Understanding what types of brand names are available makes naming or renaming your company that much easier. And anything that makes the often-arduous task of finding the perfect name smoother will come as welcome relief if you have a naming project in your future.
You’ve likely seen each of the types of brand names before—from Apple to IBM, Google to Calvin Klein—but you may not have known which was which.
A grasp of naming typology is important in defining the key metrics of success for a naming or renaming initiative. If you have multiple products or services, the types of names you choose for those offerings will also help define your brand architecture.
There are 7 types of brand names:
In what follows, we take a look at the pros and cons of each of these types of brand names, as well as some important things to keep in mind in any naming or renaming project.
1. Descriptive Brand Names
Descriptive brand names are those that readily convey the service or product offered by a company. Because of this, they tend to be unremarkable. While functional and utilitarian, descriptive names leave little room for creativity or interpretation. They often rely on a clever tagline to do the work of storytelling or conveying personality.
Descriptive names include brands like:
- Toys R Us
- General Motors
- The Weather Channel
- Bank of America
The upside of descriptive names is that they clearly communicate your company’s core competency. The potential downside is that they hamstring your brand as it grows and looks to diversify. Descriptive names are also notoriously difficult to trademark as, by definition, they rely on common words or phrases.
2. Evocative Brand Names
On the other end of the creative spectrum from descriptive brand names are evocative names. Evocative names use suggestion and metaphor to bring to mind the experience or positioning of a brand. Evocative brand names are often creative and unique, and can make for powerful differentiators.
Because they leave some room for interpretation, evocative names enable you to tell a powerful brand story, creating a brand that’s bigger than just the products or services you offer. In this way, an evocative name can be the cornerstone of a brand’s positioning, where other types of brand names cannot.
Powerful examples of evocative names include:
Their originality means that evocative names are generally easier to trademark than descriptive names. It can sometimes be challenging to get corporate buy-in on an abstract name that requires unpacking, though. That’s why it’s so important to define expectations at the outset of a naming project. See the final section of this article for more on that.
3. Invented Brand Names
The best part about brand names is that if you can’t find the perfect word, you can always make one up. Invented names are etymological fabrications that are nothing if not distinctive.
Invented brand names offer the most creative latitude for a brand, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to conjure. Many invented names are built from Latin, Greek, or other foreign root words and modified to best embody the brand’s personality.
Successful invented names include:
Each of these brands has managed to build monumental brand equity with their invented name over the years. The challenge with invented brand names, though, is that they have no inherent meaning when first invented. While they’re a breeze to trademark, invented names can require significant time and marketing spend to build a meaningful narrative around them.
4. Lexical Brand Names
Lexical brand names rely on wordplay for their memorability. Puns, phrases, compound words, alliteration, onomatopoeia, intentional misspellings, and foreign words are all styles of this popular naming type.
Lexical names are often clever—sometimes, arguably, too clever—and get their impact from pairing or modifying existing words for linguistic effect.
Examples of lexical brand names include:
- Dunkin’ Donuts
- Krazy Glue
- Sizzler Steakhouse
- Krispy Kreme
The risk with these types of names is that they can come off as shamelessly salesy. Modern audiences have been exposed to decades of schlocky advertising techniques and don’t often identify with clever wordplay.
That said, lexical brand names aren’t all bad. Intentionally misspelling a word so you can leverage its original meaning while skirting trademark concerns, is a subtler approach to lexical names that has been used to great effect by notable brands like Flickr and Tumblr.
Just keep in mind that in branding, as in everyday life, there’s nothing worse than a pun that makes your eyes roll out of their sockets.
5. Acronym Brand Names
Acronyms have been used for brand names since branding first crawled out of the primordial soup. A long history does not mean this type of brand name is effective, though. While functional and utilitarian, acronyms are sorely lacking in meaning and emotion.
Examples of brands with acronymic names include:
Brands like IBM, AARP, BP, and UPS haven’t been hampered in the least by the fact that their names are nothing more than a series of unrelated uppercase letters. KFC’s diversion to acronymic naming type allowed the brand to temporarily disassociate itself from the consumer backlash against trans fats.
A startup these days would be hard pressed to come up with a great reason to name their company with an acronym, though. As a rule, acronyms are hard for audiences to remember and even harder for attorneys to trademark.
6. Geographical Brand Names
New York Life, Nantucket Nectars, Arizona Tile—sometimes brands are inextricably tied to the regions that birthed them. Geographical names imbue a brand with all the cultural and historical associations of its namesake—for better or worse.
You’ll most often find geographical names tied to companies that once catered to a geographically limited audience but have since made it big.
Examples of the geographical naming type include:
- New York Life
- Nantucket Nectars
- American Airlines
- Arizona Tile
- California Pizza Kitchen
- Kentucky Fried Chicken
- Florida’s Natural
Naming or renaming your brand after its home region obviously has inherent limitations. It’s also likely to have been done already. Put a city or a state name in front of a product or service and you’re almost certain to find an existing entity. California Tan? Already exists. Portland Automotive? Been done. Miami Subs? Yup.
7. Founder Brand Names
Whether for reasons of heritage or hubris, there will always be brands named for the people who started them. This tradition stretches back to the earliest brands as well. The era when Fords tooled every street and Kellogg’s sat atop every breakfast table was one where few brands weren’t named for their founders.
These days, founder-based names are less common, but brands like Ben & Jerry’s, Martha Stewart, and Ralph Lauren have certainly made them work.
Examples of founder names include:
- Ben & Jerry’s
- Martha Stewart
- Ralph Lauren
- Mrs. Fields
- Calvin Klein
Aside from sating the egos of their principals, founder names are definitely easy to trademark. They can be distinctive if positioned correctly, but require some marketing efforts to build equity (unless, of course, the founder is already famous).
What to Expect
As an agency, naming is one of the toughest things we do. There are thousands of great names out there but almost all of them are already trademarked. Naming (and renaming) is an arduous process but one that is well worth it when done right.
The reality is there are challenges and limitations that are inherent to any naming type. For starters, a name can only realistically embody one facet of a brand. Maybe two if you’re lucky. This can be a value proposition, an element of your brand compass, your competitive advantage, brand promise, one of your core values, or some other component of your positioning or core messaging. Other important criteria both inform and restrict the search for name.
Ultimately, your goal is to find a name that is:
- Aligned with brand positioning
- Embodies brand personality
- Embodies one (or more) value propositions
- Avoids negative or stigmatized concepts
- Has an available trademark
- Has an available URL
Easier said than done, trust us. The most important expectation to keep in mind is simply this: the perfect brand name doesn’t exist (or if it does, it’s already been trademarked).
The Harvard Law Review did a study recently titled Are We Running Out of Trademarks? which found that more than 70% of common English words have already been trademarked. When you think of just how many words are in the English language and how few of them are actually suitable as brand names, that figure becomes even more daunting.
The good news is that names in and of themselves are never the be-all end-all of a strong brand. We always say that a great name can never make a lousy company better, but a great company can make even the worst name seem genius.
Google, Microsoft and Sony are all pretty silly names taken out of context, but that obviously didn’t stop these companies from building remarkably successful brands around them.
Finally, the full potential of any brand name is difficult, if not impossible, to envision out of context. Names, after all, do not exist in a vacuum. They require a comprehensive brand experience to fully come to life.
There’s no shortage of reasons to rename your company. And while the types of brand names are limited, the list of possible brand names is endless. If you haven’t yet realized this, you will when you get to the brainstorming phase.
Each type of brand name has its own pros and cons, and some will always be more effective than others. Whatever type of brand name you decide to pursue, it’s important to define expectations at the outset of your naming project.
Naming or renaming a company, after all, is more challenging than many people realize. It’s often best left in the capable hands of a branding expert. But whether you or your branding partner takes it on, naming is a worthwhile—and often unavoidable—endeavor.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in October 2015 and has been updated with additional insights.