What Makes a Great Brand Name, and How to Choose One
Jake Hancock is brand strategy partner and one of the brand naming experts at global creative consultancy Lippincott. From naming products for Delta, Google and Coca-Cola, to creating new corporate names like BrightView or WestRock, Jake helps some of the world's top brands define their relationships with customers from the very first impression.
We spoke with Jake about the complex obstacles branding and marketing experts face today in naming a brand and the key to creating a name that will stand the test of time.
Muse: It seems like naming a brand is harder today than ever. What goes into naming a brand these days?
Jake Hancock: Naming a brand has always been hard when it's done right. Anyone who's had too easy a time selecting a name should stop and consider whether they've asked all the right questions. Does it convey the right ideas? Are those ideas malleable for what the brand might become? Is it easy to say? Memorable? Culturally appropriate? Short enough for the home-screen icon? Modern but not trendy? And the most basic and often most challenging question of all: Can you legally use it?
I'd say it's harder to be a brand these days, because people are increasingly expecting more from the brands they love. More responsibility, more humanity, more of a point of view. Brands can no longer be neutral. As a namer, that reality weighs on every new name we create … we aren't just naming what something is, but creating an identity that should help it stand for something in the world.
Are there any different considerations now, versus years ago, as consumers have generally become more culturally senstive?
There shouldn't be. Considering how a name will resonate across cultures is one of the benchmarks that has long been part of a thorough naming process. It's true that the language we use in our society is ever evolving, but it's not news that racist tropes and cultural appropriations are bad sources for brand names. Brands being called out for their racist names this year vary in how long they've been around, but I sure hope none of them were surprised that this moment came.
One big consideration is how much stock to put in research. When brands rely too heavily on consumer research to pick their name, the names will tend toward the most familiar and expected results. They'll also reflect what's appropriate by today's social norms, which clearly isn't enough to judge right from wrong for the long term. On the other hand, when brands make decisions with their own internal compass, it's essential that the leaders making those decisions adequately represent the customers they serve. A bunch of white men doing what they think is right also isn't an effective barometer of long-term appropriateness.
Striking the right balance means listening to consumer input as a filter for evaluating names, not necessarily to make the decision. By asking the right questions of people from representative cultures—how a name makes them feel, what associations it evokes, whether it communicates the intended ideas—brands can make better decisions with confidence.
How can a brand minimize the risk of choosing a stale or uninspired name, and at the same time, not choose a name that is controversial or polarizing?
Polarizing is not a bad thing, and if anything, it's a good thing. When we present a set of name candidates, we often look for the ones that polarize our client teams, because those are inherently the ones sparking a more emotional response. Now I don't mean polarizing in terms of "Is it offensive or not?" But, "Is it too weird? Is it too unexpected? Is it too conceptual?" If you're launching a name that hopes to rival a Lemonade or a Zappos or an Uber, you'd better be polarizing, or you're more likely to be overlooked.
There's a conventional wisdom that if you don't have the budget to adequately support a bold, evocative name in the market, play it safe. Pick a name that's telegraphic of what it is, so you don't need to explain it. That logic has been disproven over recent years, where consumers haven't just given brands permission to choose evocative names, they reward it with their loyalty. I've led numerous naming projects this year, and there hasn't been a single client who didn't mention Lemonade. Relative to giant incumbents, Lemonade spends a fraction on marketing, and a memorable name helps them punch above their weight.
Are brands shying away from bold choices in this climate, and do you think we will see an uptick in "neutral" names like Washington Football Team?
I'm sure some are, and I'm sure this won't be the last of the "safe" names we see brands opt for. In fairness, that name is a placeholder, and gives hope that they are pursuing a thoughtful process to do the hard work of finding a name that's reparative. But no name can right the wrongs of decades of profiting off racism. There's much deeper work to be done than swapping out signs with a new name. My hope for that team is that their new name is bold enough to signal this intention: We're committed to doing the work and making meaningful progress.
In that sense, naming isn't a one-time action. Names are created and launched one time, but they remain living, evolving entities. It's how Apple meant computers 10 years ago, means phones today, and will mean something different like AR in a few years. Names need to be nurtured and supported and governed, because what they mean to people can evolve over time. Names can be tarnished to the point that they suppress business performance. Names can be rejuvenated through diligent brand building. Or in some cases, a name should never have existed in the first place. But in all cases, a name can't be expected to do all a brand's work for the long haul.
How important is it to choose a completely original name? Are there times when using the same name as an existing brand—like Dove soap and Dove chocolate—is a safer strategy?
Our guidance is that choosing a great name is the safest strategy. There are plenty of examples of coexisting brands—think Delta Airlines, but also other brands named Delta in categories like faucets, dental insurance, etc. I see no evidence of any of those brands suffering from sharing a name, given how unrelated their categories are.
No doubt, the most iconic brands own their names, and so the goal of creating a new name is to find one that no one else has. The problem is that's becoming increasingly impossible. There are over 3 million active trademarks in the U.S. alone, more than 600,000 new filings every year—and that number continues to go up. Yet the average adult knows only 20,000 to 30,000 words. So, something's got to give. For years, brands have focused on inventing new words or putting unexpected words together to find something unique, but in many cases, larger companies are realizing it's better to negotiate to coexist, or secure prior rights to a name, as the best way to get something clear. If the choice is between a great name that already exists, or a mediocre name that's truly unique, it's worth the due diligence to pursue the great one.
Lippincott has named some iconic brands in its history—Sprite, Lexus and Verizon are a few. What's the key to naming a brand that will have longstanding appeal with consumers across generations?
The simplest guidance is to pick a name that means something big. The best names don't describe functional attributes or evoke a business category. They evoke an emotional idea or story that can stand up to the twists and turns a company will take over time. A futureproof name doesn't come overnight, and frankly is arduous to create, vet and agree upon. But that time is worth it, because great names pay dividends for the life of a brand.