As we’ve mentioned before, naming or renaming your company is no small feat. Competitive brand research, brainstorming, refinement, testing—the process is rigorous and exhausting even before the trademark attorneys go over your final selection with a fine-tooth comb.
One thing that will give you a head start on the naming endeavor is an understanding of the types of names that are out there. You’ve seen them all before—from Apple to IBM, Google to McDonald’s—you just might not have known which was which. A grasp of naming typology will better enable you to define key measures of success like naming goals and criteria before you start banging your head against the desk trying to come up with the perfect brand moniker.
We break them down into 7 categories:
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 on the part of the brand or interpretation on the part of its audience. Think Toys R Us, E*Trade, General Motors, or YouSendIt. The upside of descriptive names is that they clearly communicate the brand story. The potential downside is that they hamstring a brand as it grows and looks to diversify. Descriptive names are also very hard to trademark as by nature they rely on common words or phrases.
Somewhere on the other end of the creative spectrum lie evocative brand names. Evocative names employ suggestion and metaphor to bring to mind the experience or positioning of a brand. They are singular and creative, and make for powerful differentiators. Because evocative names tend to be nonlinear and multidimensional, they represent an opportunity to forge a profoundly meaningful brand that is bigger than just the goods and services it offers. They’re often the cornerstone of a brand’s positioning. Powerful examples include Nike, Patagonia, Amazon, and Virgin. Because of their originality, evocative names are much easier to trademark than descriptive ones. It can, however, be challenging to get corporate buy-in on an abstract name that requires unpacking. Also, brands with evocative names had better be aligned, or they end up shooting themselves in the foot.
The best part about brand names is that if you can’t find the perfect word, you can always just make one up. Invented names are fanciful fabrications that are nothing if not distinctive. These types of names offer the most creative latitude for a brand, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to dream up. Many are built from Latin, Greek, or other foreign root words and modified to best embody the brand personality. Exxon, Kodak, Xerox, and Verizon are all great examples of invented names that have managed to build monumental brand equity over the years. The challenge with invented brand names is that they have no inherent definition other than the one assigned them. While they’re a breeze to trademark, they can require a lots of time and hefty marketing spend to establish meaning in the eyes of customers.
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. Dunkin’ Donuts, Krazy Glue, Volare, and Sizzler Steakhouse are all examples of lexical brand names. The risk with these types of names is that they’re among the most shamelessly salesy of the bunch. Contemporary audiences have been exposed to decades of schlocky advertising techniques and aren’t likely to identify with clever wordplay unless it’s exceedingly subtle and creative. In branding, as in everyday life, there’s nothing worse than a pun that makes your eyes roll out of their sockets.
Number 5 in our list is one of those naming types with straightforward, utilitarian purpose. Acronyms have been used for brand names since branding first crawled out of the primordial soup. 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. A startup these days would be hard pressed to come up with a great reason to name their company with an acronym, but as a rebranding strategy it’s worked well for brands like Aflac. KFC was able to weather the consumer backlash against trans fats so well that it’s now reverted back to the campy vintage identity of Kentucky Fried Chicken. As a rule, though, acronyms are hard for audiences to remember and even harder for attorneys to trademark.
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 its namesake is known for—for better or worse. You’ll often find these names used by companies who once catered to a geographically limited audience but have since made it big. Naming or renaming your brand after its home region obviously has inherent limitations. And these types of names have almost all been used before. 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.
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. There was a time when Fords tooled every street and Kellogg’s sat atop every breakfast table when there were few brands not named for their founders. These days, founder based names are less common, but brands like Ben & Jerry’s, Martha Stewart, Ralph Lauren, and Mrs. Fields have certainly made them work. 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).
While the naming types are limited, the actual list of possible brand names is endless. If you haven’t yet realized this, you will when you get to the brainstorming phase. Whatever brand name type you end up using, it’s important to remember the lasting truism of naming: A good name can’t make a lousy product great, but a great product can make even the strangest name unforgettable.