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What’s in a naming process?

By Drew Letendre

Value in proportion to the challenge

Neither the value nor the steep challenges of brand naming should be under-estimated: naming is a long, arduous process that requires brand research, patience, knowledge of the relevant law and a systematic methodology (to say nothing of creativity or a dozen other contingencies). While naming is not a science, branding agencies do as much as they can to “rationalize” the process and elevate it above purely subjective decision-making. That said, the value and importance of subjectivity—“just” liking a name—should not be gainsaid. Nor should the elements of luck, chance, serendipity or inspiration. As a wit once said of life, “sometimes the best plan is to have a little luck” – no less so when naming.

Here I lay out the challenges, pitfalls and potholes of naming, as well as the strategies and tactics designed to meet and circumvent them to reap successful outcomes.

Trademark Law: Raising the Bar
Perhaps the steepest challenge to naming projects is trademark availability. In the post-internet, global marketplace, trademark availability is scarce and the competition fierce. This situation is made even more challenging by American trademark law, which is based on common law principles that recognize the claims of use-over-time, in the absence of (and sometimes over) registration.

The Hurdles
Any new name has to circumvent two legal obstacles: confusion (the likelihood that a relevant consumer could reasonably mistake your company or goods for those of another) and dilution (when similarity to a “famous” mark attempts to “confiscate” the latter’s equity, even where there is no question of confusion). Graphic/Visual brands rarely, if ever, have to pass such astringent tests

The penalties for creating a mark (name) that turns out to infringe someone else’s trademark rights are costly and can include:

  • An injunction against further use of the mark
  • Recalls of misbranded products
  • Seizure of inventory
  • Recovery of assessed damages
  • Disgorgement of profits

Although damages often are awarded only in cases of intentional infringement or actual diversion of sales, a likely result of any infringement case is the requirement to discontinue use of the infringing mark (something that could also be very costly and disruptive to business, depending on the particular circumstances).


URL Ownership: Pros and Cons
These challenges are made yet steeper by the desire or requirement of many companies that the name possess an exactly matching URL. In the current environment, this is very often impossible to fulfill—at least without having to make an offer to the current URL holder. We counsel against having an exactly corresponding URL as a make-or-break naming criterion. If you can find a good, available name that meets the other parameters and requirements, including trademark availability, URL correspondence requirements should be “relaxed.” (Needless to say, this “rule” does not apply to .com entities, in which case the name and URL are, of necessity, one).

Internal Challenges: Corporate Culture, Office Politics and The Perils of Democracy
A different kind of obstacle has to do with internal decision-making protocols (or the lack thereof). Many, if not most, companies at least aspire to having a democratic work culture and apply and incorporate democratic principles into their work processes. One such principle is “extending the franchise” as broadly (equitably) as possible across an organization and within its divisions and the sub-units thereof. In naming, it is useful, even though it flies in the face of this principle, to limit the decision-making body as much as possible. The length and complexity of the process only increase in proportion to the number of stakeholders “with a say.” Beyond numbers, controlling confidentiality and having people commit to a structured naming process, are key conditions for efficiency and success. 

Inflated Expectation/Deflated Dreams
Get a room full of people (your clients) and ask them for examples of “great” names or their favorite names and here’s what you’ll hear:  “Apple,” “RayBan,” “Kleenex,” “Nike.” The expectation—the hope—is that you’ll give them an “Apple.” A moment’s reflection however, about how people come into contact with these names and the attributes that make them so beloved, reveals a litany of resources and realities that few companies are willing to commit to or achieve: multi-million dollar, multi-media campaigns; great product design and proven, high-performance products. The truth is: the product makes the name, not the other way around. And it is this basic insight that prompts me sometimes to ask a presumptive naming client if having a new name is really the solution to the problem they come with. 

No Love
“It reminds me of…” “It doesn’t ‘speak’ to me” “It lacks pizzazz” and “I didn’t fall in love with anything.” It is a given visceral aspect of naming exercises that they rarely please everyone or anyone at first glance. The often-voiced lament of a client that they didn’t fall in love with anything bespeaks expectations about naming engagements that most people don’t apply to real engagements. A new name always involves “getting used to,” especially if it is replacing something else. Repeated use and contextualization help to circumvent hasty dismissal of good names, by naturalizing them to the ear and eye and revealing their functional and communicative value. That is why, when presenting name candidates, we exhibit and apply them, as they would be in context: in copy, mock ads, web site text, conversation, phone-answering protocols, etc. Only by making names live in their natural habitats can their expressive and communicative value show through and—ideally—overcome private, merely contingent associations that might lead to their defeat. All that said, really just liking a name is very important. At the end of the day, there has to be true emotional ownership.

Managing Expectations
This is a large part of what makes naming so difficult, often drawn out and expensive. Companies looking to name or rename themselves or a product should be prepared to make the appropriate investment of support activity and budget to make the overall investment worthwhile. No unqualified claim to or promise of ROI can be made attributable to naming per se. To the extent that there is a causal chain, it is indirect (and rides on corporate performance standards and/or product quality). That said, naming—properly executed—can contribute effectively to top-of-mind awareness, serve to flag attention, simplify complexity and/or make something opaque into something transparent about a company or offering. But how well a name is implemented AND what kind of company, product or service it is attached to, are—it has to be said—a large part of a brand’s ultimate success.