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Six Misconceptions to Avoid When Choosing a Brand Name

August 02, 2019

Many people think that a name for their business or product must sound like a brand name right from the start, feel familiar, reflect a brand’s position, be short, and have no possible negative associations. Adding to that? All stakeholders should “love” it. These are common misconceptions that could hinder a successful naming process.

Whether you are working with a brand naming agency such as River + Wolf or on your own, you will need to make many decisions, from what naming style and tonality you prefer to the level of risk you are willing to tolerate in terms of trademark. These decisions are never easy. 

But for some clients, the hardest thing of all is selecting a final name from a pool of possible candidates. Happily, most River + Wolf clients don’t have this issue—they quickly move to registration. 

But recently, we were introduced to a company that had been searching for a name for over a year. In fact, by the time they reached out to River + Wolf, they had burned through two naming agencies and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars.

As the previous agencies had produced some excellent names, we decided to conduct in-depth interviews with key stakeholders to try to identify the problem. Soon enough, we found it. One of the primary decision-makers had been judging every name against six naming misconceptions.

And while this is an extreme case, these misconceptions, even when fewer in number, can make name selection more painful than needed.

Let’s take a look.

Misconception 1: The Name Doesn’t Sound Like a Brand Name

This common assumption kills off many wonderful names. For this reason, we impress on every client that a name alone is not a brand. In the beginning, it’s just a word. With design, it becomes a name. Then, through usage, packaging, and advertising, it transforms into a brand name.

Takeaway: A name isn’t your brand. It is one piece of a larger whole. Moreover, it takes time for a company or product to become a brand. It is not realistic to expect a name to sound like a brand before the brand exists.

Misconception 2: The Name Should Feel Familiar

People generally prefer the familiar over the unknown. This preference may even be hardwired into our brains. From an evolutionary perspective, this choice makes sense. Approaching a strange animal or eating an unfamiliar plant could result in bodily harm. But in naming, familiar is the enemy of unique.

Takeaway: If a name feels familiar, it won’t be unique. Conversely, if it’s unique, it won’t feel familiar. Always opt for unique.

Misconception 3: A Name Must Reflect a Brand’s Position

Many clients believe a brand name must reflect the positioning of their product or company. This is one approach to naming, but not a required one, and sometimes not even the best one.

For example, the positioning of Hint waters is “We create products people love to use, so they can live healthier lives.”

Hint water

Source: Katfire Design

Hint’s brand name, however, has nothing to do with healthier lives. And yet, it’s a great name.

Takeaway: Don’t reject names because they are not tied to your brand’s position. In some cases, it’s better to let the positioning develop during the naming process rather than forcing names to reflect a previously established position.

Misconception 4: A Name Must Not Have Any Negative Associations

It goes without saying that you should avoid names that are obscene or offensive. But a name with a little edge or oddity is not a bad thing. 

In plays, movies, and novels, the villain is almost always more interesting than the hero. They spice up the narrative and can inspire a strange mixture of sympathy and loathing.

By way of analogy, the villains of naming are the ones that summon up things that, on first blush, might appear negative—e.g., naming a big machine after a squishy bug (Caterpillar) or a powerful search engine with a word that sounds like a babbling baby (Google).

Google

Regardless of Google’s and the others’ odd associations, these are first-class names.

Takeaway: If you start playing the “negative detective” game, you can always drum up undesirable associations and connotations for almost any name. Amazon? Bugs and headhunters. Samsung? Sounds like hamstrung. For this reason, avoid subjecting potential name candidates to this kind of judgment.  

Misconception 5: A Name Must Be Short to Be Memorable

Clients often ask their naming agencies to create hyper-short names because traditional wisdom holds that short names are more memorable than long ones. This is simply not true.

Many short names are completely forgettable, whereas longer names—e.g., Anthropologie (clothing/home goods), Citizens of Humanity (jeans), and Young Living Lavender Farm (herb farm and distillery)—are rich with associations and connotations. 

Anthropologie

That said, names shouldn’t be overly long, either.  You don’t want to give your customers finger fatigue when they tap out your name on their keyboards. And you certainly don’t want them to shorten the name to a bland acronym. 

Takeaway: As long as it is easy to say, the number of words in a name—unless it needs to fit on a small package—is less important than what the name evokes.

Misconception 6: A Name Is Not Worth Its Salt Unless You “Love It”

Love may make the world go around, but never cast a name aside because you don’t love it. Instead of expecting potential name candidates to be lovers, try seeing them as friends.

Like friendship, names accrue power over time. And it’s entirely possible that with packaging, design, usage, and advertising, a name can evolve into a legendary love affair.

Equally important, romance needs to be tempered by the realities of trademark. In the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), there are millions of registered marks. When you factor in international registrations and common law rights, finding a name with a reasonable risk level is extremely challenging. Given this, it is crucial to remain open to many names, even if they don’t make your heart throb.

Takeaway: Never use “loving” a name as a selection criterion. Even if a name inspires a passionate response in you, it may evoke a different emotion in your customers.

Great Names Don’t Need to Check Off Every Box

Becoming aware of these naming misconceptions is the first step in eliminating them. And eliminating them is what you must do.

As we learned from the experience of our struggling client, these misconceptions are not benign: Beyond causing selection paralysis, they can blind stakeholders to potentially fantastic names and dramatically drive up the cost of naming.