What’s in a Name?

Product naming is a key aspect of branding. The name you ultimately choose will reflect who you are, your company’s personality and vision. But more importantly, it must unforgettably embody the promise of your product’s main benefit to your potential customers. It can dovetail generically with your competition, but ideally, it should stand out from the crowd. Where to begin? Here are some basic guidelines.

If the field’s too crowded, be unique

MSN Search, Netscape Search, AOL Search, they all stayed in the same category, so

you could play it safe and go with Stupendous Search or Super-Duper Search. This

works for a time, but as soon as the field gets too crowded, you’ll be lost in the

mush of sameness with ever diminishing name recognition. If you’re in it for the

long haul, better to break away from the crowd with a name like Google, Yahoo, or

even Dogpile (though I’m not a fan of going into the scat category just to be

unique). Even Kinkos–the founder’s nickname (he had kinky red hair in school)–is

different enough to be memorable.

Avoid tongue twisters

There’s a little part in all of us that hates to be embarrassed. When we ask for a

product or talk about it with friends, we want to sound literate and not fumble over

pronunciations. So be kind to your potential customers and avoid tongue twisters,

or any name that’s unusually long or foreign sounding. If you can’t find a single-

word name, don’t go over two or three syllables.

Alliteration can help with longer names

Okay, so the president of the company likes all the longer names on your list. You

can make them more memorable and/or easier to pronounce by using alliteration.

Consider Circuit City (originally, the incredibly bland, monosyllabic, Wards). Or

Downtown Disney, Or the most famous brand in the world, Coca Cola. All four

syllables, yet they roll off the tongue with surprising ease.

Avoid abbreviations

Abbreviations lack personality and communicate very little in terms of benefit or

brand character. Sure, IBM, MCI and ABC have big recognition and identity, but they

also spent years and millions in virtually all media to promote their image–using

images of people and situations that were warm and fuzzy. Even billionaire Bill

Gates chose Microsoft over MS (which has some undesirable connotations).

Convey an implied benefit

If you don’t have a lot of media dollars to spend on name recognition, try for a

name that conveys a benefit or describes content. Snapple started out with a name

that combined two of its original flavors: Spice N Apple. Silk–the soy-based milk

brand–combines soy and milk. Benefit-oriented names include EasyOff oven

cleaner, Miracle-Grow plant food, and Hearthwarmer (a fireplace insert).

Lost in Translation…or worse!

Most of us have heard the story of Chevrolet introducing their “Nova” in Spanish-

speaking countries. The car tanked because ‘nova’ means “doesn’t go.” Fiat found

they had to rename their “uno” in Finland, since “Uno” means garbage in Finnish.

Canadian products require labeling in both English and French, which is why on

some cookie boxes, the English phrase “without preservatives” has been

unintentionally translated into the French “sans preservatives,” which means

“without condoms.” ‘Nuff said.

Avoid fads

The shelf life of a faddish name is short and sweet. It rises to the stratosphere of

recognition then nosedives into obscurity faster than you can say, “radical,”

“tubular” or “outta sight.” Another problem with fads is they’re often limited to one

demographic or clique. In a market as broad and diverse as the U.S., it’s better to

be safe than sorry.

Protect your image

If you’re like most companies, you worked hard and spent some real money creating

the image of your company. So it only makes sense to protect your investment with

a product name that’s consistent with your existing brands and image. Rolls Royce

had to pull the name of its newest addition to the Silver Cloud line, which they

tentatively named the “Silver Mist,” since in German, “mist” means manure. So build

on what you have. A good example: Google’s entry into online shopping with

Froogle. Incidentally, if you’re wondering where “Google” came from, it’s a variation

on the math term googol, a huge number with endless zeros.

Don’t forget legal

Once you’ve settled on a few ideal prospective names, hire a good lawyer to make

sure they’re not already being used and not confusingly similar to someone else’s in

your industry.

Hopefully, this brief overview will help guide you through the subtleties of product

naming. Remember, try to be unique and benefit oriented without being confusing

or offensive. Avoid fads, abbreviations and tongue twisters. And, by all means,

protect your image.