10 Do’s And Don’ts For Smart Naming

Steve RivkinApril 16, 20098323 min

10 Do's And Don'ts For Smart Naming

1. Don’t be overly obvious. Sterling is a lovely word, especially in the United Kingdom where it defines the basic British monetary unit and has come to mean “of the highest quality.” But it is so obvious a choice that more than 700 U.K. companies have the word “Sterling” in their name. 

2. Do consider the context. For instance, consider the context for product and company names ending with the letters “-is.” Remember the sarcastic comment by Donald Trump about the name Allegis? He said it sounded like “a world-class disease.” That’s because there are a host of diseases and ailments with that ending — arthritis, gingivitis, encephalitis, syphilis. It doesn’t seem that was a consideration when Rhone-Poulenc and Hoechst merged creating a life sciences giant. The result: Aventis

3. Do remember that less is usually more. Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda was a curious and cumbersome name. Seven-Up was better. Dr. Richardson’s Croup and Pneumonia CureSalve was going nowhere until it become Vicks VapoRub.

4. But, do go for quantity. Nine of any ten names generated (by any method or means) fail to get through an availability screening. This is not a new problem. When the Coca-Cola company introduced its first diet drink way back in 1963, an IBM Model 1401 computer was programmed to disgorge every four-letter combination containing a vowel. Out came 250,000 combinations, and 600 names were examined as possibilities. But only 24, a mere four percent, had no conflict with existing trademarks. (One of them, Tabb, was shortened to Tab.)

5. Don’t shortchange the equity in your name. Names can carry tons of stored-up value. Wells Fargo Bank once merged with a larger bank named American Trust Bank Company. But shrewd heads prevailed, and the “smaller” name (with its proud heritage and considerable equity) prevailed.

6. Do look within. Sometimes good naming is more common sense than courage. Anheuser-Busch decided to spin off the large commercial baking company (Campbell Taggart Inc.) it had acquired in 1982. Seeking a more expressive name, new management selected one of their regional bread brands, redesigned it, and elevated it to the corporate name: Earthgrains Company.

7. Don’t take every name literally. Your customers don’t. If they did, they would assume that a car from Rent A Wreck really is a wreck. Or that a Realtor from Century 21 couldn’t sell a house back in the 20th Century. The management of the American Hospital Association fell into that trap as they toyed with proposals to change their name. Why? To be more inclusive of its membership, which no longer revolves around free-standing hospitals and now embraces integrated delivery systems, among others. But “hospital” turns out to be a word that resonates richly. When the association finally bothered to poll the 300 people who serve on their regional policy boards, they got an earful: 45% said the old name was just fine, thank you. Another 45% said let’s just add a disclaimer to more fully describe the evolving membership.

8. Don’t assume that the name makes the market. Lean Cuisine is a dandy name for a line of frozen entrees. But it only works because consumers were ready for low-calorie, gourmet, upscale dining.

9. Do embrace emotion. Reason alone does not a great name make. Instead of being totally left-brain, you should let some intuition guide your intention. Sears could have named its car battery “Reliable.” (Practical, logical and very ho-hum). Now consider the actual choice, the evocative and emotionally-charged DieHard. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter acknowledged this right-brain aspect of names when he wrote, “The protection of trademarks is the law’s recognition of the psychological function of symbols. If it is true that we live by symbols, it is no less true that we purchase goods by them.”

10. Don’t forget the sound. These days, many names are said aloud more often than they are written or read. The mind translates words into sounds. So make sure your name is pleasant to pronounce.

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Steve Rivkin


  • Jeff Cohen

    April 17, 2009 at 12:48 pm

    Good thoughts and examples on the process of naming. And as a big Spinal Tap fan, I always need to add an 11 to every top 10, but this one is truly important. Don’t fall in love with your new name before searching the internet for similar examples. While URL availability should be part of the name development process, you also need to check for similar names. They may offer products and services that are similar to yours, or they may represent values that you don’t want to be associated with. And this is not just about a mis-typed domain name, but it could be “guilt by association” from scanning a search results page.

  • Gail Nelson

    April 17, 2009 at 1:12 pm

    There’s something to be said for plain-English naming of products, especially in the B2B world. It allows you to spend your money on branding a single company name rather than a multitude of products, helps buyers to understand the purpose and benefits of the product through the name, and eases the trademarking dilemma. For example, UPS offers B2B products with names such as UPS Returns and UPS Paperless Invoice. Accenture also follows a similar path, with software products named such as Accenture Life Insurance Solutions.

  • Fredcannon

    September 17, 2012 at 12:54 pm

    In this day and age, if the name contains two words or more you should see how they will read written as a URL. There are several examples of unfortunate combinations of words floating around the internet today.

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