Ten Secrets A Brand Naming Agency Won’t Tell You

Whether it’s a tech startup, a local bakery or an architecture practice, it’s something that every entrepreneur has to deal with very early on in the process: what is the business going to be called?

The question isn’t always easy to answer, but you’ll want to get it right. If it all works out as it should, you’ll have to live with the name of your new business for many years. The right name could make all the difference.

But how do you find a name for your business? Can you do it yourself? Or do you commission a naming or branding agency to take on the task on your behalf?

Before you make your choice, you might want to consider these 10 things that the naming agency probably won’t tell you.

It’s An Art, Not A Science

Creating a brand name for a business is really a misnomer. A brand is built over time and is the sum of what other people think and feel about a company, its products and its service – it can’t be in place from Day One.

What a company name can be is an attempt to distill its aspirations for its brand into a neat package which – when wrapped up in a logo – becomes a signpost, guiding people towards the ‘right’ perceptions.

This ‘brand’ – think of it as a ‘reputation’ – is not based on facts and figures. It’s based on an emotional response, not analysis …people are more Homer Simpson, than Mr. Spock. So there’s nothing that you can do to create a name that works in a predictable, controllable way.

There is no giant branding computer running a fiendishly clever algorithm. There’s no repeatable methodology. And there are no provable hypotheses.

Branding, and brand naming, is not a science. So, although people in the naming business often talk about their work using long words and opaque terminology, they’re relying more on instinct, than analysis. And they are right to do so.

Research Doesn’t Work

Research Doesn’t Work

Because you never really know if your proposed business name is any good, it might be tempting to test it out. You will probably ask your partner, your friends and family. You might seek input from business associates. Or from a neighbor.

But the danger is that this often leads to a range of opinion: if you ask five people, you’re likely to get five answers. What’s more, if you look for a consensus, you’ll usually end up with a name that fewer people dislike; not the name that some absolutely love.

Brand naming is subjective: it’s all about emotion, not rationality. There is no right and wrong, and nobody really knows for sure what works, and why. Brand naming specialists know this, so they know that research isn’t a useful tool for identifying good business names. Research is only used to establish how brands are currently perceived, and to identify changes that might be made to reposition a brand in people’s minds.

If research at the naming stage is used at all, it’s used to authenticate what is already known. Whatever the results of the research are, they will be used to confirm that the agency’s preferred name is the right name.

Post-rationalisation Rules!

Naming is hard work. Many hundreds of frogs need to be kissed before a prince is discovered. But sometimes, a great idea will come out of the blue.

Good company names are often inexplicable. They just feel right, look good and seem to resonate with the brand objectives. They just work.

But when asked to justify your proposal, it can be a hard sell.

This is where post-rationalization comes in. The objective of the exercise is to start with a name that is somehow just ‘right’ …and then work backwards. With some convincing jargon, cunning word play and a hint of poetry, the proposed name can be shown to be the logical result of finely-balanced ingredients.

Editing Is As Important As Ideas

Editing Is As Important As Ideas

If you want to generate name ideas, start with a brainstorm. It’s Rule 1 of naming, isn’t it? It’s also quite an easy concept to grasp and straightforward to find useful guidance or tools online that can help you on your way.

Unfortunately, brainstorming is only really likely to produce a list of words – sometimes a very long list of words.

Just as it’s easy to produce a list of ‘key words’, it’s also pretty straightforward to start combining words you like into pairs or to merge them to form new words. But is Fresh Vision, or FreshVision – or even Frision – a good name?

The truth is, that the real skill of a brand namer is that they are good at spotting potential, zeroing-in on weaknesses and identifying duds. They’re used to doing this; they’ve learned by experience and their brains are wired that way.

There’s no real skill in brainstorming – it’s just a matter of having the confidence to write everything down, adding a little structure, and a willingness to accept input from varied perspectives. It’s what you do with the output that counts.

So naming isn’t really about generating ideas. It’s about knowing when an idea is good, nearly good, or just plain bad.

Great Overlooked Names Are Saved For Later

Branding and naming consultants are usually hard-working, experienced and creative individuals who are pretty good at their jobs. They’re often passionate and occasionally obsessive about their naming projects. When they are commissioned to find a name for a business, they will spend hours – and sleepless nights – at the task.So it’s no surprise that this creative hard work often produces great results.

A client is usually presented with a shortlist of potential names from which to choose. You might expect the list of names presented to be padded out with some mediocre names to offer the client greater choice. However, most agencies have worked out that this is not a good plan – as the strategy often leads to a weak name being selected. So the shortlist is full of great names with real potential – and the nature of the process means that all but one will be rejected.

So what happens to all the rejected names? They’re recycled, of course. After all, if a name would have worked well for a rebellious, dynamic software business it could well be a good option for a rebellious, dynamic brewer.

Most namers therefore have a ‘bank’ of names ready and waiting for the right client to come along.

There’s Nothing Like High Profile Success

There’s Nothing Like High Profile Success

There’s nothing a brand namer likes more than a compelling case study. Telling the story of how a company started out as an idea without an identity and ended up a household-name is a dream come true.

It’s a brutal truth that most naming projects don’t result in high profile glory for the namer, because most businesses aren’t runaway successes. Naming agencies don’t want to risk being associated – or worse, taking the blame – for a failure that was almost certainly nothing to do with the name of the business.

And when runaway successes do happen, businesses don’t tend to share the limelight with the folks that spent weeks coming up with their business name. The focus is rightly elsewhere.

So, it doesn’t happen very often, but when there’s a high profile success, it’s likely to get shouted about for years.

The Internet Has Changed Everything

It’s difficult to imagine what it was like before the arrival of the internet. It has made business life so much easier in so many ways that we already take for granted. It has brought email and search engines – and it has given virtually any business access to a global marketplace.

So your business now has two addresses – its physical address and its web address. And just as a street address can say a lot about a business, the web address – the domain name – conveys a lot too. But securing your preferred domain name isn’t easy and brand namers have to factor in the availability of a domain. And in the business name world, the .com address is still ‘the place to be’.

Most .com addresses with ‘normal’, familiar words have been taken. So namers have taken to creating new, synthetic words – or deliberately misspelling dictionary words to get around the problem. So business names like Spotify, Tumblr and Etsy have become mainstream. Making new combinations of initials, words or parts of words have created names like Netflix and Ebay. In short; anything goes.

But domain names aren’t everything. Businesses can no longer rely on local knowledge and word-of-mouth to get found. So namers need to consider using search-engine-friendly key words.

Before the world wide web, it was probably enough for a business name to be ‘unique’ within a town or a state, let alone a country. Now, unique has to be globally unique. There are many business owners that now regret naming their company after a large Brazilian river.

This is all good for the naming professional. Any agency armed with a set of Scrabble tiles (or an online random name generator) can now coin a weird and wonderful new name. It’s easy to check for conflicts. And there are plenty of real world examples that reassure your client that Xmyzo is the perfect name for their business. It is also easy to check for competitors who might be using the name already.

Theinternet also makes it easier than ever for an entrepreneur to create a name, without the help of an agency.

You Can Overcome a Bad Name With A Big Budget

You Can Overcome a Bad Name With A Big Budget

A company’s name is at the heart of its brand. If the name is memorable and makes a connection with its audience, it will help people to attach thoughts and feelings to the company behind the name.

When you get it right, your company name will add real value to your business and it will make a major contribution to the building of a valuable brand. But if you get it wrong, it doesn’t spell disaster. You could just throw money at the problem.

Although branding agencies are unlikely to highlight the fact, there are many very successful businesses that have terrible names. Microsoft, for example, is a bland and clumsy portmanteau of two generic words, but quite successful!

So if your product or service is good enough, or your budget is big enough, you can get away with just about anything.

Despite The Jargon, The Rules Are Simple

Agencies and brand namers are specialists. And like any set of specialists they have a shared language that can be impenetrable, confusing or meaningless to the outsider.

They’ll talk about engagement, differentiation and brand propositions. They’ll want to consider narratives, relevance and authenticity. They may even wax lyrical on syntax, phonetics or semantics. And of course, there will be a fair amount of ‘out of the box’ or ‘blue sky’ thinking with the occasional ‘thought shower’ thrown in. Don’t let it put you off.

This jargon has real meaning to the specialists and their peers, and it helps them to share their ideas and impress with their processes. A cynic might say that it also allows them fill their websites with impressive-sounding content and to write influential articles in trade journals. But it doesn’t alter the basic rules of naming that everyone can understand.

Creating a great company name really boils down to some fairly simple rules: First, names should be easy to say and easy to spell. Second, the shorter, the better. And third, it’s about how it ‘feels’, not what the word ‘means’.

The Name Isn’t Everything.

A poor business name will not make a good business fail; and a great business name will not make a poor business succeed.

But it will help.

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  1. This was such a good and honest read. I am actually happy to know research doesn’t help! Its always better to improve your business productively, and you can get really stuck on the branding. Thanks for the fun read, I’ll share with some clients!

  2. Wow, you bring up excellent secrets. Keep up sharing such useful post.

  3. The best names communicate meaning, though often in a subliminal way. For example, Amazon is a first class name because it conveys size, power, and fecundity and it calls to mind boats transporting goods across long distances. Doesn’t hurt that it sounds like ‘amazing’ either. Another winner? Apple. It is sleek and simple looking (compared to say, a tangerine or bunch of grapes) and is commonly associated education and health. It even has a whiff of sexy sin (the forbidden fruit). Or consider SoulCycle. In three syllables, this musically pleasing name tells us that cycling isn’t just good for the body but also nourishes the soul.

    But no matter how naming professionals describe what they do (and as your excellent post points out there is way too much jargon) both sides of the brain are used during name development and name selection.

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