New Year, New Name? Ten Tips

Nancy Friedman
Jan 4 · 4 min read

If one of your New Year’s resolutions is naming — or renaming — a company, a product, an organization, or a process, I’m here to help. Yes, you could hire me to do the job. Or you could do it yourself by following these guidelines.

Give yourself time. I’ve disappointed a few would-be clients who expected me to complete a naming project in under an hour, possibly because they’ve been duped by ridiculous articles like this one. Sorry, folks: it takes a lot of hours. Why? Research. Interviews. Legal vetting. Multiple creative rounds (it’s virtually impossible to hit it out of the park on the first attempt).

But not too much. I’ve also talked with founders and CEOs who have been poking their naming projects along for six, nine, or (in one case) even twelve months. That’s just as ridiculous as the do-it-in-an-hour school of naming. Get a grip — and a deadline. Four to six weeks will give you enough time to follow a process that leads to a happy outcome — and just enough pressure to ensure that you deliver the goods.

Write a naming brief. You may think you know your naming objectives and criteria, but until you’ve written them down in a detailed naming brief you aren’t prepared to begin your naming exercise.

Think laterally, not literally. First-time name developers often lean toward names that literally describe what a product looks like or what a company does. But descriptive names are weak names, legally and emotionally. (Read more about descriptiveness and other D-words.) The most exciting and effective names are created through lateral, not literal, thinking. Lateral thinking is attributed to Edward de Bono, author of Six Thinking Hats, who proposed a method of problem-solving that’s oblique rather than logical; his lateral techniques have names like “harvesting,” “challenge,” and “random entry.” Lateral thinking can be frustrating at first, but it yields names that are exciting, unexpected, and effective — suggestive names rather than descriptive ones.

Cast a wide net. This means two things. First, look far and wide, and not in the predictable places — see “think laterally,” above. While you’re in the creative phase — a minimum of one week, preferably two or three — open your eyes to everything that piques your interest: books, billboards, bumper stickers, song lyrics, slang, street names. Keep a notebook (or an app) devoted to this raw material. Don’t edit, just notice. Second, create lots of names. Use your research to put words together, take words apart, and spin off new words. As the Nobel-winning chemist Linus Pauling famously said, you need a lot of ideas to get a single good idea. And trademark constraints mean fewer than 5 percent of the names you develop will be available. So keep at it.

Don’t copy trends. Like baby names, corporate naming styles go in and out of popularity: the names that end in -ify, the names that end in -ly, the names that begin with e- or i-. Don’t be an imitator: stand out from your competition.

Many zen names. And many more. Find another word.

Test the sound and the spelling. Can you pronounce the name? Can your potential customers — in North America, Luxembourg, Nigeria, or wherever — pronounce the name without stumbling? Does the spelling align with the pronunciation? Those aspects of the name are worth checking and double-checking. On the other hand …

Avoid focus groups. Asking random people whether they “like” a name is a sure way to doom your naming project. Testing is great for user experience, bad for choosing a name.

Team up with a good trademark lawyer. Founders and executives worry far too much about finding a URL and not nearly enough about legal clearance. The availability of a domain is no guarantee that your new name is legally available. An experienced trademark lawyer is an invaluable partner in the naming process.

Hiring a professional naming consultant isn’t an admission of defeat. You probably don’t do your own corporate taxes. You may be outsourcing your human-resources function. So why is there so much resistance to getting professional help with name development? Maybe because founders (especially) have emotional, sentimental assumptions about naming that don’t align with reality. A name has to do a job: it’s the title of a story about your brand. Hiring someone with expert-level skills in language and marketing doesn’t mean you’ve failed; it means you’re smart enough to hire the right talent at the right time.

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