Want To Create A Viral Brand Name? Beware The Literalist.



This is the most overlooked, counterintuitive truth in naming – the difference between the way an internal naming committee will evaluate a potential brand name and the way a target audience will receive it. 

Every viral name is a provocation: Slack, Virgin, lululemon, Target, Yahoo, Caterpillar, Hotwire, Bluetooth, Google,  Oracle. To qualify as a provocation, a name must contain what most people would call “negative messages” for the goods and services the name is to represent.

Fortunately, consumers process these negative messages positively. As long as the name maps to one of the positioning points of the brand, consumers never take its meaning literally, and the negative aspects of the name just give it greater depth.

A viral name must contain negative qualities.

Nothing is more powerful than taking a word with a strong, specific connotation, grabbing a slice of it, mapping that slice to a portion of your positioning, and therefore redefining it. This naming strategy is without question the most powerful one of all.

Potential names must be judged on how well they map to positioning, memorability, stopping power, emotional impact, connections to the collective consciousness, distinction from competitors – the sum of which answers the most important naming question, “Is this name interesting?“.

Instead, on a naming committee, the literalist will negatively critique names based on dictionary definitions or a singular association, reliably in the form of an objection. Their claim will be that a word’s negative meaning or association(correlation) means that the value of the word as a name will also be negative(causation). The evidence they cite in their efforts to kill a name is irrefutable fact, yet irrelevant and counterproductive.  

Here are the types of objections a literalist will use to kill great name, attacking the very essence of what makes these names powerful – the tension created by positive and negative forces:


-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.



-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…”


Virgin Air

-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.



-It has one meaning, “to steal a car!”

-Crime is the last thing we need to be associated with.



-Yahoo!! It’s Mountain Dew!

-Yoohoo! It’s a chocolate drink in a can!

-Nobody will take stock quotes and world news seriously from a bunch of “Yahoos”.





-Only foretold death and destruction.

-Only fools put their faith in an Oracle.

-Sounds like “orifice” – people will make fun of us.



-Tiny, creepy-crawly bug

-Not macho enough – easy to squash

-Why not “bull” or “workhorse”?

-Destroys trees, crops, responsible for famine


Banana Republic

-Derogatory cultural slur

-You’ll be picketed by people from small, hot countries



-Target of an investigation

-To have a Target on your back

-A Target gets shot; killed; slaughtered.

-The Target of a manhunt

This is a family show, so you’ll have to create your own misguided, literalist list of reasons that In-N-Out, Dick’s, BJ’s , Cornhole and LoveSac should fail as brand names.

No sane person cares about any of these literal negatives, because people process these ‘negative’ connotations either positively or not at all. As long as the name maps to one of the positioning points of the brand, consumers never take its meaning literally, and the negative aspects of the name just make it more memorable and engaging.

These literal, negative objections are not reasons to abandon a name, rather they have demonstrably positive effects on a target audience. They’re what make a name engaging, differentiating & unforgettable.  Consumers don’t process names literally, they process them emotionally. Getting your committee to acknowledge this difference and to interact as the public does with names, rather than the way the dictionary does, is essential.

If you encounter a literalist, keep your distance, maintain eye contact, and take the threat seriously. Do not run in any direction. Don’t bend over, crouch down or go fetal. Wave your arms in an alpha manner. Throw any toxic item you can find – Keurig pods, inspirational posters, focus group data, etc. If attacked, fight back. If this doesn’t work, your last chance for survival is to enlighten the literalist:



-Positioning: DISRUPTIVE, naming the problem we solve!

-Qualities:  Interesting! Confident, different, focused on solving the target’s problem.



-Positioning: DISRUPTIVE, a travel hack, exciting, fun.

– Hotwiring a car is a hack, Hotwire.com is a travel hack. That’s why this name works.

-Qualities: Interesting! Exciting, different, memorable, viral.



-Positioning: DISRUPTIVE, 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: Interesting! Self-propelling, connects emotionally, deep well.



-Positioning: DISRUPTIVE, different, confident, superhuman, evocative, powerful, forward thinking.

-Qualities: Interesting! Self-propelling, connects emotionally, deep well.


The common wisdom that naming in large groups will discourage a literalist attack is nothing more than urban legend. In fact, the larger the committee, the more likely an attack will be.





Need A Brand Name? Pick Igor’s Brains


Are your brand name brainstorming attempts long on storm and short on brains? Igor has plenty of brains in stock, ready to help you name whatever needs naming.  Most have very low mileage, are hardly ever driven during the week, and are used only sparingly on weekends to scan refrigerator contents and such. Jump in and pick our brains!  

Tips for picking a brain:

– Do not pick if the skin is too green–it’s not ripe yet.

– The brain should be viscous and phlegmatic, yet hold up to a good thumping. Not too firm, not too soft.

– The end that was twisted from the brain stem should be pliable when you poke your thumb through the outer membrane. If you can’t break the membrane with your fingernail, the brain was picked prematurely.

– Smell is the most reliable indicator of freshness.

– Have fun with it, but keep it platonic.


Our collection of brains can be picked through right here, at the Igor Brain Depository:

Want To Create A Viral Brand Name? Beware The Literalist

Choosing a new brand name:  Do an A.S.S. count

The Brand Naming Process

The Igor Brand Naming Guide

Performing a Competitive Name Analysis is Essential 

Brand Naming Tools

125 Articles About Naming Products & Companies

75 Brand Naming Case Studies

“Vanillacide”: How Radical Concepts Are Destroyed By Too Much Consultation


Choose a Brand Name Like You’re Hiring a CMO

A name has work to do. Create a job description for it.

It’s natural to put together a list of asks for your name that includes things like credibility, trust, reliability, honesty, transparency, quality, yada yada yada.

But a name is a specialist, and these types of foundational brand positioning qualities are common to every business in existence. They need to be established by the other touch points of your brand. “Not my job”, should be the response of any name candidate asked to perform these duties. In fact, using such qualities when grading name candidates will result in the best qualified names not even receiving an offer:



Credibility, Trust, Reliability, Honesty, Transparency, Quality



Credibility, Trust, Reliability, Honesty, Transparency, Quality



Credibility, Trust, Reliability, Honesty, Transparency, Quality



Credibility, Trust, Reliability, Honesty, Transparency, Quality



Credibility, Trust, Reliability, Honesty, Transparency, Quality



None of the over-performing names above can pass the Credibility, Trust, Reliability, Honesty, Transparency, Quality test.

Which is great, because your audience doesn’t look to your name for these sort of reassurances. But more importantly, it leaves the name free to have the kinds of qualities it needs to be exceptionally good at its job : Unexpected, Human, Engaging, Thought Provoking, Memorable, Disruptive, etc.  


Here’s what a job description for a name should look like:




Demonstrate to the world that you’re different, creating clear & wide separation from your competitors.

– Go viral, propelling itself through the world on its own, becoming a no-cost, self-sustaining PR vehicle.

-Redefine and own  your category.

-Reinforce a unique positioning platform.

-Create a positive and lasting engagement with your audience.

-Provide a deep well of marketing and advertising images.

-Be the genesis of a brand that rises above the goods and services you provide, so that you’re not selling a commodity and/or competing on price.

-Be unforgettable.

-Support the positioning of the product/company

And so on.




Depending on the positioning of the product or company the name will represent, you’ll further screen name candidates for specifics, such as:

Personality – Warm? Fun? Futuristic? Mysterious? Sexy? Scientific? Confident? Superhuman? Quiet?

Communication Skills – What part of the conversation in you industry should the name address, define, redefine, express, demonstrate or dominate?

Personal Appearance – The way a name looks and sounds can communicate volumes, independent of the meaning of the word.  Computer processor name “Trillium” has as a sci-fi look and sound, though it’s a type of flower.  A.I. company name “Megagon” has the attitude of one of Godzilla’s rivals, though it’s a mathematical term that describes vectors, harmony, and a million things coming together as one.

But what if you find the perfect candidate, except they have a criminal past? As long as they can carry out the Responsibilities and have the Qualifications, it’ll be fine: Hotwire, Accomplice, Wheelman, and walking the talk, Igor.

Bad breath and a ghoulish smile? Don’t count them out: Bluetooth.  A complete lack of experience? Sign them up: Virgin.


Sidebar: B2B vs. B2C Brand Naming

And while we’re here, let’s once and for all time bury that old, shriveled chestnut, “That’s fine for B2C, but a B2B name needs to play by more buttoned up rules.” It comes from a core belief that businesses make buying decisions for purely business reasons, and are immune to the emotional branding that captivates the B2C consumer. It’s what lead most experts to wrongly assert that the emotionally branded, impractical, keyboardless, overpriced Apple iPhone could never displace the utilitarian, more secure, cost effective Blackberry’s hold on the B2B market. Even the once ultraconservative B2B cardio surgery device sector, where buying decisions are literally a matter of life and death,  began giving their products memorable, disruptive names decades ago – to great financial and brand equity reward.  Final relief from this old trope may have arrived in the form of Slack, but stoic B2B diehards will cling to the notion that Slack is an aberration, or that their own company is the exception. All the merrier for B2B branders who know the truth – that language, words and names have a universal way of tapping into our collective consciousness, effecting, connecting and inspiring people – B2B and B2C people alike.

Names are market agnostic.

They should never be asked to communicate foundational assurances. It leads to garbage like “Truist“. 

Slack certainly hopes their competitors never learn this lesson. 

More Unsolicited Brand Naming Advice:

Want To Create A Powerful Brand Name? Beware The Literalist.

Igor Brand Naming Guide 

“Vanillacide”: How Radical Concepts Are Destroyed By Too Much Consultation

Performing a Competitive Name Analysis is Essential 

Outwitting Squirrels