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Why Company & Product Names Fail and How to Make Sure Yours Doesn't (Part 1)
posted Aug 16 by Steven Mason

When you want feedback on your outfit from other fashion-oriented people, would you go to "Fashism"? Especially if, as the website and app said, you were "New To Fashism"?

Perhaps because fashion-forward women didn't identify with Mussolini, Hitler or Stalin, this Ashton Kutcher-Demi Moore-backed startup performed as well as their marriage.

But if you think this is unique to tech -- or to any company or product -- think again. That’s because naming your company, product or service is hard.

Terrible names, ones that have nothing to do with your brand, are embarrassing or are unpronounceable, are more common than great ones. Why? A combination of trusting "naming experts" who are clueless; ignorance; narcissism; and hubris.

As for the feature photo: appetizing, isn't it? Not only that, but Herpes offers free delivery!

Very often the founder(s) of a business insist that their own name -- or a name they've created out of thin air -- is the best. For example, and to protect the guilty, here's a name that I've slightly modified from the original: Bestcof. What is that? Well, it's the "best coffee." This name has many problems but the worst one is that it has a hard "c" sound immediately after a "t": try saying that. I told one of the founders (who admitted that no one had any idea what the name was when they heard it nor could anyone spell it) that you simply couldn't have such terrible phonology (that's the linguistic term for how something sounds).

Later on, I discovered that MIT had done a study which found that "tc" was the hardest letter combination to pronounce in the entire English language! But the other founder insisted that this had to be the name becausehe had conceived of it. End of story. Well, end of company. They don't exist today.

How many times have you said to someone else, “There's this great company/product/service, but I just can't remember what they're called!"? And even if you come up with a great name, selling it is harder.

Did you know that the  Swiffer was almost called EZMop and the BlackBerry EasyMail?

That's because words like easyEZsimplequalitybestkidskidztechtek are familiar and comforting. Which is why they suck and why many of your colleagues will stridently oppose the great names. So how do you get a great name and sell it? I’m going to show you exactly how I do it.

1. WHAT YOU SHOULD NEVER DO

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  • DON'T ever use a name generator. Computers don't understand linguistics well enough, let alone branding. 50 names are 10 times worse than 5 names. Consider "naminum", a worse-than-godawful name itself (I'm only picking on them because their own name is so bad: name generators are inherently terrible). You don't want long lists of meaningless words. You want someone who has the wisdom to give you a few great choices--or you may as well do the work yourself.
  • DON'T vote on names. The people voting have no knowledge of linguistics or branding, so what happens? They choose what they personally like, not because it has anything to do with the business, not because anyone will remember it, not because it is evocative, not because it works.

Naming is not a democratic process. I have seen more horrible names from the "winner" via SurveyMonkey or votes around the executive committee table than through any other so-called process.

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  • DON'T confuse yourself and your own preferences with those of your target audience. I despise mayonnaise. If I were to name a mayonnaise product according to my personal tastes, I'd call it Nature's Emetic. Not a good idea! The people buying the mayonnaise are aficionados.

Substituting your own preferences for those of your target market is deadly.

  • DON'T go generic. If I want to name a new plumbing company, Sewer Rats is pretty cool. Quality #1 Plumbing is an absolute failure because it is absolutely generic, unmemorable, unremarkable, unbrandable, etc.
  • DON'T ignore intellectual property. I can't tell you how many people have come to me saying: "I have this name, but I can't use it." You have to check domains. You have to check trademarks (and if you don't understand how trademarks actually work, you won't know how to do this -- trademarks apply to different classes and the mere existence of a mark doesn't mean you can't use it). You have to do a google search on your name just to see what comes up. I know someone who came up with a name for a kids' site (it was legitimate and completely G-rated, although the name was horrible). It turned out that, disturbingly, the name had already been used by a pedophile. A simple Google search would have revealed this. If you intend to go global with the same name (not always a good idea), you may need to check European, Asian and other databases, too.

2. LOVE YOUR ATTRIBUTES

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  • Identify the attributes that describe your business, product or service. There are two types of attributes, positive and negative, elaborated further on below.
  • Get buy-in from all decision-makers on the attributes. The attributes, not the name! This is essential. And it shouldn’t be hard. Many of the attributes will have come from these decision-makers. The attributes aren’t controversial, because they aren’t names. They’re adjectives, adverbs and associated phrases.
  • Positive attributes are what you actually are and what to be perceived as. They could be things such as: cool, avant-garde, fast, predictable, wild and crazy, conservative, politically left, politically right, happy, melancholy, uplifting, smart, advanced, retro, sophisticated, chic, everyday, blue-collar, security, enterprise, SMB, high-tech, old-fashioned, calm, adrenaline rush, male, female, old people, teenagers, trustworthy, edgy, etc.
  • Negative attributes are things you do never want associated with your name. For example, speedy is not an attribute you want associated with brain surgeons. Precise and careful and exacting would be more appropriate. In other words, know what you are and what you are not.
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