Common Blunders in Brand Naming

What’s in a name? Well with all due deference to Mr. Shakespeare….a lot.

Naming is one of the hardest things about creating a brand.

It may appear deceptively easy. After all most of us have successfully named pets, children, favorite body parts, etc.

But finding an appropriate and legally available trademark is actually very difficult.

It’s been a while since naming was my full time job. I had the privilege and the pleasure of leading the crack Verbal Identity group at Interbrand for many years.

Last week I was asked by 3 separate friends for naming counsel for their start-ups. This got me thinking about the old days and the triumphs and tribulations of naming. So I decided to dust off my verbal identity cap and share my advice here.

Most Common Naming Mistakes
1. Not agreeing to the strategic role of the name upfront
2. Evaluating names without the proper context
3. Expecting lightning bolts and the perfect name to appear
4. Treating final name selection as a democratic decision
5. Not leaving enough time for the naming process

Here’s some more perspective on each of these “naming blunders”:

1.Not agreeing to the strategic role of the name upfront
We tend to expect a lot of brand names. Be catchy, stand out from the competition, not too long (ex. 6 letters, 2 syllables), legally available, available as a URL, and my favorite recent criteria…become part of the current vernacular like Twitter or Google (e.g. “I Googled him last night”).

Phew! That’s a lot. Well the truth is it’s a rare name that can accomplish all that. So it’s best to hone in on the specific role of the name. One way to do this is a proper naming brief. List the 3 (no more) key benefits the name should convey. Agree to the priority and make them as well-defined as possible (e.g. “delicious” or “confidence” are too vague, be more specific). Remember, you have other tools in your branding tool box (e.g. logo, tagline, advertising)to convey elements of the message. Don’t put the burden 100% on the name to communicate every nuance of your strategy and positioning.

2.Evaluating names without the proper context
To my point above, the quickest way to kill a name is to evaluate at it as a simple word without any context. This is a lazy approach, and quite frankly it doesn’t really reflect the way the name would be seen in real life. Can you imagine choosing any of the following names today just by seeing them in black and white on a piece of paper: Apple, Virgin, Nike, Starbucks, Kodak, Haagen Dazs, IKEA?

Each of these names has come to mean something because of the powerful branding that surrounds them. If you are creating new names for a company, then imagine answering the phone at reception with that name, pretend you are at a sales meeting and someone asks you what your company name means…prepare a brand story for the name and see if it serves as a platform to give an interesting answer. One that helps you to tell a compelling story and quickly get to the point about what’s special about your company.

Consider creating some rough logo designs for the names you are evaluating. A good name, should be easy for a designer to spin in a lot of different directions. And remember that the colors, font, and shape of the logo can help you speak to a lot of the attributes and benefits that might not be conveyed in the name. For example if one of your product or company’s benefits is security, you don’t need to put “sure or secure” in the name. The concept of stability can be communicated through color, font, or simply by the people that are behind the company or product.

3.Expecting lightning bolts and the perfect name to appear
I can only remember one time in all my years naming at Interbrand, when we all knew immediately that we had come upon the “perfect” name. This was when we created the name Orbitz for what was then a fledgling web travel service. Usually names need a maturation process. Either they grow on you naturally, or they grow as you continue to poke and prod and explore them with some of the methods I mentioned above. This especially true if you are changing a company name (e.g. a merger, acquisition or need to start clean). The old name, though it may be flawed, is comfortable. It’s like when you get married and you may change your name. It’s going to feel awkward at first, which is normal because it’s what you are used to, but eventually the “new” name will also feel right. Give names a chance to marinate, and don’t set up as an unrealistic expectation the “we’ll know it when we see it” or “lightning bolt effect”. To this end, it’s a good idea to keep a healthy handful of names on your “Short list” (preferably 5-10) because they will inevitably get knocked about in the trademark process (more on that later).

4.Treating final name selection as a democratic decision
Names are subjective. One man’s weed may be another man’s rose. This is why most of us decline to share a future baby’s name with even close friends and family until the baby has been born and the birth announcements printed. Because we don’t want the “harmless” opinions that come with sharing this decision. Example: “Oh really, the bully who used to torture me in 3rd grade was named X”. Not really relevant or helpful. That’s why it’s really important when you are going through a naming process to be clear up front who has the final say. It shouldn’t be a democratic vote . Pros and cons for each name should be gathered and considered, opinions can be heard. But you are certainly not going to get everyone to agree.

At some point, someone has to make a decision. And then begin the very important process of getting internal audiences to understand, and eventually, embrace the new name. Ideally this should be done as a series of powerful communications (visuals, videos, and brand stories) before the name is launched externally. An ideal goal is to have anyone from the receptionist to the CFO be able to articulate with certainty, passion, and consistency the message behind the new name.

5.Not leaving enough time for the naming processWell, you’re probably already exhausted by the process if you are still reading this post. But as you can see there is a lot that goes into finding a powerful and available name. I haven’t even touched on the rigors and the nuances of trademark and URL search (and the important investigations and negotiations that usually follow). Very few names appear available at first blush and the difference between a good and bad IP attorney is the former will counsel you on how to get one of the names you want, the latter will just say no. What always amazes me is that people spend months even years bringing a product or company to the point that it is ready for launch, but only leave a few months (and sometimes only weeks!) for the naming process.

That’s just bad planning. Start early. It’s one of the most important decisions you can make in developing your brand. It’s the first and one of the most powerful signals to the world on what you are about. Give it the time it deserves. And believe me you want time on your side, and not working against you, if you do find yourself negotiating for a trademark or URL.

My last piece of advice, is to remember any name can work (ex. Chase Bank, The Pep Boys, Woolworth’s etc).

A good name is one that is legally available.

A great name is one that is available and gives you a starting point on which to build a strong brand.

Treat naming as an art and a science, invest the time and money in the proper resources to help you, and you will significantly increase your likelihood of creating a great brand name.

That’s my point of view. What’s your twist?
What good and bad naming practices have you seen?

Disruptive by Design

Monday I went to a Wired Magazine conference called “Disruptive by Design”. (Twitter#WiredLive).

It had great speakers like Jeff Immelt (GE), Elon Musk (Telsa Motors/SpaceX), Shai Agassi (Better Place)and Vivek Kundra (the Information Technology czar for the Obama administration) just to name a few.

All of these guys were mesmerizing with their passion and conviction around technologies and business ideas that are disruptive and game changing.

But far and away my favorite of the day was Jeff Bezos (Amazon founder).

He made the pursuit of innovation personal and accessible. He talked about his conviction even in the early difficult days that Amazon would make it and his passion for his latest invention, the Kindle.

Here are a few choice tidbits from his speech (quoted semi-accurately, but you’ll get the meaning):

“If you are going to be disruptive, you have to be willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time.”

“Companies over dramatize failure. Failures of commission (taking action) are rarely that expensive. The real danger is in failures of omission (not seizing an opportunity).”

“Amazon makes decisions on business extensions by working backwards from consumer needs or working forwards from our skill sets.”

“I always told my staff not to take fluctuations in stock prices too seriously. If you feel 30% smarter the day our stock goes up by that amount, are you going to feel 30% dumber the day it drops down?”

He says he knew that Amazon was going to make it even when the stock was tanking partly because it’s harshest critics were among their best customers.

He talked about the power of the Kindle being that it is a singular focused device. He thought multi-taking devices were often over-rated.

“I love my smart phone, I love my Swiss army knife, but sometimes when I’m sitting down for a great meal, I love my steak knife.”

I think it’s fascinating that he’s taking on books, which for many are sacred objects, and declaring “they’ve had a good 500 year run” but it’s time for something new.

His problem with books? Too heavy, hard to turn the page with one hand, hard to find your place again, always closing at the wrong moment.

His problem with reading on another “multi tasking device” like a laptop? Too hot, too cumbersome, and not that easy to curl up in bed with.

I haven’t tried a Kindle yet. But I’m curious. The people I know who have them seem to be passionate advocates. (Always a good sign).

I think time will tell if the Kindle really is a better mousetrap. But I know for sure that whether it fails or succeeds, Jeff Bezos is someone who is not going to stop disrupting.

That’s my point of view. What’s your twist?

Is the Kindle a disruptive innovation or a fad destined for failure?

Name that Tune


Music is such an incredible way to make connections and evoke emotions.

Why is it so under-leveraged in branding?

I can’t remember a lot of things I did last month, or even last week…but hum a few bars of my favorite childhood jingles and I can instantly recall all the words.

“My Baloney has a first name. It’s O-S-C-A-R.

“Honeycomb’s big, yeah, yeah, yeah.”

or even more recent ones…

“Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s Maybelline.”

Aural or sonic branding isn’t just about jingles.

It can also be about associating songs with commercials (Apple’s “New Soul” for the Airbook is a great example of this).

Or a unique sound that is tied with use of that brand (e.g The T-Mobile sound when you turn your phone on or the Intel Inside notes that accompany that brand signature).

It can be a particular voice that’s connected with a brand (e.g. James Earl Jones intoning “This is CNN”).

Brands seems to spend so much time on the look of the product and the campaigns.

Who is thinking about the sound?

In my current job I’ve met a few agencies that focus on Sonic branding. But it still seems to be a relatively niche discipline, although one I believe is worthy of more attention.

Next time you are brainstorming ways to make your advertising and branding work harder, shut your eyes, open your ears and think about sound and how it could work to your advantage.

That’s my point of view. What’s your twist?

How are brands effectively leveraging sound? Should they be doing more?

Tell Me a Story


I believe that a great brand is a story well told.

You’ve probably noticed that people love to tell stories about brands that have delighted them- and often about brands that let have them down.

But I don’t think that brands often make it easy for their fans to repeat the positive stories because they don’t share them in an accessible way.

Lately it seems like there is a lot of energy spent thinking about the negative potential of all the viral medium and how bad press gets passed along on blogs, FaceBook, Twitter etc.

But are we also doing enough to harness the positive potential of viral word of mouth?

One example of a company that actually has great customer stories to tell AND makes it easy to share is Zappos.

The company website has a robust blog filled with amazing stories like this one about a woman who reached out to Zappos when her friend lost all her belongings in a fire a few days before Christmas. The original request was to send some Ugg’s to the daughter in the effected family in a rush delivery in time for the holiday.

But Zappo’s went above and beyond and actually sent a complete holiday care package including a game of Monopoly, gift certificates, Zappo’s branded t-shirts, water bottles, etc so this family who had lost everything could have a little holiday cheer.

The grateful friend went on to make and post a “thank you” video for helping her friend through a difficult time.

This is a great story. And just one of hundreds like it for this brand. But what’s also great is how Zappos makes it easy for fans of the brand (like me) to have their loyalty reinforced and affirmed by making these kind of stories accessible and easy to share.

Are you celebrating the positive stories in your brand? And importantly are you make it easy for your brand fans to crow on your behalf?

Don’t look at it as self-promotion. Look at it as a way to help your customers celebrate their relationship with you by passing on the good news.

That’s my point of view. What’s your twist?

Do your favorite brands make it easy for you to share good stories?

Brand Passionistas Unite!


I was introducing myself the other day to potential investors for one of my projects at work. To keep things fresh, I was trying to avoid the same old description of who I am and what I do…blah, blah, blah…when this new word popped out of my mouth …”Passionista”.

“Brand Passionista”! Eureka! Fits like a glove. Or a Jimmy Choo shoe. I got so excited by this new expression that I almost ditched the meeting to run to my computer and begin blogging about this inspiration.

All this excitement about a word? If you can’t tell by now, I am somewhat of a “wordie” – the literary equivalent of a foodie.

I love words, their power, their nuance. Their ability to produce physical sensations. One of my favorite words is gelato. Just saying it evokes a smooth creamy sensation. I am immediately transported to a sultry summer day in Rome, watching the beautiful Italians stroll by, while enjoying a cooling spray from the Trevi fountain.

But I digress…back to Brand Passionista.

Branding is tough, especially these days when there is so much turmoil and uncertainty. But if you’re a real Brand Passionista you are not deterred. In fact, like me, you might be inspired.

There’s so many new things to get excited about: trends, behaviors, technologies etc.

And there’s never before been so much focus on brand. Even my kids can have a credible discussion about brand. For example they bring a level of commercial savvy and insight to discussions about Hannah Montana- that I never possessed at their age. They can speak passionately and credibly about her seamless crossover from TV, to music, to movies, to fashion and back again. They can talk about her as a brand. They are budding Brand Passionistas.

Of course, there is a fair amount of negative energy and cynicism out there around brand. This seems particularly rampant in the blogosphere.

Sure there’s also a lot going on with brands that can make your blood boil: green washing, twitter-mania, too many brands trying too hard to be my friend etc.

But I think it’s all good. Passion is the secret to great branding. You have to always be unsatisfied, wanting more..asking “what if” and “what else” and “what the ???”.

And branding is art, it is fashion. It’s hot and trendy and crave-worthy when you see something you must have or someone you envy.

So I think we should all embrace our inner Passionistas and revel in the obsessive, crazy world of brand that we’re lucky enough to be a part of.

OK, I am getting off my soap box now…stepping off very carefully in my fabulously impractical but drop-dead gorgeous high heel shoes.

That’s my point of view. What’s your twist?

Are you a Brand Passionista too?