A great brand name is not just something that looks cool on your business card or is fun to say. And it isn’t great because you like it. It’s great because it communicates something to customers.
As branding pro Marty Neumeier says in The Brand Gap, “The need for good brand names originates with customers, and customers will always want convenient ways of identifying, remembering, discussing, and comparing brands. The right name can be a brand’s most valuable asset, driving differentiation and speeding acceptance.”
But choosing the right brand name can be a daunting task. How do you find a name that works? A name that’s catchy? A name that looks great on a web banner and has an available URL? Some say it’s easy — just use a name-generating tool and call it a day. Some say it’s nearly impossible — just give them a million dollars and they’ll do it for you.
Depending on your budget and your branding needs, you might go with one or the other (no judgment). But in our experience, finding the right brand name is possible; it just takes some deep thinking and legwork.
What Makes a Good Brand Name?
There are plenty of theories and a few studies on what makes a good name. For example, a 2010 University of Alberta study found that consumers have a more positive reaction to brands with repetitively structured names, such as Coca-Cola, Kit Kat, and Jelly Belly.
While there is no magic formula, there are common traits that make a brand name easier for you to use and easier for other people to remember. Ideally, you want something that’s:
- Meaningful: It communicates your brand essence, conjures an image, and cultivates a positive emotional connection.
- Distinctive: It is unique, memorable, and stands out from your competitors.
- Accessible: People can easily interpret it, say it, spell it, or Google it. (Even if you have an unusual or bizarre name, it must be understandable.)
- Protectable: You can trademark it, get the domain, and “own” it, both legally and in the general consciousness.
- Future-proof: It can grow with the company and maintain relevance — and be adapted for different products and brand extensions.
- Visual: You can translate/communicate it through design, including icons, logos, colors, etc.
This is useful criteria to help you vet names, but there is really one question to determine whether a name is successful (note that we didn’t say “good” or “bad”). All that matters is this: Does it resonate with people?
How to Find the Right Name
Finding a good brand name can be exhausting, infuriating, and thrilling. (Warby Parker Cofounder Neil Blumenthal says it took his team six months and 2,000+ options to find the perfect name.)
There are more and more services that are trying to make it easier for you, whether by pre-vetting and suggesting names e.g., Shopify’s Business Name Generator or Wordoid), domains (e.g., Bust a Name) or names and available URLs (e.g., Brand Bucket).
These tools can be helpful for brainstorming, but we think it’s important to choose, vet, and test a brand name intentionally and with purpose. (Some things just can’t be auto-generated.) Here’s our step-by-step guide to doing it.
Step 1) Articulate Your Core Identity
Before you name yourself, you need to understand who you are and what you’re trying to achieve. We call this your “core identity.” This includes:
- Vision: Why your company exists.
- Mission: What your company does.
- Values: How you do what you do.
These three elements encapsulate your purpose, and they influence everything you do (including choosing a name).
Once you know who you are, look at your competitive analysis to identify and understand your differentiators. (Don’t have a competitive analysis? Here’s how to do it.)
Understanding what makes your brand unique is the first step to finding a brand name.
Step 2) Brainstorm
Here’s the fun (and sometimes brutal) part. Gather your stakeholders and creatives and host a structured brainstorm. While it sounds fun to let everyone go wild, we find people often need some sort of guidelines or constraints to work within. You may want to start these discussions with certain prompts or specific exercises. For example:
- Write down all the adjectives that describe your service.
- Describe what you want your customers to feel when they use your product/service.
- Do a free association of words about your product/service.
Another useful way to brainstorm is to think of the different categories of brand names. As outlined by Alina Wheeler in Designing Brand Identity, these include:
- Founder: A name based on a real or fictional person, such as Ben & Jerry’s, Warby Parker, or Betty Crocker.
- Descriptive: A name that describes what you do or make, such as General Motors.
- Fabricated: A totally made-up name or word, such as Kodak, Xerox, or TiVo.
- Metaphor: Mythical, foreign, or imagery-heavy things, places, people, animals, or processes, such as Nike or Patagonia.
- Acronym: A name that uses initials or an abbreviation, such as DKNY (Donna Karan New York) or GE (General Electric).
- Magic spell: A name that is a portmanteau (two words together) or a real word with a made-up spelling, such as Facebook or Flickr.
Challenge your team to come up with a name for every category. You’ll probably start to see a trend or preference for one type over the other. Try to come up with 15-20 names.
A few extra hacks:
- Use Onym for more naming exercises, word etymologies, vetting tips, and a shit ton of other stuff to help you find the best brand name.
- Use Panabee to search domain names, app names, and company names, get alternate suggestions and see related terms.
- Try these tips to get unstuck if you’re running out of steam.
Step 3) Vet Your Brand Name
This is absolutely the most frustrating part. There’s no point in testing anything that’s already taken, so you need to vet your frontrunners.
Narrow your brainstormed list down to the team favorites (ideally those 15-20), then search the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s database of registered trademarks. (While you’re there, check out their guide to trademark basics.) If they’re all taken, it’s back to the drawing board. This exercise will surely winnow your list down for you. But if you’re a genius who has somehow found 20 unregistered names, narrow it down to your top three to test.
Note: If a name appears to be available, get a legal team to fully vet it.
Step 4) Test, Test, Test
Now that you’ve cleared the legal hurdle, here comes the most exciting part. You get to create your mockups (think logos, product packaging, and homepages) and test your top three names. You may be surprised at what resonates with people.
Here’s one simple and easy testing idea, courtesy of startup lawyer Steven Cook:
- Build a branded landing page for each name. Use identical copy and only change logo/brand name.
- Run a highly targeted FB ad to your target customers for a week.
- See which page got more conversions.
Build the Strongest Brand Possible
Your brand name is only the first step in building a strong, memorable brand. For more tips on growing your brand:
- Fing out how to create a brand strategy.
- See a step-by-step guide to building a brand identity built from scratch.
- Learn what to include in your brand style guide.
If you still have questions or feel overwhelmed, let’s talk about it.