33 Tips & Tactics For Generating Names

Steve RivkinJune 11, 2009380610 min

33 Tips & Tactics For Generating Brand Names

Over the last decade we have generated new names for hundreds of companies, products and services. Here are some of the shortcuts, thought-starters and naming strategies we’ve observed along the way.

1. Work Backwards From The Selling Proposition.
Start by writing down an advertising headline, or a positioning statement, or a themeline for your product. Then work toward a name that reflects that marketing strategy. You have an instant coffee that tastes and smells like real ground roast. The name: TASTER’S CHOICE. Your new bath soap has so many oils and softeners that it leaves the skin silky soft to the touch. CARESS. Your chain of Mexican restaurants serves a mouth-watering range of that spicy cuisine. THE WHOLE ENCHILADA.

2. Spell It A Different Way.
A gelatin dessert came out as JELL-O. A fruit-based drink for kids came out as FROOT. An intentionally misspelled word could become your product’s name. Or company name: TOYS R US.

3. Go Against The Grain.
Study the competition. If everyone else is high-tech, think high-touch. If all the category names seem masculine try feminine. A hospital in Arkansas found that its competitors all had serious, straightforward names for their maternity centers — The Maternity Center or The Birthing Center. So this hospital called theirs STORK & COMPANY. The community loved it. There’s a long list of cars with 3-syllable names all ending with the letter “a”: Achieva, Aurora, Bravada, Celica, Corolla, Cressida, Integra, Maxima, Miata, Previa, Tredia. Et Cetera. If you were branding the next new model, maybe you’ll go against the grain.

4. Generate First, Judge Later.
Get yourself (or your task force) started by generating as many different names as you can. Write everything down. There are no bad ideas, yet. Save the judging for later. In a group session, try this penalty for saying, “What a lousy idea.” That person has to produce two more ideas for names.

5. Go For Quantity.
Don’t fall in love with a short list of two or three possible names. Develop lots of names. In a typical trademark search, you’ll lose at least 8 of every 10 names you generate. (Sometimes more.)

6. Try A Random Idea.
Creative consultant Roger von Oech suggests opening your mind to things that have nothing to do with a problem you’re working on. Open your dictionary to page 133 and pick the third word. Make that word relate to your naming need. (Could you use it as a metaphor?) Write down the name of your favorite sports team. How would it impact the project you’re working on? Random ideas can make your mind blossom.

7. Try For An Acronym.
VISTA. Volunteers In Service To America. MADD. Mothers Against Drunk Driving. FAST LANE. A bank’s Fully Automated Super Teller. Acronyms are hard to create. But if you can come up with an acronym that has real meaning, you’ve already built a marketing premise into your name.

8. Get Comfortable.
Get away from the phones. Get away from the office. Physically, you’ll do your best work on naming in a relaxed, comfortable environment. Emotionally, it should be an environment that says it’s okay to take chances.

9. Study Your Local Retailers.
They often come up with inventive, evocative names. What thought process are they using that you could use? BANANA REPUBLIC for khaki-based travel clothing. ONE NIGHT STAND for a women’s boutique that rents high-priced designer clothing for special occasions. CREATURE COMFORTS for a pet groomer.

10. Manufacture A New Word.
Try putting together a new word from the parts of words you already have. In some cases, you can weld entire words together. It’s called constructional linguistics. A car plus a van yielded CARAVAN. Reporting on the news of the week yielded NEWSWEEK. Manufactured names are all around us. CITIBANK. NUTRASWEET. SUNKIST. BRIDGESTONE. KITCHENAID. WATERPIK. This is not a new technique. In the 1860s, a cheap and hard-wearing floor covering made from flax (“linum” in Latin) and oil (‘oleum”) was named LINOLEUM. The illustrious luncheon meat SPAM came from spiced ham. NABISCO was once the National Biscuit Company.

11. Conjure Up A Visual.
What would visually represent your company or product? An animal? A color? An ocean? A mountain? A visual concept may lead you to a name. A marketer was working on the name for a new sore throat medicine in a spray bottle. For the spray to hit its target, the mouth had to be opened fairly wide. This action created the image of a lion tamer sticking his head inside the lion’s mouth. The name — THROAT TAMER — and the concept of soothing the “roar” of sore throat pain weren’t far behind. Kollmorgen Corp. introduced a very thin DC motor for certain industrial applications. Its flatness was its advantage, and the key visual concept. Their successful name for this motor: THE PANCAKE.

12. Pick The Right Vocabulary Level.
The level of education and social status of the customer tend to dictate the most acceptable vocabulary. Scholastic or scientific language might be right for a pharmaceutical product. King’s English or the spoken language is right for most banking services. Grade-school vocabulary is better for many consumer products.

13. Think About Why It Will Be Used.
A $100 pair of sneakers should make me faster and more agile. So, what suggests fast and agile? REEBOK is the name of a fleet-footed African gazelle. PUMA is the Spanish word for a large wild cat. (Would a Keds or a Converse make me that agile?).

14. Think About Where It Will Be Used.
Imagine your product in the customer’s hands, actually being used. A marketer realized that many people like to dictate on their way to and from work. The COMMUTER was the name for a new portable dictating machine.

15. Borrow A Phrase From The Language.
Sears created a car battery that was tenacious and stubborn. The company borrowed the dictionary word DIE-HARD to describe this complex concept in a simple way. A linguist refers to this as “adapting a metaphor.” Another example: CLOSE-UP for a toothpaste that has lots of mouthwash in the formula. (It’s known as the kisser’s toothpaste in the trade.) Once upon a time, Dutch sailors used the expression “spiksplinternieuw” in speaking of a new ship. It meant the ship was new in every spike and splinter of wood. The British later Anglicized the phrase to “spick and spannew,” and U.S. sailors Americanized it to “spic and span.” All it took was an alert manufacturer of household detergents to seize the name: SPIC-AND-SPAN.

16. Use The Best Tools.
For serious naming efforts, there’s only one choice for a dictionary: The prodigious 13-volume Oxford English Dictionary. A distant second choice: Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. While you’re at it, use the best thesaurus. Forget the slender volumes that are in most offices. Get a fat one. One good choice: March’s Thesaurus. Even better: The Synonym Finder (by J.I. Rodale, Warner Books). It contains 1.5 million synonyms.

17. Go To Church.
In 1878, Procter & Gamble invented a new soap. It was white, very pure, and it floated. Harley Procter was struggling to find a name for it. Inspiration came one Sunday morning as he listened to the minister reading from Psalms 45:8 —”All thy garments smell of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia, out of the ivory palaces, whereby they have made thee glad.” Young Mr. Procter had found his name IVORY (Even though the actual substance ivory is not pure white in color, and it certainly doesn’t float!).

18. Listen To Your Customers.
Today, that means focus groups or online panels. Once upon a time, it was just a chance encounter. A Baltimore pharmacist was blending his own skin cream in the early 1900s. George Bunting sold it in small blue jars labeled “Dr. Bunting’s Sunburn Remedy.” Female customers who never ventured into the sun without a parasol raved about the cream. But George wanted a broader base of business. Then one day, a male customer entered the store and remarked that the sunburn remedy had miraculously cured his eczema (a painful inflammation of the skin). From that chance remark, Dr. Bunting’s Sunburn Remedy became NOXZEMA.

19. Think Of The Name As A Promise.
What attribute or benefit can you capture? The cold remedy NYQUIL was coined from the fragments “ny” (from night) and “quil” (from tranquil). The promise of a tranquil night’s sleep. “Raise your arm if you’re SURE” is the message from an aptly-named deodorant. Linguists have observed that a name is much more than a sound. It is also a bundle of associations.

20. Go Foreign.
Look for translations of root words, core words, relevant terms. Mitsubishi (whose symbol is three diamonds) found DIAMANTE as the name for its new luxury car. VOLVO means “I roll” in Latin. OREO means “hill” in Greek. (The original version of the cookie was mound-shaped, not flat.) Decaffeinated coffee was introduced in Europe. SANKA is a contraction of the French phrase, “sans caffein.” The owner of a small winery described his efforts to a friend as a “labor of love.” That become the winery’s name. The idiomatic expression in French is TRAVAIL DU COEUR.

21. Have A Computer Do The Work.
Several software programs exist for creating company and product names. Or you could create your own by using a program that “mates” words in column A with words in column B. Computers don’t have much judgment, of course. They don’t have marketing orientations or linguistic awareness. But they’ll certainly spew out lots of possibilities.

22. Purchase An Existing Name.
A bank paid $10,000 to acquire another bank’s name for a cash management service that was no longer being marketed. A perfume company paid a million dollars for the rights to one name. (The name already had been cleared and registered in 70 countries.) Coors licensed the name of its upscale beer IRISH RED from a long-defunct brewery. If a name you covet is owned by someone else, but is dormant or little used, go after it. Have an intermediary (such as a trademark attorney) make an offer. You have nothing to lose.

23. Take The Time To Eavesdrop.
You never know what you’ll hear. A well-known sleep aid was named by a fellow who overheard a group of people leaving the theatre late in the evening. “Night, all,” they called to each other. “Night, all.” This alert listener had his new name: NYTOL.

24. Eschew Initials.
Studies have shown that all-initial names are as much as 40% less memorable than names that use actual or made-up words. If you doubt that, just look at the all-initial names of companies in the Fortune 500. How many do you really recognize? (Do you recognize UST or SPX or NCH?).

25. Say It Out Loud.
Names should be pleasing to the ear as well as to the eye. Imagine how many times each day your new name will be said over the phone. Just altering a word’s formation may produce a better sound. The origins of both these words suggest “warm” or “loving.” But CALIDA is more pleasing to the ear than CALIDUS.

26. Summon A Suffix.
Suffixes play a special role in developing new names. Would one of these be useful? -ime, -in are frequently used for medicines and chemical substances (ANACIN, BUFFERIN, LISTERINE).
-oid normally means “resembling” or “having the form of’ (CELLULOID, POLAROID).
-ex is often used to imply “excellent” or to give prestige to a name (ROLEX, KLEENEX, PLAYTEX).
-elle is a feminine suffix that adds grace and softness (the triangular-shaped diamond TRIELLE).

27. Put The Benefit Right Into The Name.
A perfume named PASSION. A deodorant named NO SWEAT. An all-terrain vehicle named EXPLORER. A long-lasting, wear-resistant polyethylene named DURATION.

28. Find A Big Brother.
Someone in an allied field might give you the name you need. If you’re naming the company’s newsletter, for instance, look at the names of metropolitan newspapers. But go beyond the obvious ones like Times, Herald or Gazette. You’ll also find some novel coinages. In Seattle, there’s the POST-INTELLIGENCER. In California, the Sacramento BEE. In North Carolina, the High Point ENTERPRISE.

29. Start With An Unusual Letter.
In the English language, words most commonly start with these five initial letters: S,C,P,A and T. The five least common are X, Z, Y, Q and K. One out of eight words starts with an S. One out of 3,000 starts with an X. George Eastman coined the name KODAK for a variety of reasons. It was short, unusual, vigorous. “The letter K,” he said, “has been a favorite with me — it seemed a strong, incisive sort of letter.”

30. Repeat The Same Sound.
The rhythmic cadence of a name can affect its appeal and memorability. KODAK uses the same sound as bookends for the name. Listen to the repetition of sound in a name such as FRUIT OF THE LOOM. Or COCA-COLA.

31. Unfold Your Map.
Place names can become product names. The slip-on loafer is believed to have evolved from a Norwegian shoe called the clog. Henry Bass, a cobbler from Maine, named his loafer the WEEJUN after the final two syllables of “Norwegian.” A Massachusetts cookie company installed a new machine that could wrap cookie dough around jam. The first jam the company tried was made from figs. Their policy was to name their products after neighboring towns, so Newton, Massachusetts, was duly honored. Hence, FIG NEWTONS.

32. Reverse The Natural Order Of Things.
General Ambrose Everett Burnside was the commander of the Army of the Potomac during the American Civil War. His most distinguishing feature (which launched a trend) was his profuse side-whiskers, growing down along the ears to the cheeks. They were called “burnsides.” Around the turn of the century, the word experienced a linguistic transposition and became SIDEBURNS. The holding company for Pathmark supermarkets could have given itself the prosaic name of General Supermarkets Corp. Instead, it was transposed to SUPERMARKETS GENERAL.

33. Borrow An Idea.
Thomas Edison once said that ideas have to be original only in their adaptation to the problem you’re working on. Military designers borrowed from Picasso’s art to create better camouflage patterns for tanks. So go ahead. Borrow one of these ideas.

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Steve Rivkin


  • Devon Thomas Treadwell

    June 11, 2009 at 3:50 pm

    Re: #6. Even better and faster than the dictionary approach is to use the Random Article link on Wiki. It’s a text link in the left-hand column. Click it and it will bring up a random page from all of Wikipedia. You can really get to some unexpected connections that way.

    My biggest piece of advice for do-it-yourself namers is to not use words that aren’t already in the target audience’s vocabulary. That rules out most invented names, latinates and foreign words that aren’t well known to the audience. By all means don’t use a computer program to generate names if you don’t have the branding expertise to properly evaluate what it spits out.

  • Jenny

    September 22, 2015 at 4:26 am

    Excellent Post. One can also use naming companies and generators like RollingNames, Wordoid, WordLab and Panabee.

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