Why Company & Product Names Fail and How to Make Sure Yours Doesn't (Part 2)
posted Aug 16 by Steven Mason


Now it's time to come up with candidate names. Or have your naming consultant or agency do this – because this is the hardest part by far. If you don’t love words and linguistics or have an ability to associate, relate, employ metaphors and allusions and to be brutally honest in your assessments, this may not be for you.

Magic, ideation and imagination – as well as research – play key parts. In some cases, a created word may be best; in many others, a portmanteau (a blending of two existing words: e.g., Facebook and Snapchat) or a portmanteau-like name, e.g., Pinterest (which deletes the doubled "in") or Instagram (which is really a portmanteau based on prefixes and suffixes) can be very effective.

Remember that attributes are properties of names, but they’re not names themselves. You’re ultimately going to end up with some number of candidate names.

I prefer just two or three myself. But I’ll usually add a couple of extra ones in, even ones I don’t especially like. You’ll see why soon.

I have three sets of broad criteria that I use to see if a name’s got game:  Linguistic Criteria;  Branding Criteria; and Intellectual Property (IP) Criteria.
  • Linguistic criteria include: phonology (how it sounds); how easy it is to pronounce (phonology); how easy it is to spell; how quickly can you say the name (if it takes a long time or is difficult to speak, it's a bad name); whether the name includes a substring that includes an epithet or an obscenity (happens more often than you think); memorability (linguistically -- for example, Lississippi is a terrible name, but because it is just like Mississippi, it's pretty easy to remember; whereas Grandiloquent, while a perfectly legitimate word, is too obscure and complicated for anyone to remember correctly).
Jay-Z is a lot easier to remember than Shawn Corey Carter (his real name). It’s also tougher and more “street,” both essential attributes for his business. If he'd been an investment banker at Goldman, Jay-Z’s card would have read “S.C. Carter.”
  • Branding criteria include: metaphorical and other strengths which make the name useful in marketing, advertising and promotions (e., does the name have multiple meanings that you can play on or is it one-dimensional?). Using this advertising criterion, Good Plumbers is an ”F” but Sewer Rats is an “A”; memorability (in terms of brand); close association with key attributes; distance from negative attributes; and evocativeness. Why the last?
If a name is not evocative, it conjures up nothing and is rendered lifeless, dead. If a name is evocative but wrong, you'll eliminate more than half of your market. Mr. or Ms. Hooker may be the nicest, most caring person on the planet, but that's not going to help them here.


  • IP criteria include: trademarkability, domain name availability, and the results of a Google search. You need to know if the name is available; owned by someone else but able to be purchased; or impossible to obtain (either because the owner won’t sell it or because their price is outrageous).

4. THE MATRIX (the naming process, not the movie)

Now comes the easy part -- because you've already got buy-in on the attributes. Or perhaps it's not so easy. After all, how could anyone in the world have thought that when you hear "ChubbyBrain," you immediately think "Oh, yes, the funding recommendation engine!" But someone did.


  • Create a matrix using a simple spreadsheet. In each row, you place a candidate name (and if someone insists on a terrible one, that’s ok – put it in!). In each column – and this needs to be a pretty wide spreadsheet – you put in every single linguistic, branding, and IP criterion. Each positive attribute and each negative attribute is itself a separate criterion. Remember that there’s no disagreement over what’s in the rows or in the columns.
  • Grade your names. You'll find that, since you haven’t agreed on attributes, this is hard. But if you have – if you’ve got that magic buy-in – it’s easy. If you're forming a new bank for conservative retirees, do you think that Mountain's Edge Bankreflects the attribute of low risk? Of course not. No one will think that or argue for it.
Suppose you're creating a new security-based company and want to call it  Freebird? Even the most ardent Lynyrd Skynyrd fan won’t endorse that because “security-based” and “freebird” are clearly at odds. Instead of that person’s saying, I love  Freebird because "it's a great name," they’ll say “I love the name, but it doesn’t work for us.”
  • Once you've got every name graded against every criterion, you could simply use a decision-based scoring system, although I personally don't believe in that. It's fine to generate a weighted score (beyond the scope of this post), but a 90 doesn't necessarily beat an 86. There may be other considerations. I can guarantee, however, than a 90 will beat a 40. The terrible, ineffective, boring names will sink to the bottom and the great names, if any, will rise to the top. Best of all, everyone will agree.


Now, some of you may be thinking, “But what about successful companies with crappy names?” For every Oracle, there’s a Microsoft. For every Wells Fargo, there’s a First Community Bank of Podunk (CFBP). For every Method or Tide, there’s a … well, in pure CPG, it’s harder to think of terrible names that endured, isn’t it? Consumers are tough.

When the names are bad, the companies succeeded in spite of them, not because of them. After all, there are also successful companies with mediocre products.

On the other hand, there are also failed companies with great names.

BlackBerry isn’t on thin ice because of a bad name; it’s because the company didn’t adapt to smartphones until too late. BlackBerry didn’t understand the market, the same reason that original billion-dollar-dot-commer Webvan failed. Even good-to-great names won’t save you if you can't bring your product to market or meet an actual consumer or business need.

I welcome your personal questions or inquiries if you need a company or product name that sizzles instead of fizzles; or if you simply need an independent opinion or audit of an existing or about-to-be-deployed name.

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