The Art and Science of Product Naming

Product naming occupies an interesting space within the larger marketing mix. It can be driven by left or right brain thinking, it can be rooted in function or emotion, it can be anchored in relevance or irreverence. Form vs function, emotion vs description. For every descriptive “Dry Erase Board” there is an ambiguous Yahoo! For every buttoned up IBM there is a squealing with delight Piggly Wiggly. For every functional AT&T there’s a whimsical Google.

Like crafting ads, writing music or making art, coming up with product names is an organic endeavor and there is no absolute answer or single way to get from point A to point B. Many brilliant names have been cast aside in their infancy, dooming a new product to failure. Many truly awful names have made their way into the American lexicon based on the strength of the product. And in some cases, perfectly good names have become toxic based on a change in society as a whole (think Ayds diet candy). However, that’s not to say that there aren’t rules that apply.

blakeslee advertising product naming

A successful product name should meet the following criteria: it should be memorable, it should be trademark-able and when possible, should speak to a point of differentiation or emotive aspect of the product. Rarely is it possible to accomplish all of these, and two or three is entirely acceptable.

Here are a few other thoughts to keep in mind as you consider naming.

Love (NOT) at First Sight

Names will occasionally take some time to grow on you. Companies and managers often expect to have a flash of appreciation (Aha moment) when they hear potential names. Yet rarely does this happen. Sometimes it just takes time. When naming a product or reviewing product names, never say never and keep your options open. Remember, Google was a dreadfully silly name before it became the most valuable brand in the universe.

blakeslee product naming and branding

Grow Your Role

Names can underwhelm the first time they are heard. That’s because there’s nothing behind them. They might be cool, or full of potential. But without any design and context behind them, they’re just another noun in a world full of them. Nike is one of the most recognized product names on the face of the earth. Yet prior to 1964, Nike was nothing more than a footnote to Ancient Greek history. It stands for something because the company infused the name with emotion…and then spent countless billions of dollars in advertising. Remember, Twitter (originally proposed as twttr) wasn’t in anyone’s vocabulary prior to 2006.

blakeslee product naming

Don’t Fear the Fear

The best names are the ones that break through the categorical imperative (our brains desire to organize everything into a way that fits our world view) and challenges our assumptions. As a result, these names are likely to feel a little bit dangerous. Not only is this good, this is about the best outcome you can hope for. It means that your product isn’t getting processed and put in an existing bin in your brain…it’s carving out its own space. Remember, Smuckers has been selling jelly since 1897.