If naming is like throwing a lasso around an animal that doesn’t yet exist, a sense of what you believe, and what you want to achieve, is required.
Throwing the Lasso: A Word on Naming
At its heart, naming is about identity. One way to think about this is as a kind of balance. Like an equation, stability occurs when dynamic expressions are in agreement. Otherwise the equation doesn’t work, it doesn’t prove what it’s supposed to prove. This metaphor is more than an illustration. When pursuing a name, a systematic approach helps us align with our partners to work through the science of building an identity. A great name is built on balance.
No one has trouble naming a pet or a plant, and new parents do not have to clear legal trademarks, or find a suitable, searchable domain for their newborn. But a brand is different. A quality brand name signals different attributes to help it succeed. Each company has its own priorities and needs, but these attributes start with the following territories:
- Category — Does the name indicate what service or product the brand provides?
- Community — Does the name target who the brand is for, the ideal client or customer?
- Culture — Does the name accurately represent the attitude and values for the brand?
- Creativity — Is the name memorable, ownable, and appropriate at scale?
Before starting to brainstorm, identifying these principles helps set parameters around what to explore. Not only does this save time, but it helps generate strong naming directions. Because a name is the most-used element of any brand, the more dots that connect, the stronger a name can be. Clarifying the story, prioritizing values, and identifying opportunities are requirements for creating a valuable identity.
The Right Creative Partners
The biggest difference between choosing a name by yourself or seeking the help of an agency is point of view. A creative partner can share a creative point of view, as well as objective reasoning. They can help you think through the problem, as well as the solution. For example, it can be easy to be overly critical, until all the good options are gone and you’re left with a mediocre name that only stands out for being safe. Usually, it’s easier to see the possibility of risk than the potential for success. Too loud of an inner critic and every name will have something wrong with it. Daring names risk alienation; safe names risk oblivion. And every name risks the bitter landscape of trademark threats. When Apple first explored the iPad, many people were concerned that it sounded like a hygiene product. According to The Atlantic, Apple’s agency didn’t swerve, and once people saw the product their concerns disappeared.
As in any healthy relationship, having the right partner makes or breaks the outcome. Working with the right creative partner means encouraging a diverse scope of solutions, with a safe space to work through concerns, public, and personal. The more a name can stand out (while staying on brand), the more upside it stands to have. After all, fortune favors the bold became a cliché for a reason.
Usually, it’s easier to see the possibility of risk than the potential for success. Too loud of an inner critic and every name will have something wrong with it. Daring names risk alienation; safe names risk oblivion.
Even with a handful of good names to choose from, it can be hard to know which is the best of the bunch. That is, understanding potential isn’t always obvious. PayPal began as Confinity. eBay started as AuctionWeb. Firefox as Firebird. Snapchat as Picaboo. In hindsight, the value of these name changes feel intuitive and obvious, if not a relief. But the advantage of time is clarity. Knowing what we know about these brands, it’s easy to see how all of the new names are sharper, and clearer. You might even call them riskier.
Risk is an opportunity. If naming is like throwing a lasso around an animal that doesn’t yet exist, a sense of what you believe, and what you want to achieve, is required. How does a company signal its offering in an elevated way? Often, it comes down to a different way of thinking. Royal Dutch Shell has no direct significance to oil or gas. Instead, it’s an homage to the family’s first success, seashell trading. And Starbucks, named after the first mate in Moby Dick, signals voyage, not coffee beans. These are risks for the quantitative world of business, but they are both directly connected to the reason why these companies exist. And the abstract, incongruous nature of these names signal a reference, a connection that makes them hard to forget.
Branding and Naming are Inextricable
If the name is an invitation, the brand experience is the party. The power of a name gets stronger when backed by design; a name is both verbal and visual. But how does a name connect to the visual identity? Coca-Cola chose its name in part because of the alliteration and symmetry of the hard [k] sound. Additionally, the company liked the recognizable look of the two cursive “Cs” in its early advertising. Today, it’s hard to even hear the name of the drink without seeing a mental image of the branding or the product. The typeface, the iconic, red and white colorway and the phonetic quality of the word “Coke” all contribute to our perception of the brand’s identity.
If Google had tried to name the company after its core offering, it might have registered a name like Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web (the original name for Yahoo!) or Quantum Computer Services (the original name for AOL).
If constraint is the engine of creativity, then less on the table can mean more to work from. Take Google, a friendlier spelling of googol, an enormous cardinal number (10^100). If Google had tried to name the company after its core offering, it might have registered a name like Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web (the original name for Yahoo!) or Quantum Computer Services (the original name for AOL). By focusing on a single detail, a connection to the infinite possibilities of the internet and the prescriptive mechanics of its algorithms, Google managed to find an ownable, unforgettable creative solution.
There are many strategies to pull from, but what remains constant is relentless and creative optimism. Staying safe with ordinary, expected names has little place in the noisy world of transformation and disruption. Now, more than ever, brands have the opportunity to signal new ideas and new services with new names.
The Magic Ingredients
Communicating the value of a name up a chain of stakeholders requires a strong story, and the ability to tell it. Not everyone will recognize the associations, linguistic nuances, and brand equity that a name has the potential to create. Framing each name in the right context and with the necessary decision-making criteria helps different teams understand and appreciate exactly how a name works.
Bringing something new into the world can feel a bit like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. It’s exciting, as long as you have the right hat, and pull out the right rabbit. Unlike a magic trick, there is no impromptu, grand reveal. A successful name is born from a sound strategy, a generative relationship, strong communication, and optimists on both sides who can shepherd a name from the seed of an idea to a brand system. But, like a magic trick, there are flashes of brilliance, there are moments of sudden clarity; it is exciting. With the right partners, and the right approach, you’ll know when you feel it, when you’ve got ‘em by the ears.
Bringing something new into the world can feel a bit like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. It’s exciting, as long as you have the right hat, and pull out the right rabbit. Unlike a magic trick, there is no impromptu, grand reveal.
We can help.
Here are some of the things we’ve named...
Will Jameson believes that good writing makes good design unforgettable. He has proven this for clients across tech, beauty, food & beverage, and consumer goods. A poet and storyteller, he helps elevate the studio’s writing, naming, and narrative capabilities.
Working across digital, interactive, and packaging design, his work has been recognized by Brand New, The Dieline, Site Inspire, and the CSS Design Awards. His writing helped to win Google the Shopping Site of the Year award, from the Webbys.
Will has taught writing at Parsons School of Design, and at the University of Iowa. He holds an MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a BA in creative writing from the University of Washington.
Off the page, Will dabbles in ceramics and plays bass with the San Francisco Civic Symphony. Having lived in Seattle, New York, and Los Angeles, he now calls San Francisco home.