Choosing a name for your new company or product is one of the most important business decisions you will make. You know you want it to be exceptional, but what does that even mean? Should it be short? Does it need to be easy to spell and say? Does it have to have an exact-match dot.com? The answer to those questions isn’t always a resounding “yes.”
Let’s take a look at five prevailing misconceptions about what makes a strong brand name.
Misconception 1: Shorter Is Better
People often believe that the only good name is a short one. And while length is a consideration, there are other crucial elements that comprise the brand naming process.
One of the first things you will want to do—whether naming on your own or with an agency—is to define your communication objectives. What do you want your name to convey? The name BestBuy emphasizes cost saving whereas Google Maps and 1-800-Mattress describe function and product type.
You also have to think about tonality. What type of company are you? A name like Chrome sounds innovative and tech-focused, whereas Anne Taylor sounds sophisticated. Your name could be playful or authoritative, edgy or classic. As you dive into these considerations, you may discover that a longer name might serve your needs better.
Memorability is another key element. A longer name can be “stickier” than a short one. Think of Citizens of Humanity or Rotten Tomatoes. These phrasal names tell a story. They can lodge themselves in customers’ minds in a way that a single syllable or two might not.
This doesn’t mean long names are always better, or that there aren’t benefits to brevity. Domain names with seven characters or less tend to yield more traffic than longer ones, which is certainly a plus. But the takeaway is that business leaders must let strategy dictate their naming journey. That means focusing less on length and more on storytelling, memorability, relevance, and tone.
For more information on what contributes to a good name, please download and review the River + Wolf Brand Naming Guide.
Misconception 2: Names Must Be Easy to Pronounce
In general, easy to say (and spell) names are preferable, but not always. Take Target, Amazon or American Express. All of these names are easy to pronounce. If you uncover an easy-to-say name that conveys your objectives, fantastic. But don’t rule out contenders just because they might be a little more linguistically complex.
Even if you think your name’s pronunciation is obvious, people may still say it incorrectly. Travel coast to coast and you will hear different takes on words like “water” and “coffee,” or “data” and “niche.” If you have an international business, you will hear even more interpretations of your name. Most Americans still pronounce Ikea incorrectly. Its Swedish founder intended it to be, “ee-kay-uh.”
One could argue that there are verticals in which it is advantageous to have a hard-to-say name. Consider luxury brands, from Porche to Versace, from Givenchy to Hermes (which you may still be saying wrong: it is “AIR-mez.”). Certainly when Chanel entered the market, people called it “CHAN-nel.” These names sound, and look, fancy and expensive.
What matters is that customers want to buy your products or services, not that they say your name correctly. The name is just the beginning. Your marketing communication, advertising, design, tone of voice, digital presence, and even you and your team members will shape its meaning.
Misconception 3: Literal Is Best
There is merit in choosing a name with clear meaning. Seattle’s Best Coffee doesn’t leave much open for interpretation. But arbitrary names, in which you use real words out of context, can also work remarkably well. Think of Blue Bottle (coffee), Birchbox (personal care product home delivery service), and Milk (branding company). These names all use familiar words in unexpected ways, and the results are rich and memorable.
People sometimes assume arbitrary names require a large marketing budget. That is simply not true. No matter what type of name you choose, you will still need to invest in marketing, but in our digital era, marketing includes a wealth of cost-effective tactics. For example, small businesses use Facebook’s and Instagram’s targeting capabilities to reach their audience for as little as $1 a day. Businesses also create blogs and videos and share them with prospects via tactics like email newsletters. You don’t need to take out a Super Bowl ad to educate your audience about your brand.
The rise in digital marketing is part of the reason why we are seeing more business owners opt to use arbitrary names. It may also be because millennials and their younger counterparts appreciate less obvious names. In 2017, a slew of arbitrary marks made their debut, including Purple (a mattress company), Dandelion (a geothermal heating company), and Octopus (a smartwatch for kids).
The not.com movement has also made it easier for entrepreneurs to adopt arbitrary marks. Now companies can find creative workarounds for their domain names, choosing from nearly 1,000 new domain options, from industry specific concepts (.photography) to brand descriptors (.style or .guru). Alphabet, a Google company, opted for abc.xyz. Joy, a tech company, uses joy.io. For more on the not.com world, have a look at the River + Wolf brand naming blog on the pros and cons of gTLDs.
Arbitrary names have unique strengths. They stand out in a crowded marketplace. They evoke certain qualities or attributes without being overly descriptive. Amazon suggests largeness. Patagonia cues to the great outdoors. Richard Branson is said to have named his record company Virgin because he knew nothing about the space. This allowed him to do things his way, challenge norms, and push boundaries. All of these names mean something, and in that way, they are not arbitrary at all.
Misconception 4: Changing a Name Later Is Easy
Naming is hard. It is tempting to put it off and focus on other aspects of your company. This is especially true for entrepreneurs who have many things to do and budget for. There is often pressure to quickly launch as well. But thinking you can use any name and then change it later is a mistake.
There are plenty of cases in which a rebrand is warranted, but why waste resources unnecessarily? When you change your name, you have to redo your logo, branding, signage, legal work, business cards, social media networks, domain name, and more. You also risk confusing the public.
Of course, an exceptional name doesn’t guarantee you will have an exceptional business. It is one of many factors that will affect and shape your success. Still, you must do the work up front so you can move forward with a strong name and avoid an expensive name change.
Misconception 5: You Must Instantly Love a Name
Every once in a while, a founder connects instantly with a potential name, and the two go on to have a glorious future together. But that doesn’t have to be the case.
You may not love your name right away, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good name. Names elicit subjective responses. That is why you have to consider name function and evaluate every potential name against specific criteria. Is this name accomplishing your core communication goals? Can you build your brand story around it? Will it resonate with your audience? Does it lend itself to a strong domain name? Is it even available for trademark?
Often, a relationship with a company name is more like a budding friendship than love at first sight. Names gain power over time. As you build a visual identity, design your packaging, define your brand voice, and develop your website, the name takes on new meaning.
In sum, whether you are naming on your own or working with an agency, don’t buy into one of the misconceptions detailed below. This may restrict the name development process, resulting in many missed naming opportunities.
Margaret Wolfson is the Founder and Chief Creative of River + Wolf, a top-rated branding, naming, and writing agency that creates product names, company names, and services names for companies of all size and in all industries, among them Yum China, Target, Burt’s Bees, and Unilever, as well as hundreds of mid-sized businesses and start-ups.
Jacqueline Lisk is the founder of JR Lisk, who partners with River + Wolf in the areas of messaging, naming, and naming stories. Jacqueline is a writer, editor, and marketing strategist with 14-plus years of professional experience.