A stronger understanding of the naming process produces better results
“What’s in a name?” It’s not just William Shakespeare who wants to know. Companies have been pondering this question for years, trying to crack the code for the perfect name to gain recognition — and help their products sell. That’s because a name carries real weight. Brand naming has the power to reinvigorate an existing company or set a new one up for success from the very start.
Brand Naming Helps Your Business Be its Best
At its best, brand naming can help a company cultivate positive associations with clients and customers, and enable it to stand out from the competition. Consider Oscar Health Insurance. In a marketplace full of big players with rather generic names — like MetLife, United, and EmblemHealth — Oscar took a different approach. By choosing a first name to represent the company, Oscar humanized its business, bringing a friendly, personal presence to an often cold and confusing industry, where customers frequently feel like numbers instead of people. This move not only helped to differentiate Oscar from its more bureaucratic, opaque, and technical competitors, but also conveyed a sense of familiarity and confidence to its audiences from the get-go.
However, even when they’re designed to be positive or unique, brand names can sometimes flop. Before Amazon became a billion-dollar business, it was called Cadabra. Short for “abracadabra,” this moniker was meant to capture the magic of the online shopping experience at Amazon. But the reference was lost on many, and the word itself wasn’t always clearly heard — especially over the phone, where customers mistook it for “cadaver” instead. For these reasons, CEO Jeff Bezos returned to the drawing board and eventually arrived at Amazon — a label that laid the groundwork for the company’s future dominance.
There’s no secret recipe for cooking up the right name. But while brand naming isn’t an exact science, it’s not an entirely random process, either. A wide range of naming types and steps can help organizations ensure they land on an outcome that resonates with their audiences — both today and tomorrow.
What Bucket Should Your Brand Name Fall Into?
Before embarking on a naming journey, it’s important to have an idea of the types of names you’re leaning towards. Familiarize yourself with the various categories a name can fit into, so you can decide which ones may be best for your organization.
Brand names fall into three distinctive categories: 1) descriptive; 2) suggestive (sometimes called evocative); and 3) abstract (sometimes called empty vessel).
Descriptive names are straightforward and functional — they clearly articulate what a product or company does using everyday language. Brands like General Motors and Bank of America are found in this group. Descriptive names allow customers to instantly understand what a business is all about — but this simplicity comes with a few downsides. Not only do these names tend to be lengthy and less than inspiring, they can also be limiting. A name that describes the products or services you provide right now may not be flexible enough down the line, especially if you decide to expand that offering in the future.
Suggestive names imply a benefit or tell a story about a business. Unlike descriptive names, suggestive names lean heavily on metaphors and analogies to help express the main idea behind a brand. Intel, for example, connotes intelligence and information — two key concepts that are supported by the tech company’s processors and other products every day. Twitter is another classic that falls into this category, evoking the image of a flock of birds tweeting at one another to symbolize a social platform where news and opinions are shared by businesses and individuals alike.
Abstract names don’t have a clear relationship to the brand or product they represent. Whether they’re real words, like Apple, or made-up words, like Adient (an automotive car seat manufacturer), these names function as blank slates, allowing businesses to infuse new meaning into them. Because they aren’t as generic as descriptive names, they may be easier to trademark and own. However, their originality is a double-edged sword: Abstract names typically require a significantly higher marketing spend to establish new connotations around them. Whereas descriptive names speak for themselves, abstract names require more work — but their distinctiveness can pay off for the businesses who invest in them correctly.
Naming Construct: Creating the Right Configuration for Your Name
Across these three categories, names can also feature various constructs. From acronyms that abbreviate long, formal names into pithy shorthand (e.g., IBM), to lexical names that employ deliberate misspellings and other wordplay (e.g., Krazy Glue), a name’s composition can seriously influence how customers receive it. The most common types of brand name constructs are real words, composite, and invented.
Taken directly from the dictionary, real wordnames can exist across all three brand naming categories. Whether they’re descriptive like Shredded Wheat, suggestive like Patagonia, or abstract like Shell, real word names will feel familiar to most audiences. However, since these words already exist, it can be more challenging to own the pure URL for a real word name than for lexical or invented ones.
Composite names are built from combining two real words — often unrelated — into one new entity. Frequently used in suggestive names, this construct allows companies to communicate what they do in a more engaging way. Think of businesses like TurboTax or Salesforce — these names still communicate the essence of their respective companies (“taxes” and “sales”), but feel more memorable thanks to their composite form.
Invented names exist only in the abstract category. Here, names are created from scratch — coined from a compilation of different syllables and sounds. In some cases, they may have Greek or Latin origins, while other times they can be purely phonetic. But because they are not rooted in any single language, names like Kodak, Xerox, or Accenture can often work well on a global scale.
It’s All Part of the Process
With so many options across category and construct, it’s no wonder that brand naming can be a messy process. Naming isn’t a black-and-white methodology — it’s a nebulous, ever-evolving practice that has many different approaches. But with that in mind, there are still a few core steps that can point you in the right direction.
Develop a Brief. Whether you’re relying on external freelancers or agencies to help with naming, or just want to ensure that all members of your team are on the same page, a universal “rubric” is essential. This document will be your roadmap from start to finish, offering key background information about the product or brand, and outlining any naming categories or constructs to explore or avoid. The brief is also a place where you can introduce naming territories, or topical “buckets” that prompt people to brainstorm based on certain ideas or qualities.
Brainstorm. Once the brief is complete, it’s time to brainstorm. While this can be done individually, working in groups is an opportunity to introduce collaborative exercises that push your team to think outside the box. One such example is an activity called “pass the trash,” where participants each write down a potential name on a piece of paper and then pass it around in a circle. Using the original name as inspiration, others then add their own ideas below in a rapid-fire style. The quick nature of this activity means that not every name will be a winner. But it does guarantee a long list of unique inputs that may have never come to light in isolation.
Filter. Brainstorming can be the fun part — but filtering is often the most challenging piece of the brand naming process. Referring back to the original brief, cross out any names that may not meet the requirements. Then, imagine how the remaining names would look or sound in real-world contexts, such as on a webpage, in an ad, or spoken aloud during an introduction. How does it feel? Trust your gut and begin eliminating. Like brainstorming, this step should also be completed in a group to ensure a variety of perspectives are heard.
Trademark Screen. Ultimately, your filtered list will shrink even more during trademark screening. Preliminary screening can be conducted through simple Google searches, which will show if a competitor is already using a similar name or if there are any unwanted associations surrounding it. But eventually, you’ll have to have a legal team review any final contenders to ensure that your business — and yours alone — can own the name. During this process, names will be categorized based on the ease of trademarking, so you will know which ones are completely viable, which ones may pose complications, and which ones are completely off the table.
Test. In addition to completing a trademark screen, testing your names with a sample group before making a final decision can also be quite helpful. Creating surveys to share internally or with a small set of external customers can determine if there are any red flags. But feedback doesn’t always need to be formal. Casually mentioning the name to people you know and gauging their reactions can be beneficial, too. However, it’s important to remember that a name can’t do everything or please everyone — so test results or first impressions from friends and family shouldn’t be the single deciding factor when choosing a name.
VASCO to OneSpan: Brand Naming in Action
At DeSantis Breindel, we’ve worked through all four of these steps with a number of clients, including a financial security and authentication provider originally named VASCO. Historically a hardware company, VASCO was rebranding to help express its shift towards software and SaaS solutions — and recognized an opportunity to rename at the same time.
As the company’s branding agency, we first conducted preliminary research to evaluate the equity of the VASCO name. Apart from the strong awareness it had cultivated in the hardware space, VASCO was a predominantly neutral moniker. With the business changing its focus, a new name would serve as a strong statement to the marketplace and a clear signal to employees that VASCO was no longer the company it had been 20 years ago.
From there, we embarked on two rounds of brainstorming, organizing name generation around four naming territories — thematic categories that highlighted key areas of strength for Vasco’s business, like “technical leadership” and “security.” Establishing these lanes helped us narrow the field from 650 initially generated names, to 38 shortlisted names, to the one the client finally selected: OneSpan.
OneSpan captured the company’s role as “the single provider that spans clients’ security needs,” speaking to the brand’s ability to offer comprehensive security solutions that empower its clients. And by focusing on this benefit instead of a specific product or service, the name was also broad enough to allow the company to grow and expand into new offerings. After multiple rounds of internal voting, client validation testing, and legal trademark review, VASCO had the proof it needed to transform — and OneSpan was born.
In brand naming, every project follows its own path. But solid knowledge of categories and constructs, and a greater understanding of the overall process, can lead to a rewarding and successful naming outcome.
Caroline Welch is a Senior Strategist and Writer at DeSantis Breindel. She uses her love for language to create more compelling, engaging content for B2B businesses, helping them better connect with their audiences.
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