I Know Nothing About Product Naming (But That Doesn’t Stop Me from Doing It)

I’ve spent most of my career working on Version 1 products so I’ve done my share of product naming.  The only thing I’ve learned is that few people actually know anything about how to do it well and in the end you are generally picking the least offensive name from a collection of crappy names.  My best qualification for doing naming is that I at least understand that I know nothing about it.

Oh I know there are experts at this stuff and consultants that seem to get the whole naming thing.  But I’m working on a Version 1 product, which means we don’t have any revenue, which means we are broke.  The likelihood of me having budget to hire a naming expert is right up there with how likely I am to get budget to have Bono play at my launch event.

3 things to think about before you start:

  1. Make sure that you have your product positioning worked out.  I like names that associate with positioning but even if you don’t, you shouldn’t pick one that associates with something against your positioning. Don’t pick something with “bug” in it.
  2. Look at your competitors and names of products in adjacent spaces.  Ideally your name should be memorable.  It won’t be if there are already dozens of products with similar names.  Hint: If in contains “soft”, you might want to rethink that.
  3. If you are in a large company, have a look at your company naming standards. You might be tempted to dodge those rules but don’t forget that
    they’re there for a reason.  Customers searching your website will have a hard time finding your product among 1000
    other products called things like Banana and SeeSaw.  Product family
    names give customers a way to find you and a context to put you in.  That
    doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be exceptions but you should think about
    what you’re giving up if you decide to fight the power.

In my experience there are three types of names:

  • Descriptive Names – if you have a naming convention in your company this is probably the way they are forcing you to go.  The good news is that these names are easily trademarked, Google-able and people will know what your product is all about when they find you.  The bad news is that “The Apple Personal Music Player” isn’t nearly as memorable or interesting as “iPod”.  They are also stupidly long.
  • Made-up Word Names – Did I mention that all of the great names are already trademarked?  I recently did a brainstorming session where we came up with over 100 names and only a handful were available. This is why you get so many new companies with made up word names like Accenture and Avaya.
  • Something in the Middle – Personally I like the middle-ground between descriptive and made up.  Twitter is a great name.  It gives you an idea what it’s all about without calling it ‘Short Message Group Chatting” or something else lame like that.  The best names in this category are somewhat descriptive but still memorable and interesting.

I will also leave you with a warning.  People get really emotionally attached to names, both good ones and bad ones.  Don’t let your development team start calling your product “The Datelator 3000” or you risk having to talk them out of that one later.

Here are some other things to read:
I have no idea who Igor International is but I totally love The Igor Naming Guide to Creating Product and Company Names.  I don’t necessarily agree with everything but Igor clearly has thought about this a lot.  They also have a blog called Snark Hunting which is also great.
Write Express has a good post on Ten crucial question when naming your business, product or web site.
The Pragmatic Marketing folks have a post on Product Naming.
Wikipedia has a surprisingly good article on Product Naming along with the always popular list of naming faux pas such as never name your product after the Swedish slang term for female genitals.

So that’s all I am going to say on the subject.  And remember, don’t listen to me, I have no idea what I am talking about.

13 thoughts on “I Know Nothing About Product Naming (But That Doesn’t Stop Me from Doing It)”

  1. April,
    Another great post. Love your blog.
    There is one thing I disagree with you in this post, which is adhering to big-company corporate naming conventions. Nortel or any other large manufacturer has a LARGE number of products in other markets. If you are doing something truly disruptive, the corporate naming conventions will often do you a disservice by having to adhere to some meaningless alpha-numerical scheme. Alternately, you could be socketed into some larger ‘solution launch’ that sacrifices your product positioning to a broader company marketecture or solution, drawing energy and attention away from your new whiz-bang product.
    If you want to compete in the market, with big players and small, you shouldn’t be handcuffed by legacy and possibly restrictive naming conventions by your company. Find the best name and use it, that’s what the competition is doing, as they don’t have corporate masters to appease.
    And spend some of that big company warchest licensing the best possible name if it is already spoken for. You do work for a big company after all, make sure you take advantage of it.
    My 2 bits, which is actually only about $0.004 adjusted for the current economic climate,
    Christian

  2. Hey Christian,
    Thanks for the comment! Actually my advice is to look at the naming convention and then decide whether or not you should follow it. I agree that for breakout products you might want to consider yourself an exception and fight against it.
    In fact, I am working on a product right now (that you are familiar with) where we are in flagrant violation of the Corporate Naming Conventions but for that product there is no question that it is the right thing to do. It doesn’t fit into the other existing product categories and associating with one of them doesn’t give us any benefit so we made a conscious decision to do something different.
    The naming police are still chasing me but I’m a pretty fast runner 😉
    Thanks again for the comment!
    April

  3. Hi April,
    I see that you have been very productive (and always interesting) since launching your new blog and I am hoping you will keep it up.
    I like this particular post because over years, I’ve seen a few companies screwing this up, paying their marketing manager big bucks to come up with bad product names. I mean common! 3 words and over 20 characters for a product name! Talk about being memorable! lol
    Have a great week-end.
    Frank

  4. April, product names can be very important. A product name is the hook in the customer’s mind that facilitates word of mouth and helps them differentiate the product from a competitor’s product.
    Consequently, I think it makes sense to get beyond knowing nothing about product naming and pay attention to the science. The science shows that descriptive product names generally are a bad idea.

  5. Hi Roger,
    Thanks a lot for the comment. I wish I knew more about the science behind product naming and I have been fighting against descriptive product names for a couple of products that I am currently working on where I feel strongly that is the wrong way to go. Can you point to any research that against descriptive product naming? That would be handy for me.
    Thanks again!
    April

  6. April,
    I have dealt a lot with the issue of product naming in my blog. See, for example,
    http://cauvin.blogspot.com/2005/06/science-of-brand-names.html
    It links to an article that covers research done on descriptive versus imaginative names.
    One of the theoretical bases for names that aren’t descriptive is congruency theory. Here are some of the basics:
    http://cauvin.blogspot.com/2005/11/why-nondescriptive-naming.html
    I’m interested in any additional info you can find!

  7. Hey Roger,
    Thanks so much for the links! I am going to use that stuff as ammo for my argument to not use a descriptive name on the product I am working on right now.
    Thanks!
    April

  8. Spending thousands on product naming companies is a total rip-off. We found a cute program called The Trademark Machine at LegalEquipment.com that generates way better names than anything we’ve ever gotten from the so-called experts. Bill

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