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The Three 'Knows' of Naming Your Product or Business

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Naming or renaming your business or product can be one of the toughest challenges you face. Whether you decide to do it yourself or hire help, you need to know some basics before launching out into the wide, sometimes-weird world of naming.

1. Know what you're (re)naming

You'd be surprised at how often people don't really know what they're naming or renaming—or whether they really need a new name at all.

Often, a new name seems the obvious solution; it's the big, shiny thing that grabs people's attention and gets them excited. But you need to dig down to the justification for a new name. Remember that creating and launching a new name takes substantial resources and effort, and although it might be fun to create new name, it might make more sense to use one you already have.

But once you're sure you need one, it's time to figure out the exact nature of your offer. Is it a product? Vudu and Roku, both streaming media players/boxes, are clearly products. A feature? A service? A platform? A new program? Taco Bell's menu of lo-cal items, confusingly called both the Fresco Menu and Drive-Thru Diet, are products and advertising concepts both.


Is it some combination of a product, service, and platform? For example, eBay is simultaneously a website, a shopping mall, and an auction house. Remember that the nature of your offer may change over time, and any names you consider should be flexible enough to accommodate such variation.

So, consider not only what your thing is, but where it will live. In other words, where will your offer appear in relation to your other products/services? What is its place in your portfolio? Is it a standalone? Or is part of a line of related offers? Sub-brands or brand families can really help tie related products together. For example, under the overarching Budweiser brand, you find Budweiser, Bud Light, and Bud Light Platinum.

2. Know your target audience

Remember who you're naming for. It's your target audience—and you may not be part of that audience. So don't let your personal preferences get in the way. It's not about what you like; rather it's about what attracts and appeals to your customers. After all, your name is your first and last opportunity for customers to notice and engage with your offer.

So identify the single most crucial audience for your new name. That audience will include some part of your key customer base, since they're the people you do the most business with. Put yourself, as they say, in your customers' shoes, and try to figure out what's the most important part of your business for them. Why do they come to you over a competitor? What naming messages do you think they'd favor? What kinds and styles of name?

And keep in mind that while your name can't appeal to everyone in your audience, at the very least, it shouldn't offend them.

Here are some examples of names that successfully appeal to their target audiences: Abbot Downing (mega high-worth investors), Gilt (sophisticated shoppers), Monster High (preteens with 'tude), Axe (20-something men who wanna impress), Jot (financial customers constantly pressed for time).

3. Know what you need the name to do

Remember that a name can do lots of things--communicate what you do, differentiate your product or service in the marketplace, establish your offer's relationship to other things--but it can't do everything. Expecting your name to do all the communication heavy lifting is just unrealistic, so you'll need to figure out what other marketing tools you might want to use. Taglines? Descriptors? Other short verbal blurbs?

Let's say you want your name to "pop" on the shelf, so customers are more drawn to your product over a staid competitor. An evocative, quirky name like Lucky Charms does this quite well, as it's much more likely to catch the eye of a hungry kid than the more generic (and BOR-ing!) Kellogg's Raisin Bran. On the other hand, imagine a customer who just wants something semi-healthy for her kid. Well, the descriptive "Raisin Bran" says exactly what it is--and that customer, spying it on the shelf, might well respond to that precision and drop a box in her shopping cart.

Beyond helping you stand out from the crowd, names can engage your customer by being easy and fun to say—cue Etsy and Droid. Such names help the customer identify and establish a relationship with a strong and bankable masterbrand, such as the little "i" casts the halo of Apple around iMac, iCloud, iPhone, and iPod. You can even use names to minimize negative publicity, as when Blackwater changed its name first to Xe and then to Academi. (Although to make a shift in public perception possible, you usually need major overhauls in company policies, not just a name change.)

* * *

So, you may have been a know-nothing when it comes to naming, but now you're a know-something, and when it comes to naming, every little bit of know-how helps.


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Laurel Sutton is a linguistics expert and principal at Catchword, a full-service naming company founded in 1998. For more information, contact Laurel at 510-628-0080 x105.

LinkedIn: Laurel Sutton

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  • by Artash Wed Sep 19, 2012 via web

    You can also do test-marketing. Share your top choices with a few confidants – friends, family, potential clients, and peers – and gauge their reactions. Allow them to speak freely and evaluate the results before you make your final choice

  • by Steve Byrne Wed Sep 19, 2012 via web

    Excellent quick overview on the naming game basics Laurel. Most owners or managers will be well served to NOT do it themselves. It is far to important to the success of the business and professional input will make a difference. At the very minimum they can post a question in the "Taglines/Names" section in the MarketingProfs KHE Forum. Thanks for writing this.

  • by Laurel Sutton Thu Oct 4, 2012 via web

    Good point, Artash - but you have to be careful who you ask, and what you ask them. Test marketing is great for uncovering negative slang or cultural associations! But you shouldn't let your confidants choose the name for you; you'll end up with a "lowest common denominator" name that no one hates, but no one loves. Test results should be a data point, not the deciding factor. Thanks for the comment!

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