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.

Where are the most creative names?

This question was asked by a namer on the LinkedIn VERB forum:
Where do you think the most creative names are? Cars? Internet companies? Racehorses? My personal favorite is Boat Names...and here is a site with 10,000 of them. What are your favorites?
It's an interesting question. Pondering its answer has led me to some interesting observations and conclusions.

First, what's creative? I'd venture that creative here, as elsewhere, means unexpected juxtapositions. So any name will be creative if either:
(1) the name itself is an unexpected juxtaposition of sounds, words or word parts
(2) the name is a real word applied to an unexpected context.
It is by virtue of their essence or referent that names are creative.
Browse through a list of products for kids and you'll find lots of names that are intrinsically creative. Rhyme, alliteration, reduplication and letter substitution all lend a fun, playful and off-beat bent. These same techniques are used, for better or worse, as web-based company names.

These child-like brand names are creative by their construction, rather than their context:
Chuck E. Cheese
Tinker Toys
Lincoln Logs
Balloon Lagoon
Juicy Juice
Hannah Montana
Names for web-centric companies, driven by the perceived need for an available dot com domain, can also be creative by construction. Many are...but to a fault.
I discuss the pitfalls of these types of names in The Washington Post.

Brand names can be creatively constructed without being silly:
Here are some I've developed:
Wanderful (interactive storybooks)
Chemetry (safer, cleaner chemical production)
Lytro (the world's first commercial light field camera)
Brainforest (idea development software)
Flying Spoons (Embassy Suites casual dining restaurant)
I am particularly fascinated by creative names which are not born creative, but become creative when thrust upon a product unexpectedly. Names that are metaphors or borrow from far-flung domains tickle our imagination and offer layers of meaning that simple wordplay can't match.

For example, Sanctuary would be an expected, uncreative name for a spa. But as a name for ultra-powerful security software, Sanctuary is quite creative.

There are entire categories of products that, by their nature, demand creative names. As a general rule:
Products that defy literal or objective description have creative names.
Consider perfumes.

Perfumes are ethereal. Their scent is chameleonic, as variable as skin. Perfumes are subjective. Their names are rarely descriptive. Instead, they boast attitude, exude mystique and incite with provocations.

Perfume names are creative because they are arbitrary. A rose-imbued perfume called Rose would not smell as sweet as one named Eden or Chianti or Renoir.

I think Kane would be an excellent name for rose-scented perfume.

Here are some creative perfume names:
No. 5
Grey Flannel
Flowerbomb (though rather descriptive, this succeeds because it confidently yet imaginately flaunts category convention)
Wines are also ripe for creative naming. Like perfumes, their beauty is subject to the beholder. The relationship of the liquid in the bottle to the name on the bottle is mostly arbitrary.

I like these names:
Lost Vineyard
Summer in Napa
Frog's Leap (the cork says "ribbit")
Layer Cake (a suggestive name that's marvelous)
I gave a winery the name Scribe. Though in and of itself interesting, it's this name's potential to inspire great packaging, merchandising and promotions that really excited my clients.

Cheeses and cocktails, like wine, perfumes and other hedonic products, also lend themselves to creative names. Cocktail naming holds a special place in my heart. My very first professional naming gig was in 1989 at Waxman Wool Advertising in San Jose, naming cocktails for the Hotel de Anza. Oh, how I'd love to see my first naming list from 20 years ago.

Like other things that defy description, band names are invariably creative. I recently bought All Known Metal Bands, a hard-backed, black-clad tome listing thousands of heavy metal band names. Each name offers a different perspective on the dark side of humanity.

Some choice morsels:
Organ Harvest
As I Lay Dying
Made in France
Lady Winter
I named a friend's band, Marrow. Their music isn't metal, but it is dark. If you're the kind of person that prefers Fuck You, Penguin to Cute Overload, you'll want to give them a listen.

Perfume, wine, cheese, cocktail and band names are categorically creative because of the arbitrary relationship of name to product. There are exceptions, chiefly those that follow very traditional naming conventions. The name of the source, whether person (winemaker, cheesemaker, perfumer, guitarist, celebrity sponsor, etc.) or place (district, appellation, region, farm, etc.), or ingredients makes an obvious, indistinct, uncreative, fall-back moniker.

To wit (or lack thereof):
Dave Matthews Band
Beringer Wines
Rum & Coke
Napa Valley Vineyards
California Premium Cheese
Chateau Lafitte
Carlos by Carlos Santana
There's one category of creative names that's not just arbitrary, but intentionally obfuscatory: code names.

Code names deliberately hide what they refer to. Companies use code names internally for products in development. Some companies have established nomenclature systems for theirs. Intel code names their chips based on "geographical names (since they can never be trademarked by someone else) of towns, rivers or mountains near the location of the Intel facility" (Alviso, Klamath, Covington, etc.). Apple used cats as code names for versions of its operating system; the cat is incorporated into the official product name (Panther, Tiger, Leopard, Snow Leopard, etc).

Though it typically begins life as a ruse to obscure, a code name will become part of a company's everyday lingo as it's used by employees and becomes familiar to them. When typed in emails and product specification sheets, and uttered in hushed tones around the water cooler, the code name sheds its strangeness. And, as observed by fellow namers in this article, "a popular code name can help engineering teams build an emotional attachment to the product". When it comes time to brand the product for the real world, the code name might be the most compelling name in consideration.

One unintended benefit of code names is that, by virtue of their arbitrariness, they are also likely be clear as trademarks.

Code names can actually make great go-to-market brand names:
  • They are arbitrary and don't directly refer to a product's features or design. They won't age or become outdated like feature-based names.
  • Code names are often based on imaginative metaphors. They can trigger many personal associations and thereby foster an emotional bond.
  • They are often free to use as a trademark.
This is why a code name will sometimes be adopted as the final go-to-market name. These brands started as internal code names:

In the 1980's, the Big Three were fighting Japanese car makers for dominance of the US market. GM believed their struggle was analogous to the U.S.-Russian space race three decades prior. In that spirit, GM executives code-named their new product initiative Saturn, inspired by the Saturn V rocket that first brought man — a U.S. man — to the moon. A vehicle called Saturn won the space race; maybe it could win their race too. A different kind of car name was a great way for GM to demonstrate this would be "a different kind of company, a different kind of car". GM recently shuffled off the Saturn brand. It's been bought by the Penske Automotive Group.

Ford Taurus
I have heard, though can't find the original source, that the name Taurus was inspired by astrology. Two people working on the project discovered each others' wife was a Taurus. Despite its basis in astrology, and regarded as a pseudoscience or superstition by many, the Ford Taurus became one of America's best-selling cars.

Apple Macintosh
Yes, another code name.

As a namer who has faced the challenge of selling-in arbitrary names, the success of code names encourages me. A name that would be difficult, if not impossible, for me to rally an executive team around, stands a better chance if it sneaks by through the subterfuge of a code name. The exposure effect makes the client more and more comfortable with the name over time. Thus what was once arbitrary may become inevitable.

It would be instructive if my clients gave me a list of possible code names for whatever I'm naming. I should try that sometime.

Results are not always rosy when a code name is revealed to the public. One notorious example has changed how many high-profile companies choose theirs:
Apple meant no ill-will when its Power Macintosh 7100 was code-named Sagan. They chose Carl Sagan because his trademark catchphrase, "billions and billions", reflected their hopes for astronomical revenue. But the astronomer took offense, perhaps because other Apple code names included an anthropological hoax and a scientific pariah (Piltdown Man and Cold Fusion, respectively). Sagan sued Apple and lost. Apple, none too happy it was sued, then changed the product's internal code name to BHA, for Butt-Head Astronomer. Sagan sued again and lost. The Apple team finally changed the internal code name to LAW, Lawyers Are Wimps.
The lesson for companies is that if a code name leaks, litigation or embarassment could ensue. Code names are not be chosen lightly.

An instance of an ill-chosen military code name was Operation Infinite Justice, the U.S. Department of Defense's named response to the 9/11 attacks. Muslims took offense to the name, believing that only Allah can mete out infinite justice. This code name, it was thought, would make the military's job harder, so it was quickly changed to Operation Enduring Freedom.

Military "code words", like those in the private sector, are also creative though they are constructed using a prescribed, regimented methodology and approved set of source words. I wonder if the name Operation Infinite Justice followed the Department of Defense guidelines, or if it was created ad hoc?

This page details Department of Defense code name, nickname and exercise term nomenclature. Fellow verbivores will salivate over the Code of Names Handbook (pdf) which lists all two-word code names prior to 1983.

Here are some creative examples. Some seem fitting; others ironic:
Beartrap: USN, classified anti-submarine aircraft program
Big Belly: Conversion program to enlarge conventional bomb load of B-52Ds, 12/1965-
Big Stick: A new Navy bomb-carrying canister for use on A-4, A-6 and A-7 attack aircraft
Blow Hole: Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency effort connected with target location and identification
Cold Flare
: Study of solar flare activity at high altitude, in preparation for polar or high-altitude supersonic flights
College Girls: High level intercept activity against U-2
Face Lift: An Air Force recovery procedure
Idealist: CIA codename for development of U-2
Ranch Hand: Operation, spraying of more than 18 million gallons of 'Agent Orange' and other herbicides from UC-123s over South-Vietnam, 1962-1971
So, where are the most creative names?
Products for kids
Web-based companies
Code names
Find lists of those things and you'll find the most creative names.

Instinct as enemy: How to sell-in the new and unfamiliar

Your instinct can be your enemy.

It's another paradox of the human condition. Although our instincts have mostly served us well, sometimes following an instinct is a mistake.

Consider our instinct to be wary of things unfamiliar.

Imagine, while strolling through the woods, that you come upon a bush covered with little red berries. If you've never seen these berries before, you don't know if they are safe or poisonous. Your instinct says, "don't eat." You live another day, thanks to your cautious, risk-averse nature.

But this very same instinct, the fear of the unknown, makes the branding process intrinsically difficult. That's because branding requires creating and saying something different than others. Differentiation is, after all, the very essence of branding.

So when a truly differentiated strategy or name or logo is first presented to clients, typically their instinctive reaction is to recoil, to reject the unfamiliar.

Although I've seen this phenomenon in client meetings and consumer research, it was this impassioned article that first exposed me to 'The Zajonc Effect.'
Psychologist Robert Zajonc from Stanford University has found that humans don’t initially like rare or unfamiliar things. And the more we see the same thing, the more we like it.
The Zajonc Effect, known as the 'exposure effect' to psychologists, turns a proverb on its head: Familiarity does not breed contempt; to the contrary, it breeds comfort.

The article's author, Bruce Tait, articulates clearly the brander's paradox:
“If brands are to succeed they need to be based on differentiated, unfamiliar brand strategies. Unfortunately, these are the exact same kind of ideas that people initially dislike.”
Tait lays the blame for the widespread, systemic loss of brand differentiation at the feet of 'marketing science,' the consumer testing, quantification, and rigid processes that fledgling ideas are commonly subjected to. Marketing science, in Tait's view, alleviates employees' fear of failure and gives them confidence. But their false prophet of hard numbers does a poor job divining what will actually succeed in the real world.
Quantitative testing of alternative positioning ideas will likely systematically kill the more original ideas, and people will prefer the ones that are closest to what they already know.
Seinfeld, Sony Walkman, Absolut vodka and, as cited by Malcom Gladwell in Blink, the Aeron chair, performed dismally in market research precisely because they were unlike anything else. But these all turned out to be quite successful after launch in the real world.

Consumers' negativity to unfamiliar things is inscribed in qualitative and quantitative research executive summaries that, in striving for clarity and brevity, magnify differences and minimize complexities. Even if research is done just as a "disaster check," negative results not disastrous will undermine confidence and often lead to adoption of safer, less-different solutions.

Tait's antidote to marketing science is to engage the CEO in the branding process. If the Chief Executive embraces truly different ideas, quantitative research is no longer needed to establish their legitimacy.

But CEOs are human, too. Despite their confidence and accomplishments, CEOs are not immune to The Zajonc Effect.

Because it's my duty to create differentiated brand names for my clients, I have to counteract their instinctive aversion to the new and unfamiliar. To do that, I use these presentation techniques:


When presenting a candidate brand name, I repeat it at least 3 times. As clients hear the name over and over, it becomes familiar. Sometimes, I get sneaky: If there's a candidate name I'll be recommending, and if it's a real word, I'll casually and naturally include the word when chatting with the client before the meeting starts. By merely hearing the word earlier, a client is more likely to accept it when it's presented as a candidate name. Exposure research shows this is actually the best way to foster familiarity.
The mere-exposure effect is amplified if stimuli, rather than being consciously perceived, are perceived without awareness.
Names that the client rejects in a first naming presentation have a funny way of coming back in favor during later presentations. No longer strange and unfamiliar, these names get a second chance with a second look.


Clients become more comfortable with a candidate name if they think a company has already succeeded using a similar approach. Showing a simple list of successful brands that are comparable to the candidate name in style, metaphor or construction, makes the unfamiliar name seem familiar and pre-proven. Care must be taken in framing the category of the name and the selection of analogous brands; the candidate name should not seem derivative or undifferentiated in that context.

Here's an example: At Landor, I was part of the team who worked with Earthlink to create a name for their municipal wi-fi service. Our immediate clients guided us, made decisions on name candidates, and determined what should be the recommended finalist. But they didn't have the authority to render a final decision on the one go-to-market name. That responsibility rested with the executive team who would have the final recommended name unveiled to them.

Unveiling a final name to decision makers who have had no involvement is not exactly a recipe for success.

The recommended name for Earthlink's wi-fi service was Feather. Despite our clients' enthusiasm, I was concerned by how their senior executives might react. Something told me that the executive team, all men, in Georgia, might not cotton to Feather. It would seem too light and airy. In their eyes, they were building communications infrastructure for the future, not...feathers.

I used analogy to frame Feather as a strong, leader brand by placing it in a list with these actual brand names:
The technique worked. One of the executives said, "Gosh, what's a Shell? It's light, small, delicate and it's got nothing to do with their business. But they're huge." If Shell can be big and strong, so can Feather.

That's the power of analogy.


A name presentation should help an audience suspend disbelief. Words that clients have never seen as brands are not easily envisioned by them as brands. It's a namer's job to help the client imagine how a word on a page could become their brand. Some of this facilitated imagination is done through storytelling: the background and inspiration of the name, its fit with strategy, and the implications for identity, messaging, advertising, promotions, nomenclature, product design and so on.

But a thousand words can't do what one picture can. That's why I always show names in a real-world context, like a business card, building sign or package. The more realistic and credible the context, the more likely the client will see the candidate as a viable option. To avoid confounding variables, every name is presented in the same typeface in the same exhibit.

Text can provide further context. Just below the name exhibit, the first sentence of a press release includes the candidate name. By including multiple real-world contexts on a page, the client is better equipped to imagine the name as their name. And, repeating the name on a page fosters a sense of familiarity.

Instincts are essential for survival, but not every instinct should be followed. Our natural and protective fear of things different can also undermine our true best interests. When it comes to branding, your instinct can be your enemy. Fight fear of the unfamiliar as if the future of your brand hangs in the balance. Because it does.