I Know Nothing About Product Naming (But That Doesn’t Stop Me from Doing It!)

By April Dunford August 01, 2009

I’ve spent most of my career working with startups or on Version 1 products, so I have done my share of product naming. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about naming products, it’s that very few people actually know anything about how to do it well.

The few who do know naming are so rare that they can quite comfortably charge an hourly rate somewhere in the neighborhood of your entire marketing budget. As long as you keep working on Version 1 products, the likelihood you will get the budget to use their services is right up there with how likely you are to get budget to have U2 play at your launch event.

As a marketer for a new product, naming is something you may have to do even though you know nothing about it.

So, as they say in all those 12-step programs, the first step is admitting you have a problem. In my experience, the absolute worst names come from people like me, who know nothing about product naming, yet—unlike me—have managed to convince themselves they have some inherent sixth sense for choosing product names. By simply responding to the aura-like energy emanating from the names themselves, they can “feel” which one is right. “I can’t tell you why exactly,” they’ll say with that maniac glow in their eyes, “but SchmoozePhone just feels right to me.”

Don’t be that person! Repeat to yourself: “I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know what I’m doing.” There isn’t a magic formula for creating a good product name, but a well-considered, rational process for picking the least awful name out of all of the possible awful names out there is better than anyone’s gut feel—and, frankly, the best you can do.

Before you get started

Before starting the process of product naming, there are a few things you need to consider in order to make the process a bit smoother.

Nail down your positioning

I always put off naming a product until the basic product positioning is worked out. Having a name that specifically calls to mind one of your product’s strengths is one way to name a product. But even if the name doesn’t have anything to do with how the product is positioned, you need to be careful it doesn’t resonate with something that is opposite the product’s positioning. For example, say you are launching a new accounting package, and someone wants to call it Books2Go. Snappy. Catchy. Too bad your software doesn’t run on a smart phone, because everyone will expect that it will.

Decide which international markets really matter

Picking a name that works in every language around the world is something that keeps marketing folks up at night. We have all heard the stories about products whose names translated into “canary droppings” or “brothel bed sheets” in another language.

Decide up front which international markets matter to you and which don’t. Be honest with yourself—do you have a sales channel to reach into Bulgaria or Turkey? Is your product going to support Korean or Japanese? If not, save yourself the stress, and don’t worry about those languages.

Think about your brand

This is a tricky one. For startups, there is often a discussion around whether the primary “brand” is the company name or the product name. This topic could be an entire article in itself, but the reason I am bringing it up here is because it helps to think about this before you get into the product naming process. For example, if your startup is launching one product and will probably only sell one product for the foreseeable future, it might make sense to have just one name for both the product and the company.

Consider Facebook, which is both the company and the flagship product. Oracle abandoned its company name, Relational Software, Inc., for Oracle Corporation in the early 1980s to better align with its flagship product. In later years, the product name became Oracle Database to differentiate it from Oracle Applications and other products in the Oracle family.

It takes time, effort, and money to build brand recognition in the minds of customers. If you can get away with branding just one name, consider yourself lucky.

If you are working on a V1 product inside a larger company, you also need to consider what your primary brand should be. I worked inside IBM’s Software Group for years; and there are several major brands there, including DB2, Lotus, and WebSphere. I worked on a couple of different products where we made the decision to go forward simply with the IBM brand (using a descriptive product name with it), because aligning product with either DB2 or WebSphere would have been confusing for customers.

Branding decisions are difficult ones to make and often need to be made before a meaningful conversation about product naming can occur, so you might as well get these issues out on the table as early as possible.

List competitors’ names and product names

Ideally your product name is going to be memorable for customers, so you want to make sure it isn’t too similar to other products out there.

I also have a personal pet peeve with names containing over-used elements such as “soft,” “info,” “net,” “inter,” and “sys”—you get the idea. These elements have approached full-blown cliché status and make your name instantly forgettable.

Understand your corporate naming standards

If you work at a large company, chances are you have a corporate naming standard with which you are supposed to comply. Those standards are there for a reason, and it generally has to do with how difficult it would be for customers to find your products out of the hundreds of other products your company offers, if those products were all named things like “banana” or “seesaw.”

That said, as with most rules at big companies, there are always situations where rules should be, and are, broken. If you plan to try and get around your corporate naming standards, you will need to mount a case to do so, and that will involve understanding exactly which rules you are breaking.

List of other things to consider

Do you absolutely need to have the URL? Put it on the list. Does your CEO have a problem with a certain set of words (hey, it happened to me once)? Make a note of that. Get it all down on paper, so that when you get the naming team together, everyone is starting with a common understanding of the constraints.

Brainstorm names

Did you know that there are only about 80,000 words in the English language? In 2007, about 40,000 international trademarks were filed. In the U.S., there are more than 200,000 annual trademark filings. Chances are, that great product name you’ve had in your head all these years is already taken by someone else.

That means you need to come up with a really large list of potential names, because most of them are not going to pass the trademark and international tests you put on them. Luckily you are working on new products, because you think that ridiculously hard challenges are fun, right? Right?

Assemble a team

When coming up with a product name, it’s always good to tap into as much creativity and brain power as you can when it comes to generating potential names. Assembling a team from across different functional areas (i.e., Development, Marketing, Sales) ensures you get various points of view. Don’t promise your team, however, that selecting the winner will be a group effort. It shouldn’t be. There will be stakeholders who will get the final say. At this stage, you just want to generate as many candidates as possible.

When you have the team together, make sure everyone understands the basic rules and restrictions. Go over the work you did to prepare, and ensure everyone understands any branding and positioning decisions that have already been made.

Brainstorm like maniacs

When you are brainstorming, you don’t want to restrict people. As I mentioned before, the number of names that make it through the trademark search will be very small compared to the number of names you identify on your list. In a recent naming project for a new product, we brainstormed more than 100 names, and only 6 made it through a trademark search.

The goal of any name brainstorming session is to come up with as large a number of names as you can; so encourage people to let their imaginations run wild. You have laid out the rules, but in brainstorming, it’s okay to break them just to see where the ideas go.

Have more than one brainstorming session. People tend to get more comfortable with brainstorming over time, and including different people in each session produces different results. Encourage people to keep thinking about names on their own.

I found that it helps to do a quick trademark search on the first set of names you identify, because it often shows you what types of names are heavily trademarked and point you in a direction of names that may not be. Coming into a second brainstorming session with this information can produce amazing results.

Categories of names

When coming up with a long list of names from which to choose, you might want to think about the types of names to consider. In my experience there are three categories of names:

  • Descriptive names. As you might imagine, these are names that describe what the product does. Some examples are WebSphere Application Server or SAP Supply Chain Management. The good thing about names such as these is that people can easily understand what the product does from its name, and these names are generally easy to trademark. The bad thing about these names is that they are about as remarkable as white toast for breakfast. If you have a company naming standard, this is the direction they will likely push you.

  • Made-up word names. Since all the good names are already taken and there just aren’t that many words in the English dictionary, many folks go to invented words for product or company names. The name Accenture was submitted by an employee in a corporate contest and is a combination of “accent” and “future.” Made-up names are also easy to trademark and, in some cases, can be quite memorable. The downside of these names is that sometimes they can be really difficult to remember, pronounce, and more importantly, spell—because they aren’t real words.

  • Something in the middle. My personal preference is for names that sit between the brainlessly boring descriptive names and the creatively silly made-up word names. These names give you a flavor of what the product does in a way that is memorable, creative, and unique. The obvious problem with these names is that they are really, really hard to come up with—but, in my mind, this is exactly the type of name you want in your naming process.
Sources of inspiration

When brainstorming for names, it helps to have some sources of inspiration to get people’s creative juices flowing. Here are some I’ve used:

  • The thesaurus. This source is always a good place to start. Start with a few of the most basic words to describe your product’s functionality and go from there.

  • The Latin dictionary. In looking for a name for a communications product, I looked up a few words in an online Latin dictionary and found things like dico, dixi, and fabulor.

  • A rhyming dictionary. Okay, it’s a bit silly, but I like fooling around with this one. For the communications product, I came up with things like ZoneFone, GawkTalk, and @chat. Yeah, I didn’t win any naming competitions with any of those, but I’m assuming you might use this tool better than I did.

  • Foreign language translators. Another good way to get some inspiring ideas is to look for words in other languages.
Narrow the list

After you’ve gone through your initial long lists, have done a trademark check, and have taken your international markets into consideration, you will probably have a very short list of names left. What’s next?

First, I am going to let you in on my dirty, little marketing secret. The first thing I do is look down the list and eliminate any names I can’t stand. There, I said it. I just delete them from the list. Why? Because if the list gets in front of my CEO and she picks that one, there is no way I’m talking her out of it. Rather than be the person marketing the “FreeKeyFone,” I get rid of that sucker before any decision-maker even sees it. If the person who came up with that lovely gem asks why it didn’t make the short list, I usually tell them the name means “horse dung” in another language and leave it at that.

Seriously, you run marketing for this product—and you are going to have to love it. If there is a name on the list you cannot love, just get rid of it.

Next, it’s usually a good idea to test the short list of names on a set of prospects. At a big company, you can probably run a short focus group to try out the names and see how people react. If you are a startup, this might be difficult; but, if you have an advisory board, you can run the names past them.

This might eliminate one or two that have bad associations for people. There is something to be said for having an extra set of eyes on a list. After you have worked on the list for so long, an obvious problem may slip past you. For example, I heard of a pool cleaner called Poolife. Now I don’t know about you, but I would feel a lot more comfortable with that name if there were an extra “l” in it; because, frankly, I don’t want to think about poo in my pool.

Pick the winner

So you’ve whittled down your list of names to the half-dozen or so you could love. The next step is to choose the name. How you do that depends more on your corporate culture than anything else. If you work at a startup, chances are the CEO will want the final say. Startup CEOs are funny that way.

You might work at the sort of place where a small group needs to have buy-in. If you are making a group decision, I would fight to make sure Sales and Marketing/Product Management are over-represented in the group and Development is under-represented. Sales and Marketing will have to live with the name to drive business, and that should trump any other considerations.

A few last thoughts

Once you have the name, make sure you actually follow through and trademark it and purchase the URL. I’ve come into companies that have left the trademark work until later, and the name has been taken. Trust me, once you have finally selected a name, the last thing you want to do is go back to the start of the process.

People form an emotional connection with names. If there is a product name that people have been using informally, don’t be surprised if it’s hard to get folks to use the real name. It’s worth making sure you communicate the process for generating the name to the entire team, and that the execs stand behind the name and consistently use it.

So there it is. That is the sum total of what I know about naming products. Good luck on your product naming project. You’re going to need it.

Categories: Positioning
April Dunford

April Dunford

April Dunford has been doing Product Marketing for longer than most people have been alive. She has held senior leadership roles at IBM, Siebel, and Nortel, as well as a handful of startups. She has launched three billion-dollar products and one total dud. She blogs on Product Marketing for Startups at www.rocketwatcher.com, Twitters at www.twitter.com/aprildunford, and can be contacted at aprildunford@gmail.com.

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