How to Pick a Brand Name that Doesn't Suck

Think of a brand: any brand. What was the first thing that popped into your head? I'm no magician: I can’t guess which brand you were thinking of. What I do know that you weren’t thinking of its tagline or color scheme. What popped up in your mind was the brand’s name. A brand’s name is communicated every day. When you tell a friend you ate Taco Bell for lunch, you’re likely not going to add in its “Think outside the bun” tagline or draw a picture of the Taco Bell logo. Since a brand’s name is passed around more than any other element of a company’s brand, it needs careful attention and consideration.

There’s No Excuse for a Garbage Name

Picking a brand name isn’t easy. You may want to go with your gut and pick the first thing that sounds right. But there’s more to a name than just your response to it. A name can be a detriment to a company if a customer responds to it negatively. For example, German MP3 developer TrekStor didn’t consider the implications of naming the black variant of its i.Beat MP3 player the i.Beat blaxx. Customers were outraged by the racist oversight, causing the company to issue an apology and immediately change the name.

Another problem is the brand name might be misleading. Popular clothing brand Evereve launched a $1.5 million rebranding campaign in 2014 to change its name from Hot Mama because customers thought the company sold maternity clothes. This is where testing comes in handy to ensure the name doesn’t mislead customers, therefore alienating them. If you test at the beginning of the branding process, you won’t have to spend time and money fixing the damage of the original name.

Pick a Name that Hits All the Right Notes

According to Wheeler, there are eight qualities of great names:

  • Meaningful: A brand’s name needs to carry its meaning and capture the “essence of the brand”. This can be obvious (think Kentucky Fried Chicken) or more abstract (like Puma, which evokes a fast and powerful image that is perfect for running shoes).
  • Distinctive: A brand’s name needs to stand out and be memorable. Yes, China, King, and Buffet are all good words to include in a Chinese buffet restaurant name, but really, how many generic Chinese buffets do you know that already use a combination of those words? (I can think of two within five miles of my house.)
  • Future-Oriented: Successful brands expand and adapt, so a good name needs to allow for these changes. Google started out as a search engine but has expanded to further endeavors, each of which can carry the Google name and legacy.
  • Modular: Modular names can help create a collection of related objects. McDonald’s could put “Mc” at the front of any food, and you’d recognize it as a McDonald’s meal. Meanwhile, Apple successfully groups together its products by sharing an “i”, such as iMac, iPod, and iPhone.
  • Protectable: Protectable brands can be trademarked so you can own the name. No one in the industry has the name, and no one else will. Apple actually faced legal issues with this in the mid-2000s with Apple Records when they released the iTunes Music Store because the association between Apple Computers and the word "music" was a breach of contract. It's better to just go with a name that won't get you in legal trouble.
  • Positive: A good name is a happy name, or at least a name that doesn’t evoke a negative reaction. In the 1980’s Ayds candy sales suffered because their name was associated with AIDS. So the company changed the name to Diet Ayds, which just made the situation worse.
  • Visual: Good brands can also be great logos. Brands like Target and Shell have names that successfully link their name to an image so their name and logo act as a unit.


There’s More than One Way to Name a Business

There’s more than one option to go when choosing a name. There’s no right option, but some options might be better suited for your business than others.

  • Founder Name: The upside to this is you have a name to go with your business. It ties your business to a face, and gives your brand a people element. For example, Johnson & Johnson’s name reinforces their people helping people message. But the downside is that it is tied to a person. If that person does something negative, it might impact the brand. For example, when Paula Deen’s racial slur scandal happened in 2013, her product line was dropped by Wal-Mart.
  • Descriptive: Descriptive names get the point of the brand across. People know that Burger King sells burgers and Petsmart sells pet supplies. But if you have any intent to expand, you may not want your brand to be limited by its name.
  • Fabricated: If you want the totally unique name, go fabricated. These names are memorable and protectable, but the meaning may not be clear. It also provides the opportunity to tell customers the story of how the name was developed. But unlike descriptive names, their meanings aren’t intuitive.
  • Metaphor: Metaphors make for strong brand names. They’re less specific and tie the brand to a concept. Nike, whose namesake comes from the Greek goddess of victory, not only represents their competitive message, but allows the company to expand beyond just footwear into other sports gear.
  • Acronym: Acronyms take a long name and make it shorter. While this lets you give your name a deeper meaning, it can make your company hard to remember. Many companies use acronyms when they’ve already built up rapport. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to use an acronym. ASOS (As Seen on Screen) built a successful online fashion business in the early 2000s.
  • Misspelling: Some companies take an existing word and make it their own by changing the spelling. This retains the meaningfulness of the brand while making it easier to trademark and own. Companies like Tumblr, Flickr, and even Google used misspellings to create their names.
  • Combinations: By combining these naming conventions, you can make a generic name more personal or a unique name more understandable. Netflix combines a descriptive and a misspelling in its name by combining "net flicks (colloquial for movies)" with a misspelling of "flicks".

You’ve got all the tools to make a good name, just make sure to test it with your audience and you’re good to go!