How to Name a Startup: The Crash Course

An important first step is creating a job description for your name. What are its most important duties? The most common decision is that a name should explain to the world what business you are in or what your product does. Intuition dictates that this will save you the time and money of explaining it, which actually turns out not to be true. Why not?

The notion of describing your business in the name assumes that the name will exist at some point without contextual support, which, when you think about it, is impossible. The name will appear on a website, a store front, in a news article or press release, on a business card, on the product itself, in advertisements, or, at its most naked, in a conversation.

There is simply no imaginable circumstance in which a name will have to explain itself. This is fortunate, because having a descriptive name is actually a counterproductive marketing move which requires an enormous amount of effort to overcome. A descriptive naming strategy overlooks the fact that the whole point of marketing is to separate yourself from the pack. It actually works against you, causing you to fade into the background, indistinguishable from the bulk of your competitors.

The following is a list of companies in the naming and branding arena. While each of their names describes what they do, you can clearly see the heavy marketing price they pay for such a shortcut:

Brand-DNA (.com)
Brand-DNA (.net)
DNA Brand Mechanics
Brand 2.0
Brand Doctors
Brand Equity
Brand Evolve
Brand Fidelity
Brand Institute
Brand Mechanics
BrandForward
Brandico
Brandjuice Consulting
BrandLadder
BrandLink
BrandLogic
BrandMaverick
BrandPeople
Brandscope
Brandslinger
BrandSolutions
Brandtrust
Name Development
Name Sharks
Namebase
Nameit
Namexpress
Namelab
Namington
Naming Systems
Namerazor
NameSale
Namestormers
Nametag
Nametrade
NameQuest
Namix
Naming Workshop
Nomen
Namepharm
Nomenon
Medibrand
Absolute Brand
Interbrand
Building Brands
Real Branding
Core Brand
Futurebrand
The Branding Iron
Spherical Branding
I.D.ENTITYIdentity 3.0
Idiom
Brighter Naming
Corporate Icon
Metaphor
Megalonamia
Wise Name
Creating New Names
The Name Works
ABC Namebank
The Naming Company
Ivarson Brand VisionStrategic Name Development
The Brand ConsultancyLexicon Branding
Independent BrandingTradingBrands
The Better Branding CompanyNot Just Any Branding

There are three pieces of advice that will serve you well in avoiding a similar dilemma:

  1. Names don’t exist in a vacuum: There are competitors–the idea is to distinguish yourself. Business is a competitive sport.
  2. Names don’t exist in a vacuum: The notion of describing your business in the name assumes that the name will exist at some point without contextual support. This is never true for any business or product.
  3. Names don’t exist in a vacuum: When judged without the context of a clear positioning platform and an intimate understanding of how names work and what they can do, the best solutions are either never considered or quickly dismissed.

For example, any one of the following intuitive concerns could have been enough to keep these powerful names from ever seeing the light of day:

Virgin

  • Says “we’re new at this”
  • Public wants airlines to be experienced, safe and professional
  • Investors won’t take us seriously
  • Religious people will be offended

lululemon

  • We are an upscale brand for women.
  • lululemon sounds like a character from a 3-year olds’ picture book: “lululemon and her best friends annabanana and sallystrawberry were climbing Gumdrop Hill, when suddenly from behind a rainbow the queen of the unicorns appeared…”

Slack

  • In business, Slack means “characterized by a lack of work or activity; quiet”
  • A Slacker is someone who works as little as possible. A terrible message for our target audience
  • Slack means slow, sluggish, or indolent, not active or busy; dull; not brisk. Moving very slowly, as the tide, wind, or water. Neglect, reduce, tardy

    Hotwire

  • It has one meaning, “to steal a car!”
  • Crime is the last thing we need to be associated with

Oracle

  • Unscientific
  • Unreliable
  • Only foretold death and destruction
  • Only fools put their faith in an Oracle
  • Sounds like “orifice”–people will make fun of us

As you can well imagine, this kind of negative deconstruction is at the root of why a committee can’t agree on a non-descriptive name that has any meaning. It’s also what gave birth to the second major school of bad naming: the “unique empty vessel” that “can become whatever you want.” Here are some of the victims:

Acquient, Agilent, Alliant, Aquent, Aspirient, Aviant, Axent, Axient, Bizient, Candescent, Cendant, Cerent, Chordiant, Clarent, Comergent, Conexant, Consilient, Cotelligent, Equant, Ixtant, Livent, Luminant, Mergent, Mirant, Navigant, Naviant, Noviant, Novient, Omnient, Ravisent, Sapient, Scient, Sequant, Spirent, Taligent, Teligent, Thrivent, Versant, Versent, Viant, Vitalent and Vivient.

As with the descriptive list, these names are not part of an elegant solution, they are the seeds of a branding nightmare. This type of name is arrived at because of the lust for a domain name, consensus building and as a shortcut to trademark approval. At some point in the process marketing left the room, and nobody seemed to notice. And while they may technically be unique, it’s at the level of a snowflake in a snow bank.

The third type of name is the evocative name. These include the aforementioned Apple, Stingray, Oracle, Virgin, Yahoo etc. While everyone respects evocative naming when done well, most corporations don’t go down this road because it’s the toughest to understand and execute.

On a very fundamental level, here are the basic ingredients of the best evocative names:

Differentiate

A competitive analysis is an essential first step. How are your competitors positioning themselves? What types of names are common among them? Are they all projecting a similar attitude? Do their similarities offer you a huge opportunity to stand out from the crowd?

Apple needed to distance itself from the cold, unapproachable, complicated imagery created by the other computer companies at the time who had names like IBM, NEC, DEC, ADPAC, Cincom, Dylakor, Input, Integral Systems, Sperry Rand, SAP, PSDI, Syncsort, and Tesseract.

They needed to reverse the entrenched view of computers in order to get people to use them at home. They were looking for a name that was not like a traditional computer company, and supported a Positioning Strategy that was to be perceived as simple, warm, human, approachable and different.

Positioning

The next step is to carefully define your positioning. The idea is to position yourself in a way that rings true in a fresh way–that cuts through all of the noise out there. The goal is to have your audience personalize the experience of your brand, to make an emotional connection with it, and ultimately to take you in. To redefine and own the territory.

One of most important things that the best of the best brands accomplish is to be thought of as greater than the goods and services offered, to create an aspiration. Nike’s “Just Do It’ helps them rise above selling sneakers. Apple’s “Think Different” is bigger than computers. Fannie Mae’s “We’re in the American Dream Business” elevates them from mere mortgage brokers.

On a product level, Velveeta, Slinky, Mustang, Snapple, etc., are tapping into something outside of the narrow definition of what it is they do, and are allowing the consumer to make the connection, to personalize the experience. This type of active engagement created by playing off of images that everyone is already carrying around in their heads is an essential ingredient in creating a great name.

From there, a name should contain as many of the following qualities as possible. The more of them that are present, the more powerful the name:

SELF-PROPELLING

  • A name that people will talk about.
  • A name that works its way through the world on its own.
  • A name that’s a story in itself, whether it’s at the local bar, on the job, or on CNBC.

EMOTIONAL CONNECTION

  • What does the name suggest?
  • Does it make you feel good?
  • Does it make you smile?
  • Does it lock into your brain?
  • Does it make you want to know more?

POETRY

  • How does the name physically look and sound?
  • How does it roll off the tongue?
  • How much internal electricity does it have?
  • How does it sound the millionth time?
  • Will people remember it?

PERSONALITY

  • Does the name have attitude?
  • Does it exude qualities like confidence, mystery, presence, warmth, and a sense of humor?
  • Is it provocative, engaging?
  • Is it a tough act to follow?

DEEP WELL

  • Is the name a constant source of inspiration for advertising and marketing?
  • Does it have “legs”?
  • Does it work on a lot of different levels?

The key is to step outside the box that the industry – any industry – has drawn for itself, and to do it in a fresh way that hits home with the audience. To accomplish this, it is necessary to think about names in this fashion:

Slack

  • Positioning: naming the problem we solve!
  • Qualities: confident, different, focused on solving the target’s problem.

Hotwire

  • Qualities: Exciting, different, memorable, viral

Virgin

  • Positioning: different, confident, exciting, alive human, provocative, fun. The innovative name forces people to create a separate box in their head to put it in.
  • Qualities: Self-propelling, Connects Emotionally, Personality, Deep Well.

Oracle

  • Positioning: different, confident, superhuman, evocative, powerful, forward thinking.
  • Qualities: Self-propelling, Connects Emotionally, Personality, Deep Well.

These are the qualities that separate a potent, evocative name from a useless one that is built without a considered positioning platform, such as BlueMartini or FatBrain. Random names like these disallow audience engagement, because there are no pathways between the image and the product–there is no connection to be made.

Give the ladies what they want

The marketing geniuses at Neutrogena, realizing how crowded the women’s skin care product sector is, have been selling vibrators. But not just any vibrator, a vibrator that a woman can, with head held high, take through airport security, buy at the drugstore, and leave in plain sight for the kids to find. Brilliant.

It’s the Neutrogena Wave, a sex toy with plausible deniability built-in.

Here’s to wiggle room:

Top secret Landor naming process document revealed

landor process

“Insert the proprietary Landor Naming Process Tool into the anal canal and twist until it grabs the membrane. Continue twisting another half turn, then steadily pull the proprietary Landor Naming Process Tool out of the canal. Extract 10 inches of membrane, tie the membrane off and cut.”

As with any process, the only true measure of success is what comes out the other end.

blandor-1

Says Blandor the Imponderable: “Oh deer! Perhaps I should butt out….No! My auricular has been opened, laid bare for all to observe! This time, no amount of blandiloquence will assuage this insolent corporate sabotage! And furthermore, we use a much larger mammal in our current work”