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Three Scientifically Proven Tests to Select a Name That Works

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"What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet," said Juliet in Shakespeare's iconic play.

Would it?

In the balcony scene, Juliet lamented the importance of names. After all, if Romeo's last name wasn't Montague, the play would have been shorter and happier.

So, names do matter. And maybe the rose by any other name would not smell as sweet.

That's the claim put forth by authors Al Ries and Jack Trout in their 1972 marketing classic book Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind. "Not only do you see what you want to see, you also smell what you want to smell. [This] is why the single most important decision in the marketing of perfume is the name you decide to put on the brand."

Now, let's be honest... To say that naming is the "single most important decision" in marketing—perfume or otherwise—borders on the ridiculous, doesn't it?

Maybe not.

The Market-Proven Power of the Wrong (and Right) Name

To prove a point, Ries and Trout present a number of illustrations both corporate—Goodyear versus Goodrich, and Printer's Ink versus Advertising Age—as well as personal—David and Michael, versus Hubert and Elmer.

Though much can be learned from the right name, by far, Ries and Trout's favorite teachers are the losers.

And who's the biggest loser of all?


Ries and Trout explain, "Even though [Margarine] has been around for decades, it is still perceived as imitation butter. (It's not nice to fool Mother Nature.)

"The psychological problem with a name like 'margarine' is that it is deceptive. It hides the origin of the product.

Everyone knows that butter is made from milk. But what's margarine made from? Because the origin of the product is hidden, the prospect assumes there must be something basically wrong with margarine."

To understand this problem, let's back up a second.

What's in a Name?

"The name is the first point of contact between the message and the mind," state Ries and Trout. "It's not the goodness or badness of a name in an esthetic sense that determines the effectiveness of the message. It's the appropriateness of the name."

Strangely enough, we needn't venture far from the wonderful world of dairy to find a contemporary example of the right name.

Case in point, take the billion-dollar rise of "plant" milks over the last decade. According to Market Wired, "Total retail sales of soy milk, almond milk, rice milk and other plant milks reached $1.33 billion in 2011."

Even more telling, however, are how the various "plant" milks stack up against one another.

Turns out, the long-time champion soy milk has been losing ground to several recent arrivals.

"While the company [Silk] got its start with tofu [i.e., soy milk] in 1977, since March [2012] a majority of its alterna-milk sales have been coming from another source: almonds.”

In fact, sales of almond-milk products grew by more than 50% last quarter alone.


You guessed it: the name.

Larry Finkel, director of food and beverage research at, puts it like this: "Soybeans just aren't hip... Nuts are trendy now. Soy sounds more like old-fashioned health food, like tofu, and could probably benefit by a reinvigoration of their brand."

So, what's a brand to do?

The Surprising Science Behind Powerful Names

In the massively helpful book Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, author Robert Cialdini picks up this very point.

Leaning on the insight of social scientists Adam Alter and Daniel Oppenheimer, Cialdini asserts,"People tend to have a greater affection for words and names that are easy to pronounce."

In other words, not only do names need to be trustworthy and likeable—margarine and soy versus butter and almond—but when it comes to truly powerful names, they have to be fluent as well.

Just how powerful is fluency?

After studying the performance of fluent versus nonfluent stock names over a one day, one week, six month, and one-year period, Cialdini's researchers concluded, "If a person invested a thousand dollars in the ten most fluently named companies on the list versus the ten least fluently named companies… the investment in the first group would have outperformed its counterpart for each of the designated time periods."

That's right. Without giving even a nod to the businesses themselves, fluent names outperformed nonfluent names for "for each of the designated time periods."

That principle holds true even when for something as simple as ticker abbreviations.

So, what's all this add up to?

Test Your Name

Here are three simple tests to select a name that works.

1. Is your name easy to say?

In regards to human communication (e.g, marketing), clarity trumps creativity every day of the week and twice on Sunday.

And the only thing worse than being creative is being clever.

Nowhere is this truer than when it comes to your name.

Forget Greek, forget Latin, forget inventing new words. The very first (and most important!) test comes down to fluency: Is your name easy to say?

2. Does your name clearly describe who you are or what you do?

Not to get too philosophical, but being and essence go hand in hand.

In other words, a name should communicate as precisely as possible what you, your product, or your brand does.

If you have to explain, translate, unpack, justify, or do anything else other than just say your name, something's gone wrong.

Your name should be screamingly obvious. Again, clarity trumps creativity... and absolutely murders clever.

3. Is your name about them or you?

You know who "them" are, right? "Them" are your prospects, your customers, your audience.

Like everything in marketing, your name should be about "them," not about "you."

Of course, it's tempting to make our name about us. This is the most natural way to think about our names: "mine."

What's more, this principle goes against a great deal of popular wisdom.

If you look at Forbes list of the world's 100 "most valuable" brands, you'll see a host of abstract nouns, many of which are hard to pronounce, have little to do with the actual business, and even less to do with that business' customers.

The reality is this approach simply won't work for 99% of small to midsize businesses.

But to be effective, your name should be about the people you're trying to reach. Your name should address their problems, their fears, their solutions, and their hopes. It should hint at the hell from which you'll deliver them and the heaven to which you'll save them.

After all, as marketer Joe Polish put it in his infamous "Branding = Bulls**t?" post: "You can't deposit name recognition in the bank… you can only deposit money."

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Aaron Orendorff is a freelance copywriter "saving the world from bad content" over at iconiContent. By day, he teaches communication and philosophy full time at a local college in Oregon.

LinkedIn: Aaron Orendorff

Twitter: @iconiContent

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  • by BBL Mon Jul 21, 2014 via web

    That Trout and Ries' book still rings true is probably enough to earn it a spot in the literary business genre hall of fame. Perhaps it's the title that gives it its staying power. Practicing what they preached certainly worked for these guys.

  • by Jamie Hamilton Mon Jul 21, 2014 via web

    While there are some great points to this article which I will file away in my notes, I don't think that it necessarily pays off to have a no-nonsense, boring approach to naming a business. At some point, every business begins as a startup and has to build. I don't believe that 99% of businesses can't work with a creative name. If you have a truly great business idea, have done the right research, and are prepared to do what it takes to build a successful business, I think a creative and clever name can be a very helpful tool to help brand your business.

  • by Alden Mon Jul 21, 2014 via web

    Would love to see some examples listed in the 1, 2, 3 section. Specific examples about brands that follow a rule (or ones that don't follow the rule) might help make these tips more concrete.

    Oh, and I ordered that book from the link. Looks interesting.

  • by Aaron Orendorff Mon Jul 21, 2014 via web

    Glad to hear you ordered the book, Alden.

    And thanks for the feedback, Jamie.

    Maybe I can make this a twofer...

    Here are three of my favorite names/URLs that are easy to say, clearly identify what they do, and directly address a specific audience or need:

    Oh, and of course... MarketingProfs. ;)

  • by Jamie Hamilton Mon Jul 21, 2014 via web

    Thanks Aaron! I did pick up some good ideas. If my business ever takes off, I may have you to thank! ;)

  • by Steve Mon Jul 21, 2014 via web

    Your name testing points are well made, Aaron. Wish I could get a client to let go of her (new) existing business name and create another. The current name breaks all three rules!

    I would however add one important caveat to your observations. Context must also be taken into account. Meaning, a name will make sense/ring true when spoken or seen in relation to its surroundings.

    For example, one of your stated favourites is WeShootBottles. After pondering a little while, I could not figure out what they did. Put bottles on a fence and shoot them off with a BB gun? Is this some new wrinkle on paintball?

    When I went to the site it was obvious. But until the context of photography was introduced, the literal meaning still obscured the business function.

    The same is true of all abstract brand names. "I bought an apple today." Did I just buy a computer or a piece of fruit?

  • by Aaron Orendorff Wed Jul 23, 2014 via web

    Great note on context, Steve.

    I loved the line about "After pondering a little while, I could not figure out what they did. Put bottles on a fence and shoot them off with a BB gun?"

    The visuals help on that one. :)

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