Don’t name your company or your product. Name your positioning.
While products will evolve and obsolesce, the governing meaning of your brand promise will be evergreen. If you name without having first defined your brand, you’re letting the tail wag the dog. Slow down. You will be poised to go faster later. Take time to create a name that both energizes and plugs into your positioning.
Here are three steps to a valuable name: 1) Define. 2) Refine. 3) Align.
The first and foremost step in naming is to define your brand positioning. Who are you serving? What is their problem? What is your unique promise? What are the proof points for that promise? What is your character? This is your brand positioning. Once you have pinpointed and articulated it, then ideate words or phrases or made-up sounds that either literally or evocatively express your brand positioning. Strategy first, then tactics.
Recognize that your name serves a very practical purpose, not just a creative one. A great name helps customers remember and recall your business. Kodak, the erstwhile giant of film photography, was named because it was easy to pronounce. Conversely, the number of Americans who correctly pronounce Fage, the Greek yogurt brand (fah-yay, not fahj), is probably about the same as the number who get gyro right.
If you want customers to remember your name (you do!), make it accessible enough that they can incorporate it into their brains. If you want customers to talk about your brand (you do!), then make it easy to pronounce, easy to spell. Make them feel smart, not dumb, when they recommend your brand.
The descriptive names, such as Salesforce or Athleta, describe their positioning in a literal way. The fanciful ones, like Oracle or Lululemon, describe their positioning in a figurative way. They’re more conceptual.
Each approach has pros and cons. The more descriptive a name, the less education you must provide in the short term to explain who you are. Salesforce doesn’t have to explain as much as Oracle that it sells sales-enabling customer-relationship products. The idea is baked into its name. Athleta needs less explaining that it sells athletic apparel than does competitor Lululemon. Descriptive names are pragmatically useful because right out of the gate customers get what you bring. This is the advantage descriptive names confer.
The disadvantage of descriptive names, though, is that they are less flexible, so over time can lose relevance and obsolesce. Banana Republic was once a brand for exotic travel clothing. That descriptive name does it no favors today when it sells professional clothing at a mass premium price point. Reportedly, when Salesforce innovated way beyond sales software, it struggled with whether to change its name. It obviously chose to keep the Salesforce name – it is extraordinarily difficult and painful to change a name once your awareness is high. But the descriptiveness that made it useful in the beginning is the very thing that makes it confining today.
Fanciful names also bring a tradeoff of advantages and disadvantages. The advantage of a fanciful name is that it is flexible, and it can evoke a more emotional response than a descriptive name. Oracle and Lululemon can travel way beyond enterprise software and yoga clothing because their names mean something evocative rather than literal. They also conjure a feeling less boring than Salesforce and Athleta. On the other hand, fanciful names have a more difficult task in the short term of educating the customer about the nature of the offering. Oracle and Lululemon needed to do more explaining about what they were before people grasped and remembered their offering.
There is no shortcut on this journey. Pick the route that best serves what you are trying to do as a business – and whose disadvantage feels the least problematic to you.
In reality, any business will need both the practicality of a descriptive name and the flexibility and emotiveness of a fanciful name. One tool I love for trying to achieve both practicality and flexibility is to have a one-two punch of evocative name with descriptive category indicator.
For example, take two businesses I’ve advised during the naming process: Mighty AI and Tangelo Manual Therapy & Movement.
Mighty is evocative, and AI (artificial intelligence) is the category. So MightyAI gives the flexibility of the evocative with the pragmatic help of the category. With Tangelo Manual Therapy & Movement, Tangelo is evocative of sweetness and health, while Manual Therapy & Movement states the category and pragmatic customer need state.
Another tool to achieve this balance is the tagline. If your name is evocative, use the tagline to anchor it to something more descriptive, such as “Altoids. Curiously Strong Mints.” If your name is descriptive, let your tagline do what your name doesn’t do, such as bring more personality to the name. For example, “General Electric. Imagination at work.”
A powerful company name is an intangible asset with tremendous value. To name your company, remember to first define your positioning. A cool name that doesn’t express your positioning is an albatross that will haunt you. Ideate names, either among friends, within the company, or with an outside agency. Next, refine your name so that customers can easily recognize and pronounce it. Finally, align your name to balance carefully between descriptive and emotive, literal and evocative.
The process should not be a navel-gazing exercise. This three-step process helps you identify a name that will make your target customer most able to see you, understand you, and want to get to know you better. Think of naming as a real estate play – one in which the real estate you occupy is in your customer’s mind. Your name is your brand’s most valuable real estate for signaling your identity to your target customer.
What is your business’s name? How well does it express your positioning? How can you use your other real estate – your category descriptor, your tagline, your visual identity – to bring to life your brand positioning in this most important piece of brand real estate?
Ensure that your name, category, and tagline work together to make it easy for your target customer to find, remember, and embrace you. Use my "HOPE framework" to guide you as you evaluate creative outputs such as names.
Lindsay is a Brand Strategist and Founder of Ironclad Brand Strategy, which builds brands using an exacting and analytic method. Her background as a P&L owner at Clorox fostered a deep appreciation for the executive charge: to create sustainable value. Ironclad advises companies from burgeoning startups to national corporations, including Zulily, IMDb, T-Mobile and Starbucks. Lindsay holds an MBA in Business from the University of California Berkeley, Haas School of Business.