How to pick killer company and product names

There is power in a name. Great names communicate certain attributes of your brand and product experience. They create memorable impressions (e.g. Virgin). Over time great names save millions of dollars in marketing expense since you don't have to constantly buy media to explain what your company stands for or what your product does. Conversely, no amount of marketing dollars can makeup for bad names (remember the Chevy Nova?). So how do you come up with a killer name which reflects your brand attributes and product experience?

Sadly most companies fall victim to one of the following naming mistakes:

  • HiPPO (highest paid person's opinion)
  • Keep the project's code name
  • Use whatever domain name is cheap and available
  • Hire an expensive agency

Most of the time these strategies yield poor results. Don't worry! There is hope. Commit to a few simple naming exercises and I'm willing to bet you'll come up with brilliant ideas. Here are a few exercises that will help you find a killer name.

How to Pick Killer Company and Product Names

Exercise #1: Brandscape

This brandscape exercise establishes the personality of your company, product, or service. Think of your brand as a person. How would you describe it if it were walking down the street in the flesh? Branding expert Jonathan Bolden from Leader created this card sorting exercise to help you discover your brand's personality.

Print out cards with images of people, places and things in the following 10 categories.

  • Cars
  • Actors
  • Actresses
  • Trees
  • Places
  • Sports
  • Animals
  • Architecture
  • Brands
  • Colors

Each category should have a set of distinct images. For example the cars category may include: 

  • Toyota Camry
  • VW Jetta
  • Harley Davidson
  • Tesla
  • Toyota Tundra
  • Subaru Outback
  • Audi RS8
  • Lexus ES300
  • Honda CRV
  • Jeep Grand Cherokee
  • Range Rover
  • GMC Yukon
  • Honda Odyssey
  • Ford F-150
  • Corvette
  • Rolls Royce

Go through each card and decide whether or not it reflects your brand. Explain why or why not. Write key attributes down on post-it notes and put them on the wall. By the end of the exercise you will have a series of images and descriptive terms which reflect the personality of your brand. You can then group all the terms into four clear themes. Our brand attributes at Highfive are:

  • Progressive
  • Human
  • Empowering
  • Cheeky

Exercise #2: Analogy Boards

Channel your inner elementary student and get ready to have some fun with analogy boards. While the brandscape focuses on brand attributes, analogy boards focus on product experiences. Start by coming up with three experiences which are analogous to your product experience. The three experiences we used at Highfive were:

  • Launching off an aircraft carrier
  • Winning the World Cup
  • The last day of school

Write each experience on a separate poster. Then pick up a stack of magazines fit for creative destruction. I stopped by a couple of the countless nail salons in San Francisco and offered to take old magazines off their hands. After commenting on the odd nature of my request the salon owners happily obliged.

Next, get your teammates together and have them cut images out of the magazines which they feel best represent the experience on the board. Have each person pick their favorite image and describe why they think it embodies the emotion of the experience. Keep it fast and scrappy. Write keywords on post-it notes and put them on the poster board alongside the images. Get creative and get messy! You'll be surprised at how many great ideas and terms come out of the exercise. And yes, you'll be surprised at how much your most hardened engineers enjoy searching through fashion and hair product magazines.

Exercise #3: Crowdsourcing

Create a contest for your teammates, investors and customers. We printed large images of our product on a giant foam board with a note that said "Hello, my name is ________." We provided plenty of food and cocktails and had our guests write their ideas directly on the board.

Exercise $4: Competitive Namescape

While I think great companies and products should focus more on their customers than on their competitors, it never hurts to keep an eye on the competition. Your name should standout in a crowd. Use the competitive names cape to make sure your name doesn't follow the industry herd.

List all your competitors in the left column of namescape matrix. Then put a check mark in the column which best represents the competitor's name. The columns are:

  • Functional - names which describe what the product is or does. Functional names tend to be the most common and least differentiated (e.g. Whole Foods, Public Storage, OfficeMax).
  • Invented - names which have no semantic meaning (e.g. Skype, Häagen-Dazs).
  • Experiential - names which describe the product experience (e.g. Highfive, Zendesk, Under Armour).
  • Eye Opener - names which are provocative and create cognitive dissonance when associated with a particular category, product, or service (e.g. Virgin, Starbucks).

In general, names increase in differentiated value from functional to eye opener. However, its important to look for white spaces which represent opportunities to differentiate from your competition.

Exercise #5: Dot Voting

Okay, now you have a solid list of potential names. Now its time to vote. Put each name on a post-it note. Give team members five dots each and have them "dot" the name(s) they like best. 

Exercise #6: Due Diligence

Sadly, I don't have a fun creative process for due diligence - just hard work and iteration. Once you have your finalists screen them for domain availability, trademark risk, and unintended foreign translations.

Picking great company and product names pays huge dividends for your business. You don't need to be a creative genius to come up with great names. Just use a few of the naming exercises above. You'll not only come up with a great name, you'll also enjoy the journey!