What’s in a Name? Three Simple Steps to Naming

A name is the shortest brand story, as well as a shortcut to decision-making. As such, naming is as much an art as it is arithmetic — but like both, there’s a process. Here are some tips to help you find the right one.

1. Kickoff + Brief

Start the project by asking everything you need to know. Begin with the basics:

  • Why do you exist? (i.e., what is the purpose of your organization or offering?)
  • What’s the value you deliver ? (i.e., who are your competitors and what are you uniquely able to offer?)
  • Which audiences are your trying to reach? (i.e., who is your target audience and what do we want them to do?)
  • Where will the brand live? (i.e., where does it fit in the organizational portfolio and does the brand need a trademark?)
  • Why does it need a name? (i.e.,is it signaling something new or will a descriptor or label also suffice?)

If you have the time in advance, during this initial discussion you could also share some thought-starter names or a survey of peer names and offerings to get reactions around ideas, words or even sounds to explore or avoid. This will help narrow in on the kinds of names that feel right, from the descriptive — e.g. “The Container Store” — to the invented, e.g., “Verizon.” (Learn more about naming categories in our free brand glossary).

Based on the discussion, capture feedback in a brief or summary. As the name implies, the brief should give a short but rich explanation of the challenge, context and competition, as well as the most compelling communication points for target audiences and any creative territories you’ll explore. This establishes the strategy that will not only help steer your name generation, but set the criteria for how you’ll eventually choose a name.

2. Generation + Shortlisting

With the brief as a guide, now it’s time for the fun part: creating names. Because there are more trademarks than than there are words in the dictionary, creativity and volume matters here. Move beyond the thesaurus (where plenty of names have already been used and legally claimed) and use these best practices to up the quality and quantity of your naming options:

  • Engage your senses: explore all the different dimensions of an experience to build out further associations
  • Go up and down the ladder of abstraction: a “door” that is “open” is an “opportunity” and sometimes a “promise”
  • Shake up your routine: Name on paper, out loud, and outside of your usual spaces (e.g., go for a walk)
  • Use ideas as launchpads: always push past what you think is your last idea

Once you have a longlist of names, you’ll need to whittle it down to the ones that fit the brief the best and are viable. Viable names should be believable and easy to read, spell and pronounce. Finally — and most importantly — all naming options should be pre-screened through trademark and web searches to make sure your names aren’t already taken, and are as close to legally ownable as possible.

3. Final Shortlisting + Next Steps

No matter if it’s a brand, a boat or a baby, naming is subjective. So before you share or present naming options, set the context for what a good name is and isn’t. Remind your team that a name can only communicate one of two ideas: a message (the most important thing it says) or a style (how it says it).

When presenting, be prepared to go into detail on what every name means, where it comes from and what its possible associations are. After you share, have your team focus on the names that resonated first. Try to have at least three name candidates for final legal review, if needed to trademark. If there are not enough picks, capture feedback in detail — not just yes and no, but why — so you can adjust the brief and get started on another round of generation and shortlisting.

Naming can feel more like an emotional journey than a strategic one, and that’s okay. Names have the power to signal change and inspire people. As one of the most understandable, tangible and ownable assets of a brand, a name brings something to life, and there are few things as rewarding as getting it right. With these tips and a creative spirit, you’re already well on your way.


Image via Unsplash user Raphael Schaller