have signed off, and the name and the identity come together, the real anxiety can set in: What will people think of the name? More specifically, what will our target audience think?
In a time when everyone can be a critic with a keyboard, the story that is told as the name launches matters. This doesn’t mean your organization needs to share some over-manufactured story about language roots. It’s more about being honest with your customers about what the new name means for them. The name should provide a tie to a benefit, the articulation of a new promise, and reassurance as to what will change—and what will remain the same.
Also, be sure to consider all the audiences this name will affect: It won’t just be customers who care. Employees might want to hear about the new name before the marketplace is notified. Members of the media will want a hook. Investors and stakeholders will want reassurance and will expect to see results.
People will talk about a name for just a few weeks before they transfer the association and commentary to the product or experience. And real equity exists when the name and the experience become one. So plan your launch, or re-naming and migration strategy, carefully. Give them the right something to talk about.
10. Ending the verbal identity process at a name
A brand is so much more than just its name. While names are vital and valuable assets, they are only one part of your brand’s identity.
There is no question that language is one of the most powerful tools we have by which to connect—not only with our customers, but also with our employees and partners. But, to truly work for your brand, that language must be codified and properly activated.
Therefore, the language of your brand starts with the strategy, but it lives in the content people consume, and experiences they have, every day. Verbal identity sets the tone for your brand. It impacts how employees and consumers communicate about the brand, how they speak about the brand, and even how they behave when interacting with the brand.
Create a distinct language for your brand by focusing on voice, messaging, and content strategy—and make sure you train all your brand’s authors to use it. This distinct language will, after all, influence advertising campaigns, job postings, packaging design, media interviews, digital experiences—and everything in between.
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If you have any questions regarding the insights and opinions expressed in this article, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.