How I Got a Great App Name and Icon
One startup’s story of the challenges it faced in naming its app and creating a great brand identity and how it overcame them
Coming up with a strong name is a critical element of any new company or product launch. Together with a great underlying product or service, a great name, will serve as the foundation for building an amazing brand.
A couple of years ago I came up with the idea for a social recommendation app focused on entertainment. The app would allow you to share with your friends the one thing — song, movie, TV show or book — you were most obsessed with at that moment. It didn’t take long to settle on the name Recho for this product. I simply combined “reco,” shorthand for recommendation, with “echo,” as in to reverberate, the way viral content flows through a social network.
The name Recho was perfect! Short. Simple. Descriptive. Easy to pronounce and remember. And, it was available as a domain name in various forms. In addition, having scoured the web and App Store for similar products that might have already been using “Recho” and having conducted a cursory trademark search, I felt comfortable that I wouldn’t encounter any legal issues with the name.
That was spring 2013. Shortly thereafter I hired Toronto-based design firm, Teehan + Lax (now at Facebook), to build a simple web-based prototype of the app and to create some initial logo treatments.
Flash forward to summer 2014 when I left my job as General Manager of TIME.com and decided to go all-in on launching Recho. I engaged the terrific design and development studio, Big Human, to help me build the initial version of the app; more than just an MVP, but not quite the fully featured product I was now envisioning.
While the product development process with Big Human was off to a great start, I had unfortunately uncovered a slight issue with the name Recho. A trademark on that name had been granted on December 31, 2013 to a Chicago based company. And, to my surprise, the trademark was for computer services described as, “hosting and maintaining an on-line web site for others for exchanging recommendations” (although, it appeared there was no active, functioning app or web product using that name).
After some initial attempts — through legal means as well as negotiations with the owner of the Chicago company — to gain access to the trademark, Big Human convinced me to consider going with an entirely new name.
Let’s pause here for a moment to consider what makes a good brand name. Branding experts generally point to three types of names: descriptive, suggestive and arbitrary. Descriptive names make the function and purpose of the product or company reasonably or even explicitly clear (e.g., PizzaHut, Vitaminwater, Petco, Cartoon Network). Suggestive names evoke a characteristic of the underlying product. They allude to the role of the brand indirectly; encouraging the customer to use a bit of imagination to infer what the company or product is all about. (e.g., Tossed — salad restaurant, Netflix, Pampers, Travelocity).
Beth Gerber, a naming and branding specialist, believes that suggestive naming, in general, is a much more engaging and powerful branding strategy than descriptive naming — particularly for consumer facing brands. Gerber elegantly argues:
“Suggestive naming can be a great way to romance your brand by leveraging your customers’ imagination and desire. By not telling them exactly what to think, you can engage them in filling in the blanks with their own personal and positive associations.”
Arbitrary names don’t, in and of themselves, tell you anything about the company or product and therefore allow for maximum flexibility. They can be real words used out of context, such as Amazon (for books), Starbucks (for coffee), or Apple (for computers). Or, they can be completely made up words. Such invented or coined names are often referred to as “empty vessels” because they have no inherent meaning other than the one assigned to them (e.g., Kodak, Oreo and Verizon). People come to empty vessel names with no preconceived notions, allowing the company to communicate any message or tell any story they want about their business or product.
Somewhat conveniently, trademark case law (Abercrombie & Fitch Co. v. Hunting World) has provided us with two additional naming types — fanciful and generic — at opposite ends of the naming spectrum, which in trademark law is known as the “spectrum of trademark distinctiveness.” Fanciful marks are actually just invented or coined names (empty vessels), which we’ve already discussed as a subtype of arbitrary names. Fanciful names are almost always granted trademarks. Generic names, on the other hand, are not distinctive in any way. They are the common name for the products, such as “salt” when used in connection with sodium chloride, or “gas” when used in connection with refined petroleum. A generic name is not capable of distinguishing the products of a given business from the products of other businesses. Generic terms cannot be trademarked.
Spectrum of Trademark Distinctiveness
With this brief lesson in naming as context, let’s now get back to the renaming of Recho. Big Human took a little over a week to go through a formal exercise that, in the end, produced several new naming options. Big Human wanted to present me with their three strongest ideas.
The first name that appeared on the screen was “Tastebud.” I knew immediately that was the one. The app was about your taste in music, in books, in movies, etc. I could hardly contain my enthusiasm as I told the Big Human team they could end their presentation right there. Of course, they did show me the two other names (“Parrot” and “Relay”). And, while both were actually quite interesting, neither one elicited the strong emotional (nearly visceral) response in me that “Tastebud” had.
To me, “Tastebud” hit all of the essential qualities of a powerful name — as presented by Steve Manning and Jay Jurisich, co-founders of naming and branding agency Igor. And, it did so in a way that neither “Recho,” nor the two other names proposed by Big Human came close to doing.
Qualities of Powerful Names:
· a name that people will talk about
· a name that’s a story in itself, whether it’s at a party, at work, or on CNBC.
· does it make you feel good?
· does it make you smile?
· does it lock into your brain?
· does it make you want to know more?
· how does the name physically look and sound?
· how does it roll off the tongue?
· how does it sound the millionth time?
· will people remember it?
· does the name have attitude?
· does it exude qualities like confidence, mystery, warmth, a sense of humor?
· is it provocative, engaging?
· is it a tough act to follow?
· is the name a constant source of inspiration for advertising and marketing?
· does it have “legs”?
· does it work on a lot of different levels?
The only real problem with the name Tastebud was that it would likely result in the wrong initial impression being formed about the purpose of the app; that it was somehow food related. Since this would really only be a problem when the “Tastebud” brand was presented without any context (i.e. without any written description of the product, images of the product or without me or someone else being present to describe it), I was willing to live with this minor marketing hurdle.
Before solidifying our new name, I wanted one final bit of confirmation that Tastebud was the right choice. I mentioned the name change in a status update email to 75 users who were participating in a four-week beta test of the app. All but one of the many responses I received about the name change were either very or extremely positive.
With the new name in hand, Big Human did an initial exploration of the Tastebud logo and app icon, presenting me with a variety of design treatments. The icons were clean and simple, and several did a great job of capturing the colorful aesthetic of the app. But, I needed to see more.
The second round of designs was an improvement on the first. In fact, I would have been fairly happy going with one or two of the icons if we absolutely had to lock down a design right then and there. But, I wasn’t excited.
Again, part of the challenge was that we were using the term “Tastebud” in an unconventional way (not in a food context). It was a suggestive name that leaned toward the fanciful end of the naming spectrum. This meant our app icon needed to have strong and identifiable visual cues that would both distinguish Tastebud in the consumer’s mind and — with the help of some imagination — would allow for an accurate perception of the app’s purpose and functionality.
I think part of the problem was that we were being so careful to avoid coming up with a logo that might have hinted at something food-related, that Big Human’s designers were being boxed in.
I told Big Human that even though we were now falling a bit behind schedule, I didn’t want to settle for an icon that was merely good. That establishing a clear and compelling brand identity was as important as designing a beautiful and functional product. I wanted to be wowed. I needed to feel the same way about the logo as I had about the name “Tastebud” when I first saw it flash on the screen several weeks earlier.
The next round of designs included something unexpected — an icon that featured a very playful, in-your-face (maybe even provocative?) wagging tongue. My first thought was, “Now that’s interesting.” My second thought was, “Miley Cyrus.” My third thought was, “The Rolling Stones. Maybe too much Rolling Stones.” But, I liked it. I liked it a lot.
The “wagging tongue” had personality. It was fun. It was playful. And, it would certainly grab people’s attention. But, I knew it wasn’t right for Tastebud.
There’s a really great Smashing Magazine article by logo designer Jacob Cass that offers, among other great chunks of insight, five key principles of effective logo design.
Five Principles of Effective Logo Design:
It was clear to me that the “wagging tongue” met the first four principles, but not the fifth. Tastebud is supposed to be about trusted recommendations. The brand identity needed to convey credibility and reliability. A wagging tongue would undermine that message.
But, I didn’t want to abandon the tongue concept altogether. We simply had to evolve it until we landed on an icon that was fun and playful yet credible and trustworthy. And here’s where we ended up:
You can learn more about Tastebud by visiting our blog, following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, or simply download the iOS app in the Apple App Store.