Decisions, decisions: How to research brand names

Everyone involved with naming a product or a company wants to make sure the name they choose is the right one.

Trouble is, there's rarely one right name. A name becomes right by how it's used in the real world, when identity, messaging, nomenclature and the entire brand experience come together holistically and seamlessly, driven by the brand's own internal logic.

But in the typical brand birthing process, the supporting verbal and visual elements are not fully developed until after a final name is chosen. Decision makers mostly rely on their imagination when facing a list of possible names, envisioning the marketing possibilities afforded by each: in logos and packaging, merchandising and elevator pitches, advertising and stationary.

For me it's thrilling, bearing witness to a list of candidate brand names, each of which suggest a different potential future reality.

But for my clients, it can be nerve wracking. So many options! So many possibilities! So much at stake!

Sometimes clients turn to market research for help.

How can name research -- when done well -- help?
  • Understand how well candidate names support the brand positioning or specific attributes
    If a candidate name does some things well but not others, identity and messaging can shore up the weaknesses
  • Reveal red flags, like inappropriate street slang or other unwanted associations
    But be aware that unwanted associations are far more likely to occur in research than after the name has launched
  • Provide creative ideas for the visual identity, launch events, messaging, brand voice and other communications
  • Inform talking points about the name origin or rationale
    When Coca-Cola launched Dasani (created by my alma-mater, Lexicon), they said the name "was chosen when consumer testing showed that the name was relaxing and suggested 'pureness' and 'replenishment'." This rationale fares better than saying, "gosh, we just liked it."
  • Neutralize some of the subjective, idiosyncratic and internal political dynamics that influence name selection
  • Foster consensus and catalyze a final decision when the client's stuck
    Sometimes, another "data point" provides the extra push to get through "analysis paralysis"
  • Eliminate a terrible name that's loved by just one or two execs
    The customer perspective can make a name's shortcomings obvious. If a client created the name, it's easier for them to accept the rejection when the customer kills it.
Research may indeed be able to help. But it can also harm, as I discussed in my post, Instinct as enemy.

To ensure research first does no harm, it's important to recognize and account for its unintended consequences.

Observations change the observed

Research is usually intended to be a window: to understand perception, to assess compatibility with strategy, to observe reactions, to inform communications. It is framed as passive observation, with disinterested moderators asking unbiased questions.

But research isn't passive. The very act of observation is intrusive and influential. It changes what's observed.

Physicists and psychologists account for this phenomenon in their work. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle, the observer effect, and reactivity all relate to this bizarre, counter-intuitive experience, that the mere act of looking at something alters it.

Market research isn't market reality

Research is by nature an artificial construct. But not all research is equally artificial.

For research to accurately predict how people will react in the real world, its design and process must approximate the real world (or integrate it) as closely as possible.

Consider the focus group. At every stage, from recruiting respondents to reporting results, focus groups are completely contrived. First, a participant is called by a stranger who asks them questions about their buying habits and income. If that person qualifies, money is offered to them for sitting in a mirrored observation room for a few hours and talking with other strangers. This talk is moderated by another stranger, who asks them to express with utmost honesty every detail of their feelings and relationship to a brand or product.

It is believed that the responses of a few dozen people are honest enough and truthful enough and projectable enough to be proxies for the millions of potential customers not in the room.

Their words are transcribed and summarized. They are distilled into bullets points. They fit on a PowerPoint slide.

But their words also mislead.

That's because focus groups don't mirror reality, not by a long shot. The obvious contrivance of focus groups is one reason why they usually do a poor job of predicting people's feelings and actions in the real world.

How testing changes perception

In market research, a candidate brand name will be perceived differently than the same name after it has been launched.

People react differently to hypothetical situations than real ones. Charlie Wrench, the former CEO of my alma mater, Landor, related this principle to me:
"Tell a neighbor, 'We're thinking of naming our child, Harold' and he'll feel free to criticize the name. But tell him, 'We've named our child Harold' and your neighbor will think the world of the name."
Give someone a chance to weigh-in on a speculative name and you'll get an earful. If the name is unexpected, a freewheeling litany of negative associations will issue forth. The name will be dissected into pieces and from those bits come more bad things.

But that very same name, if presented as an actual product or company name already in the market, will be accepted. It won't be dissected and analyzed. Even obvious negative denotations will be ignored. This phenomenon I call the "positivity principle" is discussed in this fascinating paper about the perception color and flavor names.

The familiarity effect is partly responsible for an initial negative reaction in research. But the speculative and hypothetical framing of the name seems to make it especially ripe for criticism.

Why do people shun candidate names in testing but accept actual names after launch?
  • A name that has been adopted and launched has validity conferred upon it. The very fact that a company has chosen that name gives it credibility.
  • A name that has been adopted and launched is given the benefit of the doubt. People assume that if a company chose a name, there must be positive reasons for it. As if by magic, the swarm of potential negative associations that once seemed certain, don't come to pass.
  • A name that has been adopted and launched appears in a real-world context that brings focus, definition and relevance. A name not yet launched is abstract, just a word on a page. Free of the context of an actual product, logo, messaging, etc, the name is uncorralled, left to run wild through the imagination.
To summarize the important points so far:
  • Testing names changes their perception, usually for the worse
  • The closer that research can mirror reality -- the less it seems like research -- the better it is at predicting actual perception after launch
  • Names are more readily accepted if they are perceived as existing brands and not hypothetical or speculative name candidates
Reality suspends disbelief. This is an important governing principle for designing brand name research.

Here are some other name research principles and tactics:

It's your decision, not the consumers'

Research should help inform your decision, not decide for you. You, as a company executive, have available far more information about the guiding strategy and the name's future potential. Without this deep understanding, consumers' could not possibly make a fully-informed decision simply because they are not fully-informed.

It's not a beauty contest, so don't ask what they "like"

People have an instinctual aversion when first exposed to things new and different. When research respondents are asked directly what names they like, the ones that are most literal, descriptive or similar to existing names will win out. But those kind of names win only in research. After launch, literal names or ones similar to others fail to stand out. This is the "brander's paradox" laid bare: A brand must be differentiated to succeed, yet differentiated ideas are at first disliked.

To avoid the wholesale rejection of unexpected, differentiated names -- those which actually have the greatest potential once in market -- don't ask "like" or "appeal" questions in research.

If a well-meaning colleague suggests that it wouldn't hurt just to ask participants which name they like best, you should refuse. Because regardless of other research results, the response to this one little question will overshadow all the others. A bullet point on an executive summary that says "Consumers liked name X best" is hard to resist.

Don't ask if a name is memorable
Unless your consumers are linguists or cognitive psychologists, they don't really know if a name is memorable. Respondents, to avoid cognitive dissonance, will tend to say a name is memorable if they already think favorably of it. Moreover, name research participants won't see, and can't easily imagine, the marketing mnemonics that will eventually be created after a name is chosen like taglines, jingles, advertising and design.

Name memorability can be assessed; just not by asking people what they think is memorable. To test memorability, expose consumers to a few names and then follow up a week or two later. The names remembered are memorable. This ain't rocket science, folks.

Don't ask if it fits in the category; great brand names are misfits

How can a name truly be different if it fits in established category naming conventions? It can't.

By definition, a differentiated name is one that doesn't fit in a category.

Surveying category and competitor naming conventions is useful before naming begins because this reveals the white space of unoccupied territory. Sometimes it's easy to identify what kind of name will stand out.

For example, the semiconductor category is rife with Latin- and Greek-based coined names: Pentium, Athlon, Centrino, Xeon, Opteron, Itanium, Duron, et cetera. So when Qualcomm asked Landor to name a new chipset, the way to differentiate was obvious. Instead of using a coined word, I advised Qualcomm to use a real word, specifically one that's Anglo-Saxon in origin, not Latin or Greek. The ultimate name born from this strategy, Snapdragon, is highly differentiated because it doesn't fit with the category.

Not every name should violate category conventions. Company division descriptors, for example, often strive for clarity and not distinctiveness. Or, if you're developing a product nomenclature system for a complicated category, like health insurance, descriptors should use industry-standard words to aid understanding. The differentiation in these cases would be delivered by the parent brand, messaging, brand voice and the products themselves.

Don't present names as speculative
By telling research participants that you'd like their feedback on list of possible names, you greatly increase the odds of hearing only negative, subjective reactions.

Do present names as if they are existing brands

Tell participants that the names are existing brands, though because they are sold in different regions the names might not be familiar. But avoid testing actual, known brands against unknown, candidate brand names. A known brand name will usually blow away unknown names in testing just because they are more familiar and have accrued secondary meaning over time.

Do present names in a credible, real-world context

Mock up a web page, product, package, business card or billboard to make the names seem real. Help respondents suspend their disbelief. To avoid confounding variables, each context should be identical.

Have an online-based brand? How about creating banner ads which differ by name only and measuring the click-through rates? That's a sure-fire way of measuring how much interest your names garner.

Do evaluate names against the brand positioning and attributes

With each name staged in its real-world context, ask participants to rank them against attributes or key words drawn from the positioning. For example: "These are five different laptop computers. Which is fastest? Which is most user-friendly? Which is most energy efficient?" Their responses will differ based only on the names.

Do evaluate the names against different product categories

To avoid category bias, tell participants these are names for products in a category different than the actual one. For example, if you're really testing names for a healthy juice, tell them they are names for a spa. Ask, "Which of these spas is the healthiest?" If you're naming a line of stylish clothes, tell them they are names of fashion magazines. "Which magazine is most stylish?" This works best when the alternate category embodies the target attribute (healthy=spa; style=fashion magazine, etc).

Don't use focus groups

The contrived nature of a focus group and their dynamics is ruinous for testing potential brand names. Conduct one-on-one interviews instead.

Focus groups are an appropriate way to establish strategy. They can help determine and prioritize brand attributes, understand competitor perception and inform positioning and messaging. But don't use focus groups for testing potential brand names.

I hope you find these principles and tactics of brand name research helpful. I'd love to hear if you've had success with unconventional name research.


  1. Words of wisdom from a naming master.

  2. Yea, Iam not a marketer but a linguist interested in researching brand names; of course you tips are of great value to my research. Cheers

  3. Thanks Anthony,
    This is a very helpful post.

  4. do you have a creative way that you present names to a client?

  5. I discuss the most effective ways to present names to clients in my post Instinct as Enemy: