What is Brand naming?
An optimal brand name should not only be appropriate for the current company or product, it should have the capability to grow and fit into an expanded vision for its future. Think about how “Amazon” went from meaning “books online” to stand for leadership in just about every retail and entertainment category there is. A brand name is a foundational piece of your branding strategy, and often the most difficult one to produce because you are trying to convey so much with just one or two words.
Types of Brand Names
Understanding the types of names available is the first step in any naming or renaming project. Making sure the website domain and social media handles are up for the taking is crucial before locking it all away. If you have multiple products or services, the type of brand name you choose for each offering will also help define your brand architecture.
The 7 types of brand names
Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each type.
Descriptive names are those that readily convey the product or service offered by a company. Because of this, they tend to be unremarkable. While functional and utilitarian, descriptive names leave little room for creativity or interpretation. They often rely on a clever tagline to do the work of storytelling or conveying personality.
The upside of descriptive names is that they clearly communicate your company’s core competency. The potential downside is that they hamstring your brand as it grows and looks to diversify. Descriptive names are also notoriously difficult to trademark as, by definition, they rely on common words or phrases.
On the other end of the creative spectrum from descriptive names are evocative names. Evocative names use suggestion and metaphor to bring to mind brand experience and/or positioning. Evocative names are often creative and unique, and can be the starting point for a powerful brand voice. Because they leave some room for interpretation, evocative names let you tell a powerful brand story, creating a brand that’s bigger than just the products or services you offer.
Their originality means that evocative names are generally easier to trademark than descriptive names. It can sometimes be challenging to get corporate buy-in on an abstract name that requires unpacking, though.
The best part about brand names is that if you can’t find the perfect word, you can always make one up. Invented names are etymological fabrications that are nothing if not distinctive. Invented names offer the most creative latitude for a brand, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to conjure. Many invented names are built from Latin, Greek, or other foreign root words and modified to best embody the brand’s personality.
Intentionally misspelling a word so you can leverage its original meaning while skirting trademark concerns is another approach to invented names that has been used to great effect by brands like Flickr and Tumblr.
Lexical names rely on wordplay for their memorability. Puns, phrases, compound words, alliteration, onomatopoeia, intentional misspellings, and foreign words are all styles of this popular naming type. Lexical names are often clever—sometimes too clever—and get their impact from pairing words for linguistic effect.
The risk with these types of names is that they can come off as a bit cutesy. Corporate branding is arguably at a disadvantage when it starts with a name that sounds like a children’s book. Modern audiences have also been exposed to decades of clever wordplay and aren’t as easily impressed as they once may have been.
Acronyms have been used for names since branding first crawled out of the primordial soup. A long history does not mean this type of name is effective, though. While functional and utilitarian, acronyms are sorely lacking in meaning and emotion.
Brands like IBM, AARP, BP, and UPS haven’t been hampered in the least by the fact that their names are nothing more than a series of unrelated uppercase letters.
They’ve used brand design and positioning to create unforgettable brand experiences. KFC’s switch to an acronym even allowed the brand to disassociate itself from the consumer backlash against trans fats. A startup these days would be hard-pressed to come up with a great reason to name their company with an acronym, though. As a rule, acronyms are hard for audiences to remember and even harder for attorneys to trademark.
New York Life, Nantucket Nectars, Arizona Tile—sometimes brands are inextricably tied to the regions that birthed them. Geographical names imbue a brand with all the cultural and historical associations of its namesake—for better or worse. You’ll most often find geographical names tied to companies that once catered to a geographically limited audience but have since made it big.
Naming or renaming your brand after its home region obviously has inherent limitations. Outgrowing the region where you started is one of the most common signs it’s time to rebrand. A geographical name in your industry has also likely already been done. Put a city or a state name in front of a product or service and you’re almost certain to find an existing entity. California Tan? Already exists. Portland Automotive? Been done. Miami Subs? Yup.
Whether for reasons of heritage or hubris, there will always be brands named for the people who started them. This tradition stretches back to the earliest brands as well. The era when Fords tooled every street and Kellogg’s sat atop every breakfast table was one where few brands weren’t named for their founders. These days, founder-based names are a bit less common, but brands like Ben & Jerry’s, Martha Stewart, and Ralph Lauren have certainly made them work.
Aside from sating the egos of their principals, founder names are definitely easy to trademark. They can be distinctive if positioned correctly, but require some marketing efforts to build equity (unless, of course, the founder is already famous).