Can a name really make or break your business?
Of course, ultimately, a business will live or die by the quality of its product or service (so there’s a little tip of the hat to the attractive, aromatic rose there I guess) and to a certain extent also by the effectiveness of its marketing, but how does a decent business become known in the first place? How does it even get off the ground? How can it stick out in the endless crowd? What is the first thing that people often hear, see or read about a business? What makes it memorable? What do fast-growing brands have in common? Why is it that some businesses fail and some immediately flourish?
Woah. Okay. Enough questions already! But these ponderings all point to the simple fact that the value in choosing a great name for your business is nothing short of immense. It’s not the only step on the stairway to success, but it is definitely one of the first, so that makes it crucial. A poorly chosen name is like starting a game of Monopoly and constantly landing on “Go To Jail”—you don’t get to pass GO, and you don’t get to collect your $200.
Remember: first impressions last.
Research suggests that people have an 8-second attention span, but it’s probably a lot less these days—particularly our upcoming generations of online entertainment addicts (have you noticed how popular TV shows often jump between super-short scenes these days?). However, we all make split-second judgments and so, whether it’s 8, 80 or 0.8 seconds, it becomes irrelevant if a prospect has already made up their mind about your brand in the first moment of an introduction.
Sure, you can throw a billion bucks at your marketing team and “educate” the heck out of your audience to maintain precious positive mindshare, but—other than CocaCola who’ve been around since before your parents were born—how many businesses can actually sustain that? And, heaven forbid, you could even change your name later on if that first fancy you came up with (in a thoughtless 5 minutes scrawling business ideas on a napkin in your favorite coffee shop) doesn’t quite work out. Creating a new business and brand can be expensive enough with all the right moves, but SO much more expensive if you get it wrong to start with!
It makes me wonder how many bankruptcies are caused by a laissez-faire approach to business naming.
And just because “fail fast” might be the merited mantra of today’s entrepreneurial lean-starters, it doesn’t mean you must fail. It’s certainly advantageous when you ace it the first time. Done right, with a proven methodical approach (that you’ll be reading very soon, I promise!), naming can be an inexpensive and highly effective process to safeguard you from unnecessary losses.
Why a rigorous naming process is necessary…
Choosing a name without a rigorous process will most likely mean you fail to explore the many subtle nuances that ensure a name will be well-received. Decisions are made emotionally and then justified logically, and—subtle or not—the name of your business creates an emotional response, so a well-considered name will be crucial to your growth.
If I say “Hitler”, how do you feel? If I say “Gandhi”, how do you feel? Likewise, names not only evoke an emotional (and often visual) response but can also categorize your company and connect with a specific audience. There are many layers to a good name that all need to be considered, and all contribute to the level of success of that name, so keep reading to find out for yourself how to create a truly kickass name.
Not everybody agrees with a rigorous naming process, and that’s okay.
“I think execution is everything and I think the [business] name is literally irrelevant. Like, what did Nike mean to anybody before Nike made it happen…. What you make that name mean — [that] is the real game.”
Gary V is of course right in part—what you make it mean and how you present it to the world is crucially important. But what he failed to recognize here is that Nike was mythologically a goddess of victory and that “Nike” even means victory in Ancient Greek. I think that says a lot when it comes to sportswear, yes?
There are always those that appear to break the rules. Take Mcdonald’s for example… it seems like a generic name, and the business was built by being first-in-class with a new approach to fast food. But don’t forget that name also had a story attached to it and a damn interesting one at that. So fast food isn’t the only thing you can take away from the big boys in branding.
In this guide, you’ll learn about the many different types of names (like McDonald’s’ Founder-based and Story-based names) that can help bring success to your business.
It’s probably fair to say that, if you can first at something important (such as creating a new category in the marketplace), then perhaps the name isn’t so important… or is it? What happens when a better-branded competitor steps up to the mark?
Marketing magnates like to remind us that Pepsi couldn’t topple Coke, but Pepsi arrived a whole 10 years later, not to mention that we live in a very different marketing environment these days—the world of social media superstars, where fresh faces (and brands) can connect with a hoard of adoring fans very, very quickly. So is there a possibility that a fast-paced, fresh-faced upstart with a great name could still knock you out of the park? Yes, most definitely.
What I’ll cover and aim to do in this guide:
In this ultimate naming guide, I aim to give you a formidable fighting chance at creating a business, product or service name that will kick-start your success and stand the turbulent tests of time.
You’ll discover the details of what makes a great brand name, all the many approaches to naming, what the best and simplest process of coming up with a new name is, and how some of the biggest brands in history came up with theirs.
I’ll also discuss how to determine if that name will be great for your specific company and audience (not just in a generic sense), and how to protect yourself by making sure you can use that name before you commit and invest your money in creating and establishing that brand.
The Basics of How to Name a Business
If you haven’t done it already, before you launch into any naming research and creative process whatsoever, it’s crucial to thoroughly understand what the vision and essence of your proposed brand is. Choosing a name without doing this first is like jumping out of a plane and then checking if you have a parachute on—it’s bound to end badly!
Because there are many excellent resources on this topic already (and it’s not really the topic of this guide), here is a simple checklist to make sure you’ve covered everything and are really ready to move into the precarious process of naming.
Have you defined…
- ✓ …your long-term aspirations?
- ✓ …why you’re doing what you’re doing?
- ✓ …what your brand’s personality is?
- ✓ …what the ultimate and primary goals are for the business?
- ✓ …the meaning and value you want to communicate?
- ✓ …what is the problem you are solving
- ✓ …what the ultimate and primary goals are for customers?
- ✓ …how you want to be seen/perceived?
- ✓ …who you are serving and what they are looking for?
- ✓ …what your brand values are?
OK, now just get a BIG LIST of related words and phrases.
These words are incredibly useful to get you started (and particularly important for searching with the core toolkit of online resources you’ll see later on), so don’t skip this step!
Come up with as many words and short phrases for  …
- What your product or service is actually about
(e.g. accountant = numbers, tax, business, money, etc)
- The stuff used for your product or service
(e.g. watchmaker = gold, silver, steel, cogs, batteries, etc)
- What problem your business will solve
(e.g. marketer = not enough customers, not enough income, etc)
- How your business solves those problems
(e.g. builder = builds secure houses, up-cycles to save money, etc)
- How your service or product makes people feel
(e.g. doctor = safe, confident, well, hopeful, etc)
- Related historical stories, people and places
(e.g. shipyard = Blackbeard, Columbus, The Santa Maria, etc)
Then, define your elevator pitch.
The reason why this is so important at this early stage, is so you really know that you’ve nailed the essence of your proposed business product or service.
Of course, you may edit this later on, but having such clarity in such succinct terms, will be sure to help guide you in choosing the most appropriate name after all the research and brainstorming has been completed.
It’s the rudder to your ship. So don’t skip this step, and I even recommend you try it out to make sure other people “get” it.
OK, with the basics out of the way, it’s time to get into some serious stuff…
PHASE 1: BACKGROUND RESEARCH
Because business naming is primarily a creative process, the last thing you want to do is jump right into it. You’ve got to give you brain some frames of reference, and the first being a clear idea of what sort of names are popular—both trending for new businesses, but also popular amongst the biggest and most established brands.
It also pays to take mental note of popular brands and business names, because the last thing you want to do is create a name that reminds someone of a bigger brand—not only will your own brand get quickly forgotten (or written off as a copycat), but you might also land yourself in some legal hot water!
Here are a few simple ways to do this sort of market research…
1. Google Search
A simple search of “hottest startups” (you might want to add the year) will return hundreds of lists of the latest and greatest new business names that are doing well in the marketplace. “Top companies in the world” will return information on the most popular brands (typically by market value). And replacing “the world” with your country will result in a more localised view on what’s working closer to home.
There are of course an infinite number of ways you can use Google (or any other search engine of choice) to do market research, but hopefully these suggestions will get you started.
2. Google Trends
Google Trends is where you can do some more advanced research to see how various brand names and words are performing in terms of global and local interest over time.
This can be useful to run some of your big list of words (see The Basics section) through it to see if they’re trending up or trending down. Obviously, if something is trending up over the last 5 years, then that name type or word is increasing in popularity and might offer some hints at what to focus on in the next stages of the naming process.
It’s probably not worth spending a lot of time in Google Trends at this point, but can certainly give you a sense of what’s hot and what’s not!
Also, as an aside, you might notice certain months where a word or topic relating to your business peaks or dips significantly (like the trend report for the word “accounting” shown below, with big dips every December). This is definitely worth noting in relation to the timing around launching your new business, product or service—capitalising on peaks and avoiding dips.
3. Fortune 500 list
Whilst not the most informative option on this roundup for a new startup, the Fortune 500 list is well-known as the top performing companies in the world. From here you can get a sense of names that have stood the test of time.
I’m not sure why exactly, but some of the best and most creative new names seem to land on ProductHunt and there’s a constant stream of new startups being listed, so it’s one of my personal favourites for fresh ideas. Also, because they list each with a name and a tagline, I love that you can get a sense of how they came to the name by reading the tagline.
There are some less-inspiring names there too, but because of their streamlined lists, you can review a lot pretty quickly. And by glancing at the number of “upvotes” they’ve received, you can get a sense of what is the most popular.
TrendHunter is probably less about a naming exercise and more a general trends platform to get a more general sense of where the world is heading right now.
There are thousands of lists on this site, so make sure you use the filters and search to narrow it down to more relatable topics. Of course, there are plenty of brand names to be seen amongst the trends, so keep and eye out and make notes!
6. AngelList, 500 & Republic
If you’re looking to raise funds for your startup (or even if you’re not!), it’s worth knowing what sort of companies get funded.
AngelList, 500 and Republic offer a unique look into the world of startup investments, and with their startup/company lists, you’re able to see a whole gamut of recent startup names, plus get a sense of what types of names have been successfully funded. Obviously the name is not what ultimately wins the funding, but it helps!
Understand How Names are Created
We’ll get into this more throughout the course of this guide, but here are some general examples to show a variety of popular/historic approaches of business naming  …
- Nike: Name for the Greek Goddess of Victory.
- Coca-Cola: The two main ingredients were Coca leaves and Cola berries.
- Pepsi: From the digestive enzyme ‘pepsin’.
- Google: Derived from ‘googol’ which means 1 followed by 100 zeros.
- Adidas: Named after owner Adolf Dassler whose nickname was Adi.
- Intel: Short for integrated electronics
- Canon: Adapted from Kwanon (Japanese name of Buddhist Bodhisattva of Mercy).
- Lego: Derived from Danish words ‘Leg Godt’, which means to ‘play well’.
- Nintendo: Transliterated from Nintendou. Nin in Japanese means ‘entrusted’ and Ten-dou means ‘heaven’.
- Amazon: CEO Jeff Bezos wanted a name starting with ‘A’. He chose Amazon because it is the biggest river in the world, just what he wanted his company to be.
- Skype: Originally the idea was ‘Sky peer to peer’, which later became Skyper and finally Skype.
- Adobe: Named after a creek that ran behind the co-founder, John Warnock’s house, called Adobe Creek.
- Nokia: Historic/location — started in a city in Finland called Nokia.
- Sony: Derived from the Latin word, ‘Sonus’ (meaning sound) and an American slang word, ‘Sonny’ (meaning bright youngster).
- Vodafone: Voice, Data and Telefone.
- Volkswagen: Simple language — Means ‘People’s car’ in German.
- eBay: Originally called Echo Bay. The domain echobay.com was already taken. So it was shortened to ebay.
- Starbucks: Named after a character in Moby Dick, Starbuck.
- Nivea: Derived from the Latin word ‘Niveus’, which means snow white.
- Toyota: Named after founder Kiichiro Toyoda.
- Microsoft: A combination of the words Microcomputer and Software.
- Cisco: They just removed San Fran from San Francisco.
The purpose of competitor research in the context of a naming exercise is to make an extensive list of actual competitor names (particularly the bigger brands and businesses that are close to you in geographical proximity), so that you don’t choose something too similar. Having a similar name will confuse the marketplace and ensure you are forgotten quickly, so it’s important to stand out with a unique name.
As you would have seen from the examples above, there are many ways that business names are created. However, for this part of the exercise, you will need to review brands in your own vertical.
Online searches will bring up many well-known brand inception stories, however you may have to look a little deeper for more specific industry-related examples.
First make an extensive list of competitors. There are an endless number of online business directories these days that are categorised or searchable by business type, so this should be fairly quick and easy.
Next, here are 3 places that you might find their back-stories…
- Company history pages
- Company annual reports
- Branding or naming case-studies*
*Much more challenging to find for smaller brands, but will often give you very specific rationale, so it’s worth searching “[business name] naming case study” or “[business name] branding case study” and see what you come up with.
At this point it’s worthwhile laying down some loose criteria of what you want from your name before generating ideas. If you have a very specific market, then you can probably afford to have some guidelines around what sort of name you’d like to focus on creating.
For example, say you’re a shoe retailer and you know for certain that your market (both present and future) is an ultra-conservative, older market, then a super-cute name like “Bubble-de-boo Shoes” won’t be a great fit. Likewise, if you’re planning on being a kids shoe retailer, then a sophisticated, old-fashioned name like “Newton Shoes” won’t cut it either.
You’ll have your own ideas no doubt, but here are some questions to consider:
- Do you feel the historic or location aspect of your company could be important?
- Do you want your name to be immediately meaningful, or would it be better to be something completely unique?
- What ways could your name stand out from your competitors?
- What could you learn from the case-studies above?
A Word of Warning
Whilst it’s okay to have a rough point of focus, don’t get too caught up in preconceived ideas before you launch into the real brainstorming. (You’ll hear this repeated in various ways throughout this guide because it’s so imperative to good creative). Coming at it with fixed ideas will produce seriously limited results. Creativity is non-linear, so often the best ideas come from the most random of places.
Also worth considering is the fact that you can’t foresee the future of your business. What happens in 5 years if the market shifts and you need to “pivot” to stay relevant? A name with a narrow focus or specific target audience can sometimes make a successful pivot close to impossible.
In the Steve Jobs biography, Jobs told Walter Isaacson he was “on one of my fruitarian diets” and had just come back from an apple farm, and thought the name sounded “fun, spirited and not intimidating.” 
What have apples got to do with computers? Nothing! But of course Jobs was right anyway because branding is intangible, emotional and visceral, not literal, linear or logical.
When you compare Apple to it’s main rival—International Business Machines (IBM)—you can see that conservative “corporate thinking” is generally not the best option for mass-market appeal. The success of a brand lies in how people feel and what they intuitively believe about it, not whether it makes the most logical sense. The numbers don’t lie, so get creative!
PHASE 2: GENERATING IDEAS
The purpose of these initial exercises is to simply get name ideas (as many as possible!), not to judge them. But don’t worry—you’ll audit them in the next phase. Remember there are no stupid ideas at this point.
This is really important. If you’re consulting a number of people in the process, make sure everyone knows that this is not the time to find fault, but ONLY the time to make suggestions and offer what they like about each suggestion… This builds inspiration for more and better names. Otherwise, criticism at this point shuts down the creative process.
Where to Find Inspiration
Without the right tools, finding inspiration can be challenging. But thankfully, with the advent of the internet, we now have an unbelievable plethora of endlessly inspiring tools at our fingertips.
Use our Business Name Generator
Some phrases and word combinations work much better than others in our generator, so make sure you experiment with different words from your list (both by themselves and in combination of 2-3 words) to get the most out of this type of exploration.
The Core Toolkit
The most useful online tools include (but not limited to!)…
- Dictionary.com for general meaning and related words
- Thesaurus.com for synonyms (this is an absolute goldmine!)
- Foreign Languages (Latin and Greek are always a good place to start)
- Google Search (for broad, general inspiration of related topics, articles, etc)
Additional Inspiration Sources
There are numerous places and avenues for additional inspiration. Here are just a few…
You might choose to get out and about to gain inspiration, and I highly recommend this approach—inspiration can often be found in the most unlikely of places, at the most unlikely of times (yes, I’m thinking of the bathroom right now)—but if you’re stuck for time (or it’s raining!), most of these can be accessed via online search.
One by one, enter your existing topic words along with one of the words from the list above into your search engine of choice.
For example, an aspiring web design firm might enter the words “design” and “mythology” into Google and immediately strike some inspiration with MIT’s explanation of how, “like design, mythology is a universal language by which to decode human culture”… Now, it’s not a usable myth (like Nike, the goddess of victory), but if the word “decode” wasn’t already in their list of references, it certainly would be now! …It’s these accidental discoveries that can sometimes offer the most useful and unique ideas.
Aggressively Avoid Narrow Thinking (like the plague!)
It’s fine to have a few naming ideas before you start, but this sort of inspirational research should be done first before really brainstorming the big list of actual possibilities. The reason for this is that it’s all too easy to get stuck on an early idea and then not be fully committed to exploring what may end up being much better ideas in the long-run.
Don’t filter anything out just yet. Write down anything you come up with in the process of researching inspiration — the good, the bad and the ugly!
Explore ALL Possible Synonyms and Related Terms
You should have done this already with your “big list of words” (from The Basics section), but if not, write down ALL the words that relate to your business, then use each of these words to search with tools like thesaurus.com and Google to come up with as many more interesting words and ideas as you can.
Remember success will be gauged by how well it relates to your market, not to you personally…
So immerse yourself deeper into the world of your audience. Ask yourself and your brainstorming team the following questions…
- What do they love?
- Where do they hang out (offline and online)?
- How do they feel on a day-to-day basis?
- What are their strongest fears and desires?
- What sort of words/languaging do they predominantly use?
You may even like to take it a step further and consider the broader context of your audience. What are some universal human needs and desires? How might these needs relate to your product or service?
Make it more visible than the Wall of China from outer space.
Make sure all the inspirational words and ideas are easily viewable (e.g. big whiteboard/wall, sticky notes, etc). You and your team need to be able to see everything together for your brains to put ideas together and see connections, patterns and new ideas. It’s like a murder mystery, with each clue leading to a final outcome.
Don’t forget images!
Our sub-conscious creative faculties are primarily image-based, so even though the desired outcome is a word or phrase, just having words as a reference is not enough for a full creative exploration. Images trigger emotion and stimulate out-of-the-box thinking.
Use Google’s image search, Pinterest and perhaps even other searchable image libraries like Flickr to find images that relate to your big list of words. Include images based on how you want your audience to feel as well as functional aspects of your product or service.
Whilst you clearly wouldn’t let your mom choose your business name, bringing in an extremely broad variety of people (yes, even your mom) in this purely creative stage to contribute ideas, can be invaluable because it ensures the ideation process is not limited by your preferences or preconceived ideas.
But remember to tell them that you’re not interested in critique at this stage, just ideas! The final decision and deliberation obviously must be made by the key stakeholders/founders only.
Have fun with it!
The creative process is meant to be fun. Dry, left-brain discussions will only bring dry ideas. Word association games are the best place to start (start with a word, then the next person says the first word or phrase that comes to mind), but don’t stop there! If you’re feeling adventurous, you might even try a version of Pictionary with your own words, or even something unrelated but fun. Basically anything that puts you in a loose creative, right-brain kind of mood is going to help.
Consider Foreign Languages
This is actually one of my personal favourites, firstly because it’s fascinating to see all the many words for one thing, but also because you start to think more about the sound and feeling of a word than you do about it’s specific meaning. Our business name generators are available in Italian (Generatore di Nomi Aziendali) or Portuguese (Gerador de nomes para empresas).
Often foreign words become commonplace in our language simply because they sound better than their English counterpart. Take the German word uber for example—it just means “above” with the inference of “total” or “absolute”, but uber is simply something you feel way cooler saying (much more so than “total” or “absolute”), and that’s undeniable gold when it comes to how people feel sharing a brand with their peers.
Admittedly, the spelling of many foreign words isn’t as obvious to the listener, so that can pose a problem. However, you may just opt for an anglicised phonetic spelling of a foreign word to not only solve that issue, but also to make trademarking much easier (a made-up or misspelled word is much easier to trademark and to register domains for as well, so it’s a double-bonus).
My favourite tool for discovering foreign words is Translatr because you can search all languages at once and only show languages that use English characters (see image below). If you have time, use each of the words in your “big list” to see what you come up with, and write down any words that look appealing.
PHASE 3: NAMING BRAINSTORM
OK, here’s where the rubber meets the road! This is where the magic happens—bringing it all together to create actual names.
Before you begin…
Firstly, make sure all references/inspirations/ideas in one central place for ease of viewing by multiple people at the same time. This needs to be something you can go back to and discuss again and again—particularly when ideas run dry (and they will!).
Next, sleep on it! Give it a few days at least after all inspiration research is complete—this gives the mind time to start coming up with ideas and speed up the brainstorming process once you start.
Thirdly, remind all players again to keep it positive—no negative critiques should be entertained at this point because you simply don’t have all the data yet, and good creativity is ruined by shallow criticism and personal preferences.
Lastly…. Relax! Don’t get too wound up about the outcomes at this point. Remember that you can add more meaning to something later on, so brainstorming is definitely not about finding that perfect name!
Make it a checklist:
- Make references viewable in one place.
- Sleep on it. Let it brew for a few days.
- Keep it positive. No negative critiques.
- Relax! It’s creative-, not decision-time.
Recommended Ground Rules
1. 100+ Name Ideas
Yes, come up with at least 100 ideas. You might still come back to one of the early ideas, but it’s important to exhaust all possibilities first so that you are not left wondering if it could have been better later on (when you’re spending big bucks on branding and marketing!).
Now, of course, during the research and inspiration-gathering process, you’ll probably have a lot of possible names already, but make sure you don’t stop there because that’s only the beginning, and these next stages will provide you with entirely new ideas, far greater clarity, quantifiable data to determine best naming outcomes and even actionable intelligence to inform effective marketing later on. Yes, all that and a much-needed cup of coffee too no-doubt!
2. No More Than 5 Syllables
Try to limit names to 3 or 4 syllables (definitely no more than 5). Other than American Express (which most people refer to as Amex) and a few other anomalies, almost none of the world’s top 100 brands have more than 4 syllables  and very few have more than 3 (e.g. Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon). Longer names are often hard to recall, hard to design around and hard to say in conversation. It’s safe, even at this point, to immediately disregard names longer than 5 syllables—you’d probably end up ditching them later anyway (or spending millions to rebrand as an acronym like IBM, KFC and GE).
3. Switch Up Your Environment
People respond differently to various environments. Partly it’s about associations and partly just because new places invigorate the mind. It might even be worth assigning a number of sessions to cover all bases.
You might like to try…
- both familiar and non-familiar environments.
- inside and outside (weather permitting!).
- day-time and night-time.
- busy and quiet locations.
- with and without music.
- with various types of music (Baroque classical is often best for pure creative and concentration, but if your brand needs to be energetic or youth-focussed, then pop music might be better).
If you can afford it, hire a space where you and your team can sleep and eat together for a few days—often great ideas happen in conversations during “non-creative” times.
TIP: remind everyone to take a notepad when they go to bed (and to the bathroom—just in case!) because new ideas often happen at unexpected times.
4. Have Fun & Get Random!
Remind everyone that there’s no such thing as a “bad” idea at this point. Encourage out-of-the-box thinking. If you have a big team, you might even enjoy making a competition out of the whole process, with awards for things like “The Craziest Idea Award”.
Make sure there’s a massive stack of blank paper, pads and whiteboards for people to scrawl and scribble—randomness increases creativity.
Use markers, pens or even crayons if you have them! Avoid using a computer because there is generally much less kinesthetic-creative connection on a technological device. Also, most people have non-creative associations with computers (corporate worker’s minds associate many linear left-brain activities with computers), and yet very creative associations with colorful markers and paper without lines.
TIP: Consider banning wifi/internet access… and even technology altogether. The research has been done and this is a time for pure creativity, not for referencing ideas or checking domain names, or anything else online — that will only distract and dilute the creative process. This is partly why a new, offline location can help.
5. Stay Fresh
It’s an intense process, so do it in sprints, with plenty of breaks to keep minds fresh.
6. Have Clear Goals
Make sure the whole team understand that this is not the time for “choosing” a name, but just for brainstorming—otherwise stronger members can start directing the conversation away from the goal of brainstorming as many great ideas as possible.
Other goals might include things like the number of names to achieve each session and the variety of name types (see below) to ensure all avenues are explored.
Return to both these goals and all the original inspiration words and images whenever the ideas seem to run dry.
7. Explore as Many Name Types as Possible
Have a list of categories or name types to explore and set a time limit for each, so that you cover all bases… Otherwise you can sometimes spend too much time fixated on one type of name or exploring a limited range of ideas.
Rather than reinvent the wheel, here is Simplicable’s list of 19 types of business names: 
- Founder Name (e.g. Toyota)
- Functional (e.g. Dave’s Carpentry)
- Invented (e.g. Fanta)
- Culture/Historic (e.g. Nike)
- Fiction (e.g. Starbucks)
- Local Names
- Generic (e.g. Solar Panels)
- Acronyms (e.g. IBM)
- Out of context (e.g. Apple)
- Foreign Language (e.g. Volkswagen)
- Odd Names
And here are some additional name types to explore:
- Visual (e.g. Black Dog, MindValley, Blue Flute)
- Surprising juxtaposition (e.g. Cold Steam, Dry Rain, Blue Leaf)
- Desire/Benefit (e.g. Loans Approved, Lean Cuisine, Die Hard Batteries, Body Trim)
- Problem (e.g. Selley’s No More Gaps, Never Late Electrical, Streak-Free Windows, Fat Blaster)
- Wordmash/Pairs (e.g. MicroSoft, Wikipedia, FedEx, Groupon, BandAid, WalMart, WebJet)
- Misspelling (e.g. Fiverr, Xero, Digg, Fotolog, Klout, Pixlr, Lyft)
- Alliteration (e.g. Blockbuster, American Airlines, Fitness First)
- Common Idioms (e.g. Holy Cow)
- Rhyming (e.g. Lunch Bunch)
- Suffix (e.g. Tatly)
- Group (e.g. __ company, collective, society, group or crew)
- Place (e.g. __ lab, corner, district, point or spot)
- Personification (e.g. Mr, Mrs or Miss __ )
- Color (e.g. Crimson Studio)
- “My” if it’s a personal product/service (e.g. My __ )
- Adding product/service (e.g. Joco Cups)
- Playful made-up words and sounds (e.g. Yahoo)
8. Other Considerations
Avoid text-speak and any other “cute” ideas.
Stay away from special characters (unless you’re creating a non-English name and can’t avoid it) and “cute” word alternatives, such as replacing words with numbers (2 instead of “to” or 4 instead of “for”, etc), or using common endings like ’Rus.
And ignore text-speak ideas. Regardless of whether you think it’s commonly understood or not, letter-number combos and other text-speak type shortenings (e.g. BRB, TBH, ATM, B4, BTW, GR8, etc) are seriously cliché, childish and make a brand look incredibly unsophisticated (even your teen kids will roll their eyes and think your brand is run by a bunch of unoriginal try-hards).
Also, much like generic word brands (like “Tax Accountant”), text-speak and other “cute” word alternatives make your name harder to recall (because they have numerous mental associations already), so that’s another good reason if you’re not already convinced!
Think long term.
Generic/common names might be good for SEO and immediate comprehension of your product or service, but they’re terrible for branding. As mentioned, they’re hard to recall and emotionally meaningless, so you’ll have a hard time ever gaining customer love and loyalty with this type of naming convention.
Also, with the unknowable future in mind, try to keep the majority of your name ideas as flexible as possible. Amazon is a perfect example of this. Whilst they started as an online bookstore, their transition to the monstrously broad retailer they are now would have been impossible had they included the word “Books” (or similar) in their name. It’s for this same reason that Apple Computers simply became Apple. And also the reason that if burgers ever go out of fashion, McDonalds will probably reinvent themselves to become a triumphant survivor, whilst the likes of BurgerKing will immediately and irrevocably fade into obscurity.
Finally, whilst Founder-type names do have their benefits, consider seriously whether you should use your personal name. Certainly you shouldn’t use your full name—right or wrong, that signifies you’re not a business so much as a freelancer. The key question here is would you want to sell your business… like ever? If the answer is yes (or even “maybe”), then a personal name may not be the best option.
Invented and combined words work well.
Invented words are generally easier to trademark (e.g. Google, Facebook, YouTube, Colgate, Qantas, Ikea, etc), so it’s definitely worth brainstorming a bunch of these type of names, and then having at least a few in your final selection to ensure you’ve got something that will pass all the tests.
“Owning” a single word is challenging.
Whilst it has paid off handsomely for some big brands, trying to “own” a generic word (e.g. Apple, Borders, Amazon, Sharp, etc) takes time to establish and can be extremely hard to trademark. Most notably, thanks to domain squatters, you have virtually a zero chance these days in securing a domain name for these sorts of word-names. Avoid this option unless you have a large budget for domain acquisitions and marketing!
They’re hard to recall and they have no intrinsic or emotional value, so it’s much harder for a startup to gain traction with this sort of name-type. Often acronym-based brands are forced to spend millions (or even billions) on advertising so people will remember them favourably.
Most importantly, acronyms typically only work after a brand is already extremely well-established (like Kentucky Fried Chicken, National Australia Bank and General Electric) and often, it’s only worthwhile because people already refer to it as the acronym (such was the case with KFC, NAB and GE, where people would commonly say things like “let’s get KFC for dinner” or “I bank at Nab”).
And this is another good reason for choosing a shorter name (stick to the 5 syllables or less rule) in the first place—it’s only longer names that ever feel the need to change to acronyms.
Hybrid Naming Ideas
Whilst the simple list of “pure” naming categories is helpful for brainstorming, it’s definitely important to consider a more creative approach as well…
This is where hybrid word brands deserve a special mention. They are very popular and often work well because they create a new, memorable word, whilst evoking the original, known, meaning. For example; brunch (breakfast and lunch), MicroSoft (Microcomputers and Software) and FedEx (Federal Express).
Also, names that fit into more than one of the above categories can offer more depth. For example, Fanta is a shortened foreign word which fits into the “invented” category, and since the original word meant “fantasy”, it also fits into the evocative/emotion category. Toyota’s founder was actually Mr Toyoda, but the Japanese spelling of Toyota was considered more lucky, hence the change. Also, Starbuck references a fictional character in Moby Dick, as well as a location-based reference to a historic old mining town called Starbo (which, whilst not the actual location of the first Starbucks store, does add intrigue to the story and that’s important to note). Cases like these immediately build their own colourful narrative in people’s minds, even though it may be mostly fictional or interpretive.
“We were thinking of all kinds of names and came desperately close to calling it Cargo House, which would have been a terrible, terrible mistake.”
—Starbuck’s co-founder Gordon Bowker 
Admittedly, hybrid names are more difficult to come up with and require much associative exploration, plus either some creative risk-takers at the helm, or perhaps just a little luck to uncover a name that will evoke a positive narrative.
PHASE 4: AUDITING IDEAS
It’s important to review all the criteria before rejecting a name because sometimes the thing you’re ignoring is the thing that will break the back of your brand. Also, as always, a brand is the SUM of all aspects of perception, not just the few you want to focus on. So the more positive points you can have around your name, the better.
Firstly, categorise them into groups.
Ideally, the brainstorming should have already been done in categories, but otherwise, it’s useful to list the name ideas in a way that can assist with reducing the number down. When you put 10 of your 100 names in one category, you can more easily pick the best 1 or 2 from that list and strike off the rest. It’s far too overwhelming to try to compare the full 100+ ideas at once, and people will just end up going with their personal favourite, not because of more logical rationale.
Explore language connotations.
Before any names are shortlisted, it’s important to run them through a translator like Google Translate (with a number of different spellings—just google the suggested name if you’re unsure and it may suggest the “correct” spelling), or—better still—have a small team of multi-lingual consultants on hand to ensure there aren’t any negative connotations in any other languages.
It goes both ways of course, so if you’re choosing a foreign word for your brand, make sure it couldn’t be misinterpreted back home!
I recently heard an amusing story of an American English teacher working near Barcelona, where the kids would start whispering and giggling every time she said something was cool or when she asked what pets they had.
Apparently, in Catalan, the word cool sounds almost identical to cul (meaning rear end) and pet is identical to the local word for passed gas. So, who would have known that you’d be the laughing stock of Spain if you launched a brand called Cool Pets!
Consider cultural connotations.
An easy example of this is the cloud-based team collaboration service called Slack. It’s popular in the USA, but slack means “lazy” in Antipodean countries like Australia so, as a result, the product isn’t widely used “down under”—despite having millions of potential prospects there for this type of SaaS product.
So it’s worth paying attention to the alternate meanings in the dictionary. Often a dictionary will give a primary meaning for your local country, and then also offer alternate meanings for other countries which speak the same language.
However, whilst it’s relatively easy to find alternate meanings in the same language, discovering cultural connotations amongst people who speak a different native language is complicated. So again, this is where it would be useful to have a team of multi-lingual consultants on hand (preferably native to the countries and languages they represent) if you can afford it. Or simply spend more time researching online to check all spelling, language and cultural variants.
If you’re short on budget, you might try finding forums (or any other helpful online community) in a variety of countries and simply asking a few people from each forum/country. It gets tricky if they don’t speak your language of course, but it’s worth a shot.
You could also search your word (and variants) in global forums to discover how it might be used in the context of other cultures. To do this, enter the following format in a Google search…
site:[URL of forum] “[your word]”
Another option is Q&A type platforms like Quora — although you might get a few opinionated people early on who influence all future responses and skew the response.
Finally, if you’re a little older (or simply a little sheltered), it’s important to make sure you search for “urban” meanings. This is typically where you find out how today’s youth (the next generation of adults) might be using your word of choice. One great option here is www.urbandictionary.com — but be warned, you might be shocked at some of the alternate meanings of simple, everyday words!
As with all these suggestions, you never know what you might discover. You might feel that cultural connotations from other countries/regions aren’t crucial if you aren’t planning to expand beyond your local market, but there are far too many stories of small “local” brands that have blown up and gone international, for you to ignore this part of the process.
Listen! What does it sound like?
You may not realise, but this is a critical step.
Brands such as Hoegaarden, Nutella, Tag Heuer, IKEA, Hyundai, Porsche, Nike, Moschino, Hermes, Volkswagen, Adidas, Adobe, and many more are mispronounced all the time. For example, Hoegaarden is generally pronounced “Ho-garden” (interpreted as a garden of sex-workers) rather than the much less problematic correct pronunciation of “Who-garden” (which could, for example, be interpreted as the garden where the “who’s-who” hang out).
Check out a longer list of mispronounced names here at https://blog.hubspot.com/agency/pronounce-brand-name-wrong-infographic
Perhaps it’s not a major issue, unless the correct sound of the word offers the suggestive meaning you’re trying to incorporate into your brand, whilst people tend to mispronounce it — therefore reducing it’s positive mental associations. In the real case of the beer brand Hoegaarden, it’s a simple location-based name (Hoegaarden is a municipality in the province of Flemish Brabant, in Flanders, one of the three regions of Belgium) — however, perhaps they might have traded internationally under a new name, had they done the “sounds-like?” test and found it had a lowbrow sexual association for non-Europeans (or perhaps not! LOL).
Admittedly most of these names mentioned above are foreign words, but it can still happen — particularly if you’re trying out a unique new word-name, using an unusual personal name, or using a new spelling of a less common word perhaps.
So say it out loud.
Get people from outside your brainstorming group to come in and read all your shortlisted names (or perhaps all the names if you have time) — you might be surprised how a name can sound great if you know how to say it, but really NOT great if you happen to pronounce it differently. Think about accents, even if you’re not planning a multi-national brand, because many of us live in very multi-cultural cities.
Ask the team: “does this remind you of anything when you hear it out loud?” It also pays to ask people outside the team the same question (in fact, this is actually more important than asking your own team, because your team already has preconceived perceptions about the name, due to the focussed creative process itself).
Can they spell it correctly if they’ve only heard it? It’s a great loss if you start getting literal word-of-mouth promotion and yet those who simply hear the name can’t find it online due to an incorrect spelling. Also, because our subconscious generally works with images, it will most-likely hinder future recollection if it’s immediately unclear how to spell it.
Write it out. What does it look like?
When you have a shortlist, try writing out the names in ALL-CAPS, lowercase and Capitalised to get a feel for how it might look under various circumstances. Also, join the words together (in both all-caps and lowercase), because often this is how your name will be seen in your website address, email and possibly even your final logo design.
Note: this is not a design exercise, this is just to ensure there aren’t any issues with how the letters look, how readable it is, etc.
Finally, write it in the context of a sentence (e.g. take your elevator pitch and try it out with each name to see how it looks, sounds and feels). This is a little less important, but worthwhile nonetheless.
Is it memorable?
Forgettable brands are extremely expensive. You might still be able to build a successful brand with a forgettable name, but you’ll probably spend millions each year to stay front-of-mind, so it’s just not worth it in the short-term.
If you can, test your shortlist on a number of people outside the think-tank. Give them the list to read and say out loud (just once), then send them away for an hour to do something else before asking them to recite any of the names they can remember.
More unique names help with memorability. And memorability helps with searchability. If someone has to resort to searching for you based on generic category or product type (e.g. bookstore, cereal, etc), you’ll probably need to spend an enormous amount of money on AdWords and SEO to even come close to competing with the more established brands in those categories.
“Second place is no place on the internet.”
PHASE 5: THE FINAL 10 IDEAS
Never ignore legal/trademark conflicts
When you have narrowed the shortlist down to 10 or less, this is where the serious stuff starts to happen. There’s nothing worse than deciding on a name, only THEN to find out you can’t use it. So don’t get too attached to any one name until after this step.
Domain Availability (Local & International)
Whilst, in some instances, it’s okay add short words to your business name (e.g. get_.com for an app), or use a domain other than the main TLD for your country (e.g. .com for international, .us for USA or .com.au for Australia), such as .co, .net, .io, etc… ideally, you’ll be much better off if you can secure the most relevant domains, so make sure you check through your shortlist.
Sometimes this helps you make a final decision.
TIP: sometimes a domain registrar will say that a domain isn’t available, but when you visit that domain, you find that it’s actually for sale. This will mean that you will pay a LOT more for the domain, but it does mean you could still own it if you had the budget for that kind of purchase.
To search domain availability, try using the Domain Name Generator.
Social Media Availability
Use a service like NameChk or KnowEm to see if you can “own” the name on various social media platforms. Ultimately this isn’t the most important aspect, as it doesn’t really matter if your Facebook address has some extra words (e.g. if your business name is BlueCheese, and facebook.com/bluecheese is taken, then you might secure /bluecheeseUSA or /BlueCheeseOfficial, etc.
Mobile App name availability
Similar to social media URL availability, this isn’t the most crucial step, UNLESS having an app is a definite part of your business plan. However, it’s still worth exploring, just in case.
Of course, if you’ve already cleared a name via trademark searches, then it’s not such a big deal. It may be within your legal right to “push” a competing name out of the app store once you trademark the name yourself (after passing the initial trademark qualification period).
The simplest way to check is to use the search features on the dominant app stores like Apple, Android and Google Apps.
Think of Taglines that would work with the name and your brand vision.
Does a name leave you dry for tagline ideas? If so, it’s probably not a great option. If you know your business yet you’re still struggling to make a connection with a name, imagine how much harder it will be for the general public to connect with it.
It may be worthwhile bringing in a creative wordsmith or professional copywriter to assist with this aspect, as they tend to have a little more imagination and may come up with interesting ways to present a business name that you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.
Note: if you already have a tagline in mind, it’s still worth exploring new ideas. It’s really challenging at this end of the game, but try to keep an open mind. Your existing tagline might not fit well with a name under consideration, but that doesn’t make it a poor choice necessarily. Taglines will often change over time anyway, so don’t make it a road-block at this stage.
Compare any negatives/positives from the audit between names
Keeping track of the results of all the previous tests and checks means that you will have a data-based (unemotional) means to rule out certain options from the shortlist. Regardless of how much you like a certain option, it should be discarded if it fails too many of the tests and checks above. Some issues can be overcome in time, others—not so much!
It’s fine to put forward considerations based purely on preference of the stakeholders (e.g. owners/founders/business-partners) too, because ultimately it’s their brand and they need to believe in it.
Now, take your favourites to the next stage: Feedback!
Remember a brand is built over time not just with a name. With sufficient time and/or budget you can give almost any name virtually any meaning you like (e.g. Apple, McDonalds, etc). So try to remain as neutral as possible during this feedback stage. It’s unlikely your name will be perfect by everyone’s standards, and yet even the most unlikely people can grow to love brands with the right messaging. So don’t let your opinions be swayed too heavily by what each individual thinks or says at this point — just take careful note of what they’re saying.
Remember that feedback will mostly be from a place of personal preference. It should not form the basis of the ultimate decision, but often brings up valid points that may still have been missed, despite the rigorous processes above.
The notes you take during this stage may prove powerfully important to craft the most meaningful, inspiring messages to educate your audience later on. It might provide understanding of what you need to overcome in order to convey messages that result in the positive perception you’re after. Or sometimes even the quirky things people say can create opportunities to make your brand truly unique and memorable.
For example, the name “Frox” (a misspelling of the word “frocks” for a fictitious women’s clothing company) might remind people of animals like frogs and foxes. Without good notes, this might be forgotten, yet perhaps this could be perfect to craft a very memorable message about looking “foxy” in these clothes. The logo or advertising graphic might even feature a fox in a dress. Already an association is there, so why not capitalise on it?
Get feedback from…
- Family & Friends
- Random Strangers
Discuss what you like and dislike about the name.
Discuss challenges the name presents.
TIP: avoid getting feedback in groups. Whilst this seems much more time-efficient, it typically ends in the loudest/strongest (or most respected) voice in the room steering the conversation toward their personal preference.
If the vast majority consensus is negative, a name should probably be removed from the list, unless you and the other key stakeholders have a very strong rationale and/or gut feeling about it, AND you’re willing to work hard to overcome these objections. First impressions last, and even if you have a great rationale, you’ll probably end up spending a lot of money convincing the public of that rationale if they have some sort of initial negative response to your brand name… and it may be a lost cause!
PHASE 6: DECISION TIME!
Sometimes it will be incredibly clear (if you’re lucky!). Sometimes there will only be one possible choice, even if it’s not your personal favourite. Hopefully, having followed these instructions and considered all the data collected, it should indeed be relatively clear. But no one can really tell you which name to choose in the end. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut!
A rose by any other name… would need a damn good florist, with a damn good name. So don’t be fooled by last-century idealism. A rigorous, well-considered naming strategy like this is an investment that pays in pure gold… so what are you waiting for?!
About the Author
How to Name a Business written by Matt Cumming the author of Polarize (Fast-Track Marketing for Growth Hackers) and the Creative Director of boutique branding firm Red Sky.
-  https://www.fuzebranding.com/complete-guide-company-naming/
-  https://www.scoopwhoop.com/world/famous-brands-names/
-  https://www.brandingstrategyinsider.com/2011/11/how-did-apple-computer-get-its-brand-name.html
-  https://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/apple-most-valuable-brand-iphone-7-google-cocacola-a7345501.html
-  https://simplicable.com/new/business-name
-  https://www.harpersbazaar.com/uk/culture/culture-news/news/a42558/starbucks-coffee-original-name-founding-story/
Image Credits: Pexels.com