The Optimal Brand Naming Process

Rob MeyersonJanuary 25, 20196 min

Everyone’s heard stories of great brand names chosen randomly from a hat full of employee suggestions, from the pages of a dictionary, or from an all-night brainstorm. But in reality, while a laissez faire approach to naming could lead to the next “Twitter” or “BlackBerry,” it’s just as likely to end in disaster — if not more so.

For example, a more rigorous naming process could’ve helped World Wrestling Entertainment avoid a 12-year dispute with World Wildlife Fund over the initials “WWF.” With nearly 2.5 million active U.S. trademarks — and more added every year — simply finding an available brand name requires a more process-driven approach.

That’s why, despite the fact brand consultants love debating the “right” way to create strong brands, the high-level naming process is generally agreed upon: create a brief, generate ideas (often hundreds), shortlist, prescreen, and present. If necessary, repeat.

However, access to same process doesn’t guarantee the same results. Using the same underlying process, how do some naming experts and agencies consistently produce strategically sound, legally available, and eminently memorable names? I put this question to nine recognized naming experts, including a former head of naming at Google, several owners of specialized naming agencies, a professional trademark pre-screener, and a linguist who helps ensure new brand names are acceptable for global audiences (i.e., not “Pinto”). Based on these interviews, I’ve compiled the following list of nine tips and tools, organized by (generally agreed-upon) naming steps.

Naming Brief

1. Include actual names and name ideas in the brief.

Along with abstract ideas you’re hoping the name will express, be sure to include more tangible examples-other names in the marketplace that you/the client like or dislike and any name ideas that have been considered or rejected previously.

“I would say some of the best briefs are actually when you write the brief together with the client and say, ‘Okay, what names do you like out there in the market?’…You’re able to extract things that…normally wouldn’t show up on a brief.”

– Amanda Peterson, former Head of Naming and Leader of Brand Management at Google

2. Make sure every decision-maker reviews and approves the brief.

It’s one of the most common ways for a naming project to get derailed. Don’t let it happen to you!

“The single biggest thing that goes wrong from anybody’s point of view, is that somebody in the company…is not brought into the process early, even though they have veto power over the name. … And then they come up with a name and they put it in front of this person who has not been involved, and he looks at it and goes, ‘No.’”

– Clive Chafer, Head of Namebrand

Name Generation

3. Mix things up: Try naming individually and in a group, online and off.

Group work is great for exploring conceptual territories, or when specialized knowledge is less important. For those projects that require a deep dive in a technical category, individual work may bear more fruit. And while most name generation is inevitably augmented with online tools (e.g., OneLook), it’s often useful to step away from the computer and see what you can produce with nothing more than a notebook and a pen.

“I have even driven…an hour away to a beautiful setting — especially when it’s a particular kind of project and I need more tranquil, open, expansive ideas — and given myself physical space and physical beauty in order to start unleashing [name ideas].”

– Shannon DeJong, CEO of House of Who

4. When stuck, try distracting yourself, purposely coming up with bad ideas, or naming something else entirely.

Many creative people find their best ideas bubble up from the subconscious only after they’ve stepped away from the project. Exercise, sleep, and social interactions can all serve this purpose-just be sure to have a pen and paper nearby. If you’re still stuck, try coming up with “stupid” name ideas or shifting gears by pretending you’re on a different (but related) naming assignment.

“You identify a completely unrelated product category-sometimes the less related the better-and you look for examples of a desired attribute or quality from that category. … By thinking through an attribute as it appears somewhere else, you are able to find ideas that are differentiated but relevant.”

– Anthony Shore, Chief Operative, Operative Words


5. Get some outside perspective.

To ensure you’re not getting “too close to the problem,” consider bringing in some outside experts to cull your master list.

“One of the things that we’re pretty big on is seeking input from a larger group, so it’s not just, say, me, the creative director, making some final decisions about which names are going to get into the presentation [to the client].”

– Scott Milano, Managing Director of Tanj


6. Learn how to search the USPTO’s Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS) more efficiently.

The US trademark database is public and free — but learning to search it efficiently requires some studying up. (To get an idea, check out this sample search for marks containing “easy,” as outlined on the TESS Help page: *ea{“szc”}{“iey”}*[bi,ti]. So, not all that…easy.)

“Be aware of what the relevant [International] Classes are. And then, if you can restrict the search to particular words that are in the goods and services, such as ‘software’ or ‘candy bars,’ that too will probably make your search more efficient.”

– Steven Price, Tessera Trademark Screening

7. Invest in a real linguistic and cultural disaster check.

Just because a few Spanish-speaking friends or colleagues confirm a name works well doesn’t mean it will fly in Mexico and Spain, not to mention other Spanish-speaking areas in the United States and around the world. A real linguistic analysis will check with multiple native language speakers living in each relevant country.

“Typically, [I ask native linguists] a question about pronunciation. Have them rate it. Is it easy? Is it hard? Why is it hard? … The second area would be whether it has negative associations, and those can be from a cultural thing happening in that country or something in the past. It can be political. It can be just the sound of the word. … The third area that I usually ask about is existing brand associations. Does this name remind you of a brand in your country?”

– Laurel Sutton, Founder & Linguist, Sutton Strategy


Show each name in the same context to avoid biasing reactions.

Great brand names often lend themselves to visual expression. You may be tempted to design logos for your favorite ideas or give each a unique font and color. But you need not be a psychology expert to see the inherent risk in this approach: Does the CEO hate that name idea, or does she just hate orange?

“We tend to develop sort of a generic graphic page where we show all the names in the same font but surround them with some sort of wallpaper or imagery that reflects what the brand or company or product is about. We do not develop unique graphic looks for each of the names because I think that that…gets them to focus on the design and not the names.”

– Jonathan Bell, Managing Director of WANT

And please, please don’t present anything you can’t get behind.

It’s the Murphy’s Law of naming.

“If you don’t like a name enough to be proud of it and share it when the project’s done, then don’t put it in front of the client because that’s going to be the one that they’re going to pick.”

– Eli Altman, Creative Director, A Hundred Monkeys

The best namers are the ones who consistently put out great brand names. Their ability to do so is partly raw talent, but it’s also a combination of access to high-quality tools and mastery of easily learned skills. If you’re looking to come up with great names, whether for your own brand or as a professional namer, put these best practices, tools, and techniques into practice starting today. I hope it helps you create a brand name you love — but if you want, feel free to tell everyone you just picked it out of hat.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Rob Meyerson, How Brands Are Built

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