Don’t Focus-Group That Name

After a long and productive phone conversation with a prospective naming client, I received an email with a follow-up question: What’s my process for testing the names I develop? The target audience for this company is teenagers, and the client wanted to solicit teens’ input before committing to a name.

I sent a brief answer — name testing is not part of my process — followed by a longer one.

Photo by Romain Vignes on Unsplash

Here’s what I said in the long answer:

In my more than 20 years of name-development experience, I have never seen a successful outcome from name “testing.” On the contrary: Often the testing process dooms the entire project — which up to now has consumed months of careful preparation and thousands of dollars in fees — to failure.

Here are some of the problems:

  • Conflicting goals. The client wants a name that will endure. The client’s test subjects — and teenagers especially — will prefer a name that sounds cool now. Your customers aren’t invested in your brand identity or in the long-term success of your organization. In short, your goals and theirs are at odds.
  • Inadequate preparation. Before I begin the creative phase I conduct interviews and research. With the client team’s input, I’ll identify a naming strategy and sets of objectives and criteria to guide my naming work. The naming brief I then write may be three or four pages long. The client reviews the brief, makes revisions if necessary, and refers to it when I present the names. The test subjects? It’s doubtful the client will pass out copies of the brief to them, and then quiz them to make sure they’ve understood it, before asking them about names. But without that vital information — and without design cues such as color and logo — the test subjects will make judgments in a vacuum.
  • Lack of experience. I tell clients that a selecting a name should be like entering an arranged marriage, not finding a love match. Is this a concept that 13-year-olds can grasp? Trust me: it’s hard enough for 30-year-olds!
  • Conflicting desires. When you survey people outside your organization about names, you’re looking for an endorsement. (“It’s perfect! I love it!”) This will never happen. Teens in particular want to prove that they’re sharp critics and independent thinkers … which means, in their view, saying “no” to everything. Or being “creative” and countering with their own names. (If you want customer-generated names, there’s no point in hiring me!)
  • Negativity. In every focus group I’ve observed, there were some people who shrugged and said “The name sucks. I can’t explain why.” What will you do with feedback like that? How useful is it? How meaningful?
  • Too-brief exposure. There’s a well-documented phenomenon called the Zajonc effect — the tendency of people, after repeated exposure to an unfamiliar thing, to reverse their initial feelings of dislike or distaste and like the thing more over time. We frequently see the Zajonc effect in branding: names like Google, Virgin, and Banana Republic were deemed ridiculous or even offensive when they first appeared. Focus groups almost certainly would have rejected them. But over time, with consistent and persistent branding, they became household words.

There are other pitfalls as well. In a blog post about the wrong way to do naming research, Lexicon Branding looked at poor question formulation, multiple-choice bias, and priming — all of which can render test results meaningless.

Here’s an insightful excerpt:

Whether you’re conducting qualitative research (focus groups) or quantitative research (an online survey), traditional tactics call for asking the target customer whether or not they ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ a name and how well a name ‘fits’ to a concept.
By asking questions like these, you are essentially paying $100 to a stranger to make brand strategy judgments that you, as the professional, should be making. In addition, you’re asking a consumer to be logical in his or her decision-making, something they might do when purchasing a car or home, but not when they’re considering dish soap.

Summary: You’re hiring me — a verbal-branding professional — to develop a strategy for naming and a set of names that support that strategy. Why ask nonprofessionals with no stake in the outcome to judge my work?

So go ahead and test your methodology, functionality, and user experience. But don’t waste time, energy, and money on useless — and possibly harmful — name surveys.