Naming the no-tears way

Beware the familiar-sounding name.

Over the years I’ve been involved in a number of projects to name products, services and companies. And these projects can go pear-shaped in ways almost too numerous to contemplate, from endless free-for-all brainstorming to unilateral executive decisions  — only to discover later the exec subconsciously found a choice comfortingly appropriate because it was the name of a largely forgotten competitive product.

So I’ve developed a series of steps to avoid the most egregious mistakes while still coming up with a solid name. And note that I don’t say the perfect name. No name is perfect out of the gate; it has to be used consistently for a product, service or company that actually delivers what is promised.

How do you get started? Here’s the short four-part version.

1) Set naming criteria. Before brainstorming, before seriously considering any name, take a step back and establish a short list of naming criteria, as few as three to five. Obvious criteria can be general (“sounds active”) or specific (“starts with the letter F”).  The critical part of this step: the criteria must be agreed upon by all the decision-makers in advance.

Criteria can run the gamut. For products or services, some criteria may be that they fit within a product family identity or otherwise take into account a key benefit or marketing/creative requirement. An organization may have different needs.  A boy’s soccer club located near Mt. Rainier might have as naming criteria that a name be active, gender-neutral, and have dual soccer and mountain meaning.

Some standard criteria are that a name is easy to spell, say and remember. But even these don’t have to be requirements, if a name is purposely supposed to be trendy or unusual.

What’s most important is that there are naming criteria. Rules allow focus in brainstorming and something to throw a name against to see if it sticks.

2) Go brainstorm. This is the part everyone seems to understand. However, whether you brainstorm with staff  or with third parties (including customers), make sure everyone has the naming criteria and everyone has a deadline. After the deadline, map each name to the agreed-upon criteria to come up with a list of candidates.

3) Cull candidates. Next, filter the candidate names through a series of sieves.

Existing uses. Find out who else is using the name and for what purpose. Start with a quick search on Google. Ideally, also do a trademark knockout search on a public database. An existing use isn’t necessarily a problem if it’s in a different industry, but you should know before you decide on a final name. And have a complete list of competitors’ company, product and service names and their acronyms on hand– even if your candidate isn’t identical, it’s usually a bad idea to have a name that is confusingly similar. Or so lawyers tell me.

Available domain. See if the Internet domain for your candidate is available by doing a WhoIs database search, ideally with a service that doesn’t register domain names such as DomainTools.com. Seven years ago, when I wrote an earlier naming advice piece for the Software and Information Industry Association, grabbing a related domain name was a nice-to-have. Now it’s a must-have.

Customer reaction. Contact a few customers and prospects, formally or informally, and see how they react to the name. A neutral reaction isn’t necessarily bad; many names only stick after repeated exposure or when placed in the proper context with a physical product or logo. But consistently negative reaction should raise a red flag and make you take pause.

Some organizations may have other culling steps — such as verifying a name meets corporate identity guidelines or absolutely can be protected by trademark — but the above usually apply in all cases.

4) Make the decision. By now you should have a handful of finalist names, ideally no more than three but sometimes as many as five top candidates. All should meet the naming criteria. And they should have passed most or all of the culling steps.

Prepare a bullet point list of pros/cons for each finalist name. These can outline unusual results from the culling process (“really positive reaction from customers,” “exact Web domain available”) and other observations.

If you have the time and budget, prepare simple graphic/logo treatments of each finalist to help the decision-makers visualize how a name might look in actual use.

Now, make the decision. And know you have a backup name or two just in case you hit an unforeseen snag with the chosen name just as you get ready to implement.

Naming can be difficult and contentious. Sometimes even the throw-away names jokingly tossed off in brainstorming can become a finalist. Naming is, after all, a creative activity. By channeling that creativity through a process, you can minimize disagreements over what constitutes a “good” name, and maximize the odds of instead developing the best name for your specific needs.