What’s in a name? How to name something in a business

When you have a business, there are many things to name. The most obvious is the name of your business or non-profit. There are many additional things that need naming, however.

What else needs a name within a business?

  • A slogan or tagline for the business
  • A product or product line
  • A service offering or bundle of services
  • A publication (like a newsletter or book)
  • A physical building or real estate development
  • An event, class, or workshop

Why does everything have to have a name? It doesn’t, actually, but what kind of marketing would you do if your automobile line consisted of “the sensible grey sedan,” “the new hatchback,” and “the great big 4WD pickup”? Not as exciting, or more importantly, as memorable as calling the automobiles the Altima, the Versa, or the Titan. We name things because we want people to remember our name, our stuff, and our story.

Fun ways to name things

There is no one right way to name something. I have several approaches that can yield lots of choices and provide an enjoyable experience at the same time. The objective is to generate as many words as possible that can then be combined or ordered in different ways to create a name. Try these activities the next time you need to name (or rename) something. They are not the only ways to work on naming, but they combine to make a fun and extremely useful start to your endeavor.

  • The Brain Dump Exercise
  • The Librarian-Hat Method

After you have a lengthy list of words you could use singularly or in combination with others, try these next steps to refine and test your ideas.

  • The Brand Alignment Test
  • The Word Puzzle Game
  • The Focus Group Trial

Brain Dump Exercise

Set a timer for an hour. Think of all the words that have something to do with your business, your values, your likes, and your customers. Write down any word you can think of – no editing or second guessing during a brain dump. You save that for another day. The goal is to get a list of as many words as you can that resonate with you, your customer, and your business. Try going through these categories. You can be specific or general, proper nouns are OK too, we aren’t playing Scrabble and there are no rules!

  • Places (Rome, mountains, ocean, Rocky Mountains, etc.)
  • Values (joy, fairness, integrity, etc.)
  • Food (spicy, apple, sour, linguini, etc.)
  • Activities (trek, play, adventure, etc.)
  • Time-related (dawn, dusk, fall, spring, etc.)
  • People (kids, Bob, teacher, etc.)
  • Sports (run, score, win, soccer, etc.)
  • Levels of comparison (silver, gold, platinum; good, better, best; novice, veteran, champion; etc.)
  • Things you like (vintage, colors, clothing, jewelry, drama, etc.)
  • Miscellaneous words you love for whatever reason

Your list may seem weird and disconnected at first, but play along. Descriptive adjectives often related to other things can be transferred to a business meaning. I can imagine something called “Tiny Spring Relics” or a new paint color called Golden Apple, can’t you? Note: Using a Thesaurus is highly encouraged in this exercise.

Librarian Hat Method

Yes, I have a degree that says I am a librarian, even though I am a marketer and have never worked inside a library, other than an internship. I do know, however, librarians are a very interesting breed. They are some of the smartest people I’ve ever met with a thirst for knowledge and learning greater than most people, although they often are introverted and don’t jump at the opportunity to share their knowledge or toot their own horns. If you act like a librarian in naming something, here’s the kind of research you will do.

  • Searching the competition- get online, search for similar business types or types of whatever you’re naming. See what everyone else is using for names. Do you see a theme you want to join, or go the opposite direction of to stand out more? Is casual language trending in your industry?
  • Searching for what you’re doing – literally – do a search like “names of newsletters” or “popular medical names” or “creative names for colors.” You may be surprised at the lists you find of work someone else has already done!
  • Browsing – a librarian trick is to find one thing you’re interested in and then browse the area around it for similar topics that pique your interest. This works especially well in a physical library where books are shelved by topics (yes, that Dewey Decimal System is good for something!), but you can also do it online on Amazon (people who bought this also bought…) or on Google (the end of the search results page gives you additional suggestions of links to follow).
  • Connecting the dots – librarians are great at chasing down citations and references (who said it and where you can find it). You can do the same thing: if you have a word you love, look up it’s meaning, it’s roots, or it’s common usage. Knowing the history of a word can add (or subtract) meaning for your name.

Now you have this huge list of words that probably includes some golden possibilities, some duds that need to be kicked out, and many others that fall somewhere in between. Here’s how to narrow down your list to something that’s unique, usable, and fitting for what your are naming.

Brand Alignment Test

Think of your brand and what it stands for: what you sell, who your ideal customers are, what your values are, what your images and colors look like, and what style and tone your message takes. Then use that overall story as a barometer and go through your list. It will be easier to star the good words and cross out the crummy ones with this perspective in mind.

Word Puzzle Game

When you have your list of words down to a manageable number, it’s time to start combining them and coming up with name possibilities. It can be helpful to print them out in a large font on paper and cut them out. Then you can play, just like a kid with those alphabet letters on the refrigerator (remember those?) Or a mad-lib game for you younger folks.

Whether or not you are a visual learner, it is helpful to see the words in physical form. It allows you to test instant sight recognition, get a feel for whether it’s too long, hard to pronounce, hard to understand, or hard to remember. You can also quickly test out variations. Sometimes you may have the perfect three words but in the wrong order.

Focus Group Trial

When you have narrowed your names down to 3-5 options, take them for a test run. Send via email to a select group that includes clients, colleagues, friends, and networking partners. You can simply ask them to rank in order of preference, or construct a brief 2-5 question survey if you want a little bit more feedback. Ask the questions that will actually help you, like “which describes us best?” or “is this easy to remember?”

Remember to keep perspective here. The bigger the decision, the bigger the test. Naming a workshop may not need much feedback, whereas naming a company may require more feedback and even a traditional in-person guided focus group.

Don’t Ignore Your Gut

Doing things with a process and getting outside feedback is important, but don’t underestimate your personal compass and feelings. If your intuition keeps pointing you back to a certain name, pay attention, there is probably something there.

The last bit of advice is this: make sure all the names in and around your business are similar. If your business name and names of products are serious and conservative it doesn’t make sense to name a new product with a lighthearted, casual name. The bottom line is DON’T CONFUSE PEOPLE! Good luck and have fun next time you name something.

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Nancy September 12th, 2019 At 10:26
Great blog Lori! thanks for the perspective. Reply