What's in a name?

April 09, 2015

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

That Shakespeare guy knew a thing or two about naming products.

Landing upon a name for a product or service is often a strange and particular process. I have recently worked on two naming projects – one for a small non-profit that is trying to shake its stodgy public perception and the other for a company that hopes to create an entirely new product line distinct from its main offering.

Sitting down with the small task force charged with potentially changing the non-profit’s name, the executive director asked me, “How long of a process is this?”

My rather annoying answer was, “How long do you want it to be?”

There are entire agencies that do nothing but name products. They use science. They use software. Namers go out and listen to the flutter of bird wings and try to capture the sound in letters. They think about mouth feel and how starting a word with “m” sounds appetizing and a hard “c” sound is more action oriented. In an era when darn near every word or phrase is already trademarked, making up evocative, ultimately meaningless words is a favorite strategy, particularly for pharmaceuticals. Even that is getting more difficult.

A recent article in the New York Times Magazine shares the lengths to which companies will go to name a product. It isn’t a straightforward process. Working in marketing agencies and as a solo consultant, I have participated in quite a few naming projects on things as varied as nature centers, checking accounts, energy drinks, mobile shelving and candy. The process I was taught, which is to discover the essence of what you want to communicate and then devise “buckets” of themed exploration, is a common approach. While that sounds straightforward and might seem easy, naming requires creativity, strong language skills and a really good ear. Most people aren’t particularly good at it, which is why professional namers exist.

The 3-D gaming company highlighted in the Times article spent over a year and tens of thousands of dollars to ultimately arrive at the name Jaunt. If you have the time and money to hire a naming firm and go through multiple rounds of ideation, it’s a fine investment. If you decide to make that commitment, reserve some money for consumer testing.

But as Shakespeare noted, what you’re naming better smell sweet. A great name can’t overcome a bad product experience but a great product experience can overcome a bad name. The Times article gives a couple of classic examples such as iPad, which detractors gleefully compared to a tampon at its launch. Gap is an empty space. Yelp is a dog in pain. Jaunt is cute, but you could say it sounds more like a travel website than a gaming device.

However, nobody thinks iPod, Gap or Yelp are odd names anymore. The success of the products erased the initial negatives of the names. These examples go beyond naming to show the value of continuously improving product experiences.

A great name can’t overcome a bad product experience but a great product experience can overcome a bad name.

This is not to say that names are unimportant, but the importance may be more to your internal organization than to your customer. Naming a product is a lot like naming a child. There’s so much emotion wrapped up in the name of something that your team has worked so diligently to bring to life. Changing a brand name is expensive, so you want to land upon something you can live with for many years. But naming needs to be kept in perspective. In the end, a name is just a name. The name you love may be unavailable – that doesn’t mean your product is destined to fail in the market.

Regardless of whether you decide to hire a professional to do your naming project or try to do it in-house, the biggest piece of advice I would offer is to keep the group of contributors and decision-makers small. Naming is a very subjective process and, honestly, the perfect name that everyone is going to love is more often a dream than reality. Sometimes good enough needs to be good enough.

A few years ago, I was brought in to ideate on several rounds of a naming project for a small, regional chain of family-owned convenience stores. They had gone in circles for months and the last I heard, over a year later, they still hadn’t landed on that magic name. This was after nine rounds of naming that generated hundreds of options.

Hate to say it, but it’s probably because that magic name doesn’t exist. And that’s okay because the stores offer great value, have a strong reputation and are profitable. They got there without that rose of a name. As long as they continue delivering an exceptional user experience morning, noon and night, the coffee and doughnuts will smell as sweet.

So what happened with the non-profit I mentioned at the beginning of the article? After a work session with key constituents, the task force developed about 70 names and whittled them down to five over about a month’s time. The board of directors will make the ultimate decision on renaming guided by key branding decisions outlined in a five-year strategic plan. The client looking to start a new product offering kept their group of decision makers small and was able to reach consensus after one round of naming. Fortunately, the name they chose was available.

How will the public react to the selected names? Too soon to know, but I know that both of these organizations offer outstanding experiences. I predict a sweet outcome to their naming endeavors.