For many entrepreneurs, a brand name is one of the most frustrating parts of the branding process. It’s something that they often rush, giving themselves a name that sounds decent, is somewhat relevant and offers some kind of marketing credibility.
Years down the line, when the business grows and is ready to expand, those entrepreneurs realize that they have made a mistake. Their name is either limiting their options, preventing expansion, or causing problems for their customers.
A good brand name is not something that can be created on a whim after a few minutes of boardroom brainstorming. It needs thought, care, and strategy, and that’s where Alexandra Watkins comes in.
As the owner of the Eat My Words branding agency, Alexandra is one of the best in the business when it comes to branding and brand marketing.
In this video and accompanying guide, Alexandra outlines her naming strategy and includes some essential tips, such as:
- What’s in a Name?: What makes a good brand name? It’s a question that I put to Alexandra several times during our discussion and one that she answered clearly. You might be surprised at what constitutes a good brand name and it could change your approach to naming your brand.
- How to Brainstorm: The initial brainstorming session is an important part of any brand naming strategy, but it shouldn’t take place in a boardroom with a whiteboard. That’s not how the experts do it as it’s an inherently flawed process. Alexandra discusses her methods and talks about the early steps involved with brand name creation.
- The Things That Hold You Back: Are you wearing “Mom Goggles”? Are you focusing too much on Greek myths and legends? These are some of the biggest mistakes that entrepreneurs make when naming their brands, stopping them from finding the perfect name.
- Tricks and Tips: We talk about some of the tricks and tools that you can use to help you find the perfect brand name. Most of these are very easy to do. As long as you have an internet connection and a little creativity, you can replicate the process that has helped Alexandra to create hundreds of game-changing brand names over the years.
- The Best and the Worst: In all of her brand naming strategies Alexandra uses the acronyms SMILE and SCRATCH to determine which brand names are ready to go and which ones need a re-think. The goal is to meet all of the points discussed in SMILE and to make sure you don’t tick any of the boxes in SCRATCH. Both of these systems are described in full during this guide.
- Examples: Throughout this article, you will find examples of good brand names and bad brand names; success stories and horror stories. There are cases are brands that were destroyed by their names as well as ones that made smart decisions early on and saved themselves millions. These examples will help you to understand Alexandra’s brand naming strategy and the reasons that it is so effective.
At the end of my discussion with Alexandra, I asked for her $100,000 advice—the single piece of advice that can help entrepreneurs to generate more than 6-figures in revenue. It’s advice that will open your eyes and change how you approach brand naming, so make sure you read this guide through to the end to see it.
The Best Brand Naming Strategy: A Complete How-To
You have a business idea. You know what you’re going to sell and how you’re going to sell it.
Before you go any further, you need to think about the brand name. It should be something that sounds good, is relevant to your business, and makes sense. It should also have legs because if it doesn’t, you’re going to need an expensive rebranding further down the line.
In the following This Week with Sabir episode, branding expert Alexandra Watkins shares some thoughts on creating the perfect brand name, helping business owners and ambitious entrepreneurs to make better choices.
The following tips were all plucked from her brand naming strategy and can also be seen in the embedded video.
Your Name Has To Be Pronounced One Way
Pronunciation is important. A customer should know how to pronounce your brand name without you explaining it to them.
Adidas is a good example. In the United States, we say it with a stress on the “di” so that it becomes “ah-DEE-duss”. In Europe, they say “Addy-dass” with the stress on the first syllable.
The European way is the “correct” way. After all, it’s a German company named for its founder Adolf Dassler who used his first name (or rather his nickname, “Adi”) and surname to form the brand name.
There is a similar issue with Nike. Some people pronounce it so that it rhymes with “bike” and others so that it rhymes with “spikey”. Many people will tell you that the latter is correct, and the brand has confirmed this. But the word actually comes from the ancient Greek word for “victory” (“νίκη”), which was pronounced more like “Nee-kay”, so even that isn’t clear.
It all makes for a confusing mess and it’s something that you need to avoid when creating your brand name.
Obviously, some people will pronounce your name wrong even if it’s relatively simple. You can’t legislate for that, and nor should you try. It only becomes a problem when huge groups of people are pronouncing it wrong.
You won’t always be there to explain your name to your customers and when it spreads by word of mouth, you want it to be as consistent as possible so that they’re not mistaking you for another brand.
Your Brand Name Must Be Rooted In The Familiar
A key part of any brand naming strategy is that it’s based on the familiar. It’ll make your marketing easier and more effective if the customer can understand what your company does from the name alone.
Alexandra used the example of a bike lock named Kryptonite. It’s a name that people recognize from the Superman comics and films and it also ties into what the company is trying to achieve.
It suggests that the lock is so strong that even Superman can’t go near it or that it is a “criminal’s kryptonite” and will keep them away.
You instantly know what it is. On the contrary, I could name a pair of running shoes “Talaria” after the winged shoes of Hermes, the Greek god. It would be very relevant and would make just as much sense as kryptonite, but only people who have studied Greek myths will know that.
It might have been a great brand name 2,000 years ago, but these days the general population isn’t versed in ancient myths and legends!
Half the problem is that people are always trying to be clever when creating a brand name and if they have any kind of classical education or an obsession with myths and legends, they’ll try to work that in.
It’s one of the reasons why pretty much every single Greek/Roman/Egyptian god and demi-god has been turned into a brand.
Entrepreneurs are desperate to show off their knowledge and do something clever, but what’s the point in telling a joke to a room full of people if only 5 of them will get it?
Take Off Your Mom Goggles
It’s easy to wear the “Mom Goggles” when you’re creating a brand name.
You think of something that you really like and you tell your friends, only for them to trash it.
But what do they know?
After you’re rejected by your nearest and dearest, you start pitching it to colleagues and get the same response.
But they’re not business owners, so who cares?
They might not be experts in branding and marketing, but they’re potential customers and if that’s how they react then your customers will probably react in the same way.
It’s a point that many entrepreneurs miss. Rather than thinking, “These are exactly the people I will be selling to so I should listen to them” they start thinking about all the rich and successful people who overcame adversity and assume they will be one of them.
“People doubted J. K. Rowling as well and look what she did. Many so-called experts said that the Amazon business model was doomed and look how that turned out.”
More often than not, if multiple people are telling you that you have a bad name or idea, it’s because you have a bad name and idea and not because they’re jealous or lack the insights that you have.
When you create a brand name with this mindset, you put on the blinkers and blind yourself to everything that’s clearly bad about your name. You turn into the mother who can’t imagine that their child has done anything wrong and is willing to go to war with teachers and police officers who suggest otherwise.
“My child couldn’t possibly have done that.”
“Axe murderer, you say? No, I refuse to believe it. Jason is not like that. He’s a sweet boy. He must have brutally murdered all those teenagers in self-defense.”
The “No-Go” Nova: Culture Differences
You may have heard the story that Chevrolet took the Nova to Latin America and then discovered that the name “Nova” meant “No go” in Spanish, at which point everyone refused to buy it.
It’s partially true, by which I mean about 1% of it is true.
”No va” does mean something like “doesn’t run”, but “Nova” does not, in the same way that ”notable” doesn’t translate into “no table” and “carpet” doesn’t refer to a little dog or cat that you keep in your car.
If you saw a furniture store advertising a “Notable” collection, would you stay clear on the belief that there is “no table” in the collection? If they were advertising “carpets” would you grab your leash and puppy treats and prepare to greet a new furry friend?
Of course not.
The myth goes on to say that the car flopped, they were forced to change the name, etc., etc.,
It’s not true. Chevrolet did better than expected in the Latin American market.
The myth continues to endure because it is amusing and it sounds like something that could happen. It helps that if you type “nova” into Google Translate and convert it into Spanish, it will tell you that it means “no go” and that it’s verified.
But it’s assuming that you mean “no va”, it doesn’t know that it’s pronounced completely differently, and let’s be honest, Google Translate isn’t very reliable.
Also, “nova” means “new” in Latin and Portuguese and it has similar connotations in Spanish, which evolved from Latin and is in the same branch of the Indo-European Language tree as Portuguese.
You can read more about the “Nova” story on this blog.
There are similar myths about Nescafé and the Latin American market, as well as countless other popular brands and products.
The truth is, these things do happen, but not with big brands, and only very rarely.
Big brands spend a lot of time and money researching their names. They don’t just assume that their name will sound great in another language, nor do they rely on Google Translate to tell them.
More often than not, when these mistakes occur it’s the result of small brands that didn’t anticipate moving into another country, or with the names of individuals.
Take legendary actor Charlton Heston as an example. In Greece, he is credited as “Charlton Easton” because Heston (or rather “Χεστον”) means… “shit on him” (“χεσ’τον”) in Greek.
As a small brand, you don’t need to worry too much about this. It’s very rare. For every Heston story, there are dozens of urban myths. And even in Heston’s case, there was an easy fix, as his name was just changed in the credits.
Don’t worry about what your name means in other languages. If you expect to be targeting that language at some point, you should definitely make sure that it resonates with speakers of that language and that you’re not accidentally offending them. But you don’t need to check it against every major language.
In the future, if you decide to move into the Greek market and discover that your name is offensive or utterly ridiculous, you can tweak it and adapt your advertising accordingly. If you already have global acclaim to the point where you’re scared of changing your name lest you lose your clout in that market, then leave it.
In large parts of the English-speaking world, “wee” is slang for urine. Did that stop the Nintendo Wii from selling out? Of course not. People knew they weren’t buying urine, and while a few of them had a little giggle at the tills on launch day, it didn’t remain humorous for very long.
You could argue that all bad PR is good PR, and this is something that I addressed in my discussion with Jamie Mustard, the author of The Iconist.
There was a time when that was true, but it’s no longer the case. In the age of cancel culture, an age where one slip-up could cost a brand millions in reputational harm, there is definitely such a thing as bad PR.
Alexandra used a few different examples in the show, one of which was Biggby Coffee, which used to be known as Beaner’s Coffee. The word “Beaner” is a seriously insulting and derogatory term used to belittle people of Mexican descent. It was first used in print way back in 1965 and is believed to have been in use for at least a couple of decades before that.
Beaner’s Coffee launched in 1995, so the information was definitely out there if the founders did their research.
Beaner’s Coffee changed its name in 2008 and continued its expansion. The fact that it had a racist name certainly got the chain a lot of attention online, but none of it was good. In the end, it escaped relatively unharmed, although the rebrand definitely wasn’t cheap.
One of the brands that didn’t escape and definitely didn’t benefit from the bad PR is Yellow Fever. The LA-based micro-chain restaurant received a lot of negative attention from the start.
Not only is Yellow Fever an infectious disease that causes death or serious illness for 15% of sufferers, but it’s also slang for someone who is very attracted to people of Asian descent.
There was a massive backlash and the company got a lot of publicity, but all of it was bad and it eventually led to the closure of the chain.
Even on a practical level, you have to question why such a name would be chosen. Not only does it have negative connotations, but this is 2021, where everything you do is tied to an online presence.
If your customers are Googling you and finding your company amidst virus warnings, stories about epidemics, and CDC/WHO pages, then you clearly have the wrong name.
The owners said that their goal was to “reclaim the term”, which makes sense, but it clearly didn’t work and you don’t need to be a naming expert to understand why.
In their case, they didn’t make a mistake. They didn’t go the way of the Chevvy Nova myth and actually brought it on themselves.
The irony is that it would have probably worked if it had been handled correctly. The idea that they were reclaiming a term used in reference to Asian people was quite honorable and you could have almost seen it working in a different context.
But it also happened to be the name of a very deadly and highly infectious disease, and that ultimately hammered the final nail into the brand’s coffin.
I probably don’t need to tell you this but naming your company after a disease is never a good idea.
How To Find The Right Name
For many companies, the go-to method of finding a new name is to get a few employees around the table, pull out the whiteboard, and start thinking of some ideas. But there are some inherent flaws with this method:
- You are Limited: In a boardroom, you are limited to what’s in your head, which means you’re leaning more towards your preferences. You have nothing to stimulate you, nothing to spark your creativity.
- Imbalance: The extroverts will always boss the meeting when it comes to boardroom discussions that involve any kind of group input. This is something that I discussed during previous episodes on creating new products and conducting qualitative research. The introverts might have great ideas but if the extroverts are bossing the meeting, you won’t hear them.
- The Boss Rules: If the boss puts a name forward, the others may be too scared to contradict them. In SCRATCH below, we discuss some of the ways you can show your boss that the idea doesn’t work, but it’s still difficult to tell your boss that their ideas are bad.
With a boardroom brainstorm, you don’t always end up with the name that is perfect for the product or brand, you end up with the name that was met with the least resistance, the lowest common denominator.
It’s the “sure, why not?” as opposed to “that’s amazing!”
Alexandra argues that it is better to brainstorm on the internet, where you can tap into a world of information and ideas.
For example, if you’re trying to name a new hot sauce based on the idea that it’s hotter and thicker than anything else on the market, you can use Google Images to search for pictures that cover themes like, “Hot” and “Thick” and “Spicy”. In the boardroom, on the other hand, you’re limited to what you already have in your head.
As any writer, artist, and musician will tell you, creativity is rarely a forced process that just comes to you. That does happen, but if you’re limiting yourself to “Sit here. Write this. Create this” you’re going to be severely limited.
You need a spark. A catalyst. Once you have that catalyst, the creative process just does its thing and you go from there. Without it, you’re just desperately trying to get something out of nothing.
As an example, one of the tricks that authors use is something known as “writing prompts”. These prompts can be written phrases or they can be images.
For instance, the phrase might say, “Andrew stood at the crossroads; certain death one way, opportunity the other. He knew what he had to do”. It paints an image in your head, gives you something to build off, and fires that creativity.
It could also be a picture of someone standing at a crossroads, with moody imagery all around them. For a writer struggling with Blank Page Syndrome, that could be the trigger they need to get started.
When you’re naming a company, it’s important to adopt a similar mindset. The difference is that you’re not framing your creative process with moody images and writing prompts. You’re using imagery that is relevant to whatever you are doing.
In Alexandra’s words, “Everything that you need to brainstorm is right in front of you. You just need to know where to look.”
SMILE is the acronym that Alexandra uses to determine whether a brand name is strong—whether it’s right or wrong. It’s an important part of any brand naming strategy and stands for:
- Suggestive: You want your name to suggest something about what your product is or does. It can’t be meaningless or empty. Amazon, for instance, suggests that it is large and all-encompassing. That’s what Jeff Bezos was going for. If he had named it “Book Box” it would have been the opposite, indicating something small and limited, and likely necessitating a name change when Amazon stopped being all about books.
- Memorable: Your name has to be based on the familiar. That’s what makes it memorable, as noted during our Kryptonite reference.
- Imagery: People remember pictures better than letters or words. If you can tie your name into something that evokes imagery, it will last longer in their memories. Alexandra talks about an energy drink named Bloom as an example, as the idea was to create something that could help people to “bloom” in the afternoon, just like a flower.
- Legs: Your name needs to connect to a theme, as that will help to extend the mileage. Alexandra’s company, Eat My Words, uses a lot of food imagery to play off the name. Her fridge-bookshelf was visible throughout our discussion and she also talked about blogs and other aspects of her company that use food-based names. You’re giving your company more “legs” by associating it with a theme that connects throughout.
- Emotional: You want your name to make an emotional connection. For example, imagine you’re conducting a desperate search for a mosquito zapper on Amazon at 2 in the morning when the buzzing and biting is keeping you awake. If all you see are pages of products with generic names that don’t mean anything, you won’t create an emotional connection. But if you see something playfully branded “The Executioner”, your reaction is more positive, more emotional—that product knows what you need and it understands what you’re going through at that moment. In this sense, “emotional” doesn’t mean melodramatic. It doesn’t mean that you need to speak to that person’s deep emotional trauma. It just means that you need to form a relevant connection.
SCRATCH is another acronym that you can employ during your brand naming strategy. The difference is that it focuses on the things that you shouldn’t do and the signs that your chosen brand name just isn’t good enough.
- Spelling Issues: Your name shouldn’t look like a spelling mistake, as it means that you are constantly explaining it to people. You should be able to say, “My business is called Amazon” and not “My business is called Amazon, only we spell it without any vowels”. Your name shouldn’t need a clause!
- Copycat: The above example also falls foul of this rule as it copies an existing brand. Contrary to what you think, it doesn’t increase your chances of success by allowing you to capitalize on their fame. It just means that you end up blending into the background and getting lost in the noise.
- Restrictive: Does your brand limit future growth? As noted already, Amazon began by selling books and if it had opted for a name like “Book Forest” it would have had very limited opportunities for growth.
- Annoying: Does your name come across as forced, frustrating your customers as a result? It shouldn’t be so bad that they get frustrated when trying to remember it or spell it. You want them on your side, not against you.
- Tame: A tame name is one that is dull and uninspired; a name that does nothing to stand out from the crowd. The last thing that a brand wants is to blend in with the crowd.
- Curse of Knowledge: Are you basing your name on ancient Greek myths or specific cultural beliefs that have nothing to do with your target audience? A few people might find it clever but the majority will be confused.
- Hard to Pronounce: This one should go without saying because when you create a name that is hard to pronounce, people will pronounce it differently. You could have two different people talking about the same brand and not even realizing it because of the differences in pronunciation.
The SCRATCH principles can help you to determine whether your name is good or bad but you can also use it to shoot down the names proffered by stubborn partners or bosses. If they won’t listen to reason and insist that you don’t know what you’re talking about, show them the above.
What About The Domain Name?
According to Alexandra, the most common misconception about brand names is that you always need a full-match domain name. It certainly helps, but she suggests that it shouldn’t be your main goal as you could be sacrificing the quality of your brand name for the sake of a domain.
There are very few (if any) common word domain names left and the opportunities are getting slimmer all of the time. But there’s no harm in using a modifier to make sure you have a domain that sticks.
For a long time, Tesla was “Tesla Motors”, Facebook was “The Facebook”, Basecamp was “Basecamp HQ”, and Dropbox was “Get Dropbox”. These are some of the biggest brands in the world right now and they made things work without an exact match.
When they expanded, and more people began searching for them using that exact match domain, they were able to acquire it.
The heavy metal band Slipknot comes to mind, as well. For a long time, the Slipknot.com domain was tied to scouting/campground activities and the band was forced to use Slipknot1.com. Arguably, it wasn’t the best choice, but they were up-and-coming and it was over 20 years ago, so it’s forgivable.
As the brand grew, Slipknot1 became somewhat of an inside joke and every fan knew that was the real domain name. Even today, long after the original scouting domain has disappeared and been replaced by a placeholder, the band still uses Slipknot1.com.
As for alternative domain name extensions, you need to be very careful when using these.
You can make some creative domain names using extensions like .ly and .co But why would you want to?
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that you create a brand called “Bestly”. Rather than opting for the .com, you decide to go for Best.ly. It looks good in the URL bar and it’ll make for some interesting marketing as well, but the cons far outweigh the pros.
Firstly, it has very little SEO value, as I discussed when speaking with Neil Patel during an early episode of This Week With Sabir.
Just because you have Card.io doesn’t mean that you have a higher chance of ranking number 1 for “cardio” and related terms.
Google places very little emphasis (if any) on domain name keywords these days and it tends to value the .com extension more than any other.
It also means that you’re constantly telling people how to find you online.
If you tell a potential customer that your address is “Card.io”, they might assume that you mean “Card.io.com”, which means you’ll have to explain that .io is the domain extension.
Once you do that, you may find yourself explaining why you used it and what it means, before clarifying that you are actually in the United States.
And if there is no benefit for your overall marketing, no benefit for SEO and organic traffic, and a negative effect on word-of-mouth and customer loyalty, you have to ask yourself why you would do something like this in the first place.
Is It Too Late To Change A Brand Name?
It is never too late to change a brand name providing you are changing it for the right reasons, and not just because you have grown tired of it or want to try something new.
It’s important to remember that your business is going to be around for a long time and while it might feel like a major change now, it probably won’t mean much in the grand scheme of things.
Even if your brand is 10 years old, it could last for the next 100 or 200 years, so while that decade feels very long right now, it’ll mean nothing to your future customers.
Of course, the earlier you make these changes the easier they will be, because the bigger you are, the more expensive that name change will be.
Alexandra used the example of Canadian Tire, a famous Canadian store that sells much more than tires and is frequented by most people in the country. Everyone in Canada knows that Canadian Tire is more than just tires, and that’s fine. Sure, the main question on Google is “Why is Canadian Tire called Canadian Tire?” but no one is going to mistake it for just a tire store.
If they were to expand in the US, it would be a different story. They would need to rebrand and the rebrand would be astronomical.
You’re essentially pumping millions of dollars into ads that say, “we’re still here; this is still us” as opposed to spending that money on ads that say, “visit us for the first time” or “buy our new products”.
It’s a waste, and that’s why it’s important to look into your crystal ball and predict what you will do in the future and where your journey will take you.
The $100,000 Question
Your name will last longer and get used more than any other investment that you will make in your lifetime. Every employee and every piece of equipment, just like every product, will come and go, but your name will remain.
Every advertisement, every word-of-mouth discussion, and every time that you tell people about your brand, you’re using that name.
It’s one of the most important parts of your business and it’s essential that you get it right.
As noted above, there are several steps to a brand naming strategy and it might feel like a bit of a headache when you’re desperate to launch your business.
It is an exciting time and you don’t want to waste time on things that don’t really matter all that much, but your brand name definitely does matter and it’s very important that you get it right.
Alexandra created a test to help you determine if your name is good or bad; right or wrong. You can find that test here and use it on your own ideas.
More From Alexandra
If you want to learn more about naming and understand how to create the perfect brand or product name, take a look at Alexandra’s course. I also recommend this video on learning how to quickly create brand names.
In general, Alexandra’s website is full of information about naming and you can find a wealth of great tips and ideas there.
If you’re still struggling to create a name or you just don’t have the time, you can also hire Alexandra directly and she will do all of the hard work for you. Visit Eat My Words for more information.
About Alexandra Watkins
Chief Executive Boss Lady of naming agency Eat My Words, Alexandra Watkins is a leading and outspoken authority on brand names. Her breakthrough book, Hello, My Name is Awesome: How to Create Brand Names That Stick, is considered “the brand name bible,” and was named a Top 10 Marketing Book by Inc. Magazine.
Since 2005, Alexandra and her firm have created love-at-first sight brand names for clients from Amazon to Xerox. Her personal name hall of fame includes the Neato robotic vacuum, Smitten Ice Cream, Spanish language school Gringo Lingo, frozen yogurt franchise Spoon Me, and the Church of Cupcakes.
In her free time, Alexandra creates imaginative succulent arrangements in unexpected containers she finds by scouring her local flea market in San Diego. She lives by the beach in her Barbie Dream House and works out of her pool house. office, where she has a view of a colorful surfboard fence, tropical tiki bar, and her 3 giant pink flamingo pool floats, Maui, Wowie, and Howie. Find Alexandra on the Web/Social here: