All About Branding

April 2, 2003

Naming Exposed

The most common approaches to naming entail describing your business in the name or taking an 'empty vessel' approach. Naming specialist Igor (and the people behind the acclaimed Snark Hunting naming & branding newsletter) highlight the flaws of these naming strategies and explain the fundamentals behind the best evocative names, providing many useful tips in the process.


For many companies, the process of naming and branding is almost an afterthought: the founder names the company, the first products are descriptively named, and branding means marketing, which means, for the most part, advertising. The assumption is that the names aren't that important, that the number of dollars you put into advertising is what will get you noticed.

This approach may have worked fine in decades past, but it is increasingly anemic in today's saturated marketplace. There are simply too many companies and products out there for anyone to remember, so only the ones with the most memorable names stand a chance. And that's true whether you invest millions into advertising or nothing at all. Advertising can get you seen; it cannot, however, guarantee that you will be remembered.

So, if naming has become that important to modern business, how do you go about approaching the process in the right way, and why have so many companies dropped the ball when it comes to naming? Let's take a deeper look.

Descriptive Names

An important first step when naming a business, product or service is to figure out just what it is that your new name should be doing for you. The most common decision is that a name should explain to the world what business you are in or what your product does. Intuition dictates that this will save you the time and money of explanation, which actually turns out not to be true. Why not?

Let's consider the arena of online bookstores. Here are a few of their names:

  • 1bookstreet
  • A1Books
  • allbooks4less
  • AllBookstores
  • alotofbooks
  • BestBookBuys
  • BookCloseOuts
  • Bookland
  • BookNetUSA
  • BookPool
  • BooksAMillion
  • BookSense
  • books-forsale
  • BooksNow
  • Bookspot
  • Bookwire
  • CheapyBook
  • Classbook
  • CoolBooks
  • Ebooks
  • eCampus
  • eSuccessBooks
  • gobookshopping
  • HalfPriceBooks
  • nwbooks
  • Testbooks
  • Textbooksatcost
  • Testbooksource
  • Textbookx
  • TheBookPeople
  • TrueBooks
  • VarsityBooks

When Jeff Bezos founded Amazon, it was billed as an "online bookstore" just like all of the above, and since it was one of the first such companies, there was even more reason to go with a descriptive name, right? Otherwise, how would anybody know what the business was about?

Jeff Bezos knew that someday his company might want to sell more than just books, and that someday it might even have an offline, not just online, presence. In short, he understood that the name should be bigger than just "books" or "online," and further it needed to distance itself from all the competitors who would surely follow. He needed a name that could become a powerful brand. In "Amazon," he found just such a name, and the list above confirms that the competition came in droves, though a key difference is that they are forever relegated by their names to selling only books.

The notion of describing your business in the name assumes that the name will exist at some point without contextual support, which, when you think about it, is impossible. The name will appear on a website, a storefront, in a news article or press release, on a business card, on the product itself, in advertisements, or, at its most naked, in a conversation.

There is simply no imaginable circumstance in which a name will have to explain itself. This is fortunate, because having a descriptive name is actually a counterproductive marketing move which requires an enormous amount of effort to overcome. A descriptive naming strategy overlooks the fact that the whole point of marketing is to separate yourself from the pack. It actually works against you, causing you to fade into the background, indistinguishable from the bulk of your competitors. Which brand are you more likely to remember, Amazon or one from the list above? Where are you more likely to go online to buy a book?

A naming project can quickly run aground if the names being considered are judged without the context of a clear positioning platform, a thorough competitive analysis, and an intimate understanding of how names work and what they can do.

Any one of the intuitive concerns below could have been enough to keep these powerful names from ever seeing the light of day, if those making the decisions had forgotten that names don't exist in a vacuum:

Virgin Airlines

  • Says "we're new at this"
  • Public wants airlines to be experienced, safe and professional
  • Investors won't take us seriously
  • Religious people will be offended


  • Tiny, creepy-crawly bug
  • Not macho enough - easy to squash
  • Why not "bull" or "workhorse"?
  • Destroys trees, crops, responsible for famine

Banana Republic

  • Derogatory cultural slur
  • You'll be picketed by people from small, hot countries


  • Yahoo!! It's Mountain Dew!
  • Yoohoo! It's a chocolate drink in a can!
  • Nobody will take stock quotes and world news seriously from a bunch of "Yahoos"


  • Unscientific
  • Unreliable
  • Only foretold death and destruction
  • Only fools put their faith in an Oracle
  • Sounds like "orifice" – people will make fun of us

The Gap

  • Means something is missing
  • The Generation Gap is a bad thing - we want to sell clothes to all generations
  • In need of repair
  • Incomplete
  • Negative


  • A slow, ugly, and dangerous fish – slow, ugly and dangerous are the last qualities we want to associate with our fast, powerful, sexy sports car
  • The "bottom feeding fish" part isn't helping either

Fannie Mae / Freddie Mac

  • I don't want hillbilly residents of Dogpatch handling my finances.
  • They don't sound serious, and this is about a very serious matter.

Morpheme Addiction

As you can well imagine, this kind of negative deconstruction is at the root of why committees have difficulty agreeing on a non-descriptive name that has any meaning. It's also what gave birth to the second major school of bad naming: the "unique empty vessel" that "can become whatever you want." Here are several truly empty morphemic constructions:

Acquient, Agilent, Alliant, Aquent, Aspirient, Aviant, Axent, Axient, Bizient, Candescent, Cendant, Cerent, Chordiant, Clarent, Comergent, Conexant, Consilient, Cotelligent, Equant, Ixtant, Livent, Luminant, Mergent, Mirant, Navigant, Naviant, Noviant, Novient, Omnient, Ravisent, Sapient, Scient, Sequant, Spirent, Taligent, Teligent, Thrivent, Versant, Versent, Viant, Vitalent and Vivient

As with overly descriptive names, these monikers are not part of an elegant solution, they are the seeds of a branding nightmare. This type of name is arrived at because of the lust for a domain name, consensus building, and as a shortcut to trademark approval. They are the kind of names most loved by trademark attorneys, but few others. At some point in the process marketing left the room, and nobody seemed to notice. And while they may technically be unique, it's at the level of a snowflake in a snow bank.

Evocative Names

The third type of name is the evocative name. These include the aforementioned Amazon, Apple, Stingray, Oracle, Virgin, Yahoo, etc. While everyone respects evocative naming when done well, most corporations don't go down this road because it's the toughest to understand and execute.

On a very fundamental level, here are the basic ingredients of the best evocative names:


A competitive analysis is an essential first step. How are your competitors positioning themselves? What types of names are common among them? Are they all projecting a similar attitude? Do their similarities offer you a huge opportunity to stand out from the crowd?

Apple needed to distance itself from the cold, unapproachable, complicated imagery created by the other computer companies at the time who had names like IBM, NEC, DEC, ADPAC, Cincom, Dylakor, Input, Integral Systems, Sperry Rand, SAP, PSDI, Syncsort, and Tesseract.

They needed to reverse the entrenched view of computers in order to get people to use them at home. They were looking for a name that was not like a traditional computer company, and supported a positioning strategy that was to be perceived as simple, warm, human, approachable and different.


The next step is to carefully define your positioning. The idea is to position yourself in a way that rings true in a fresh way -- that cuts through all of the noise out there. The goal is to have your audience personalize the experience of your brand, to make an emotional connection with it, and ultimately to take you in. To redefine and own the territory.

One of most important things that the best of the best brands accomplish is to be thought of as greater than the goods and services offered, to create an aspiration. Nike's "Just Do It' helps them rise above selling sneakers. Apple's "Think Different" is bigger than computers. Fannie Mae's "We're in the American Dream Business" elevates them from mere mortgage brokers.

On a product level, Velveeta, Slinky, Mustang, Snapple, etc. are tapping into something outside of the narrow definition of what it is they do, allowing the consumer to make the connection, to personalize the experience. This type of active engagement created by playing off of images that everyone is already carrying around in their heads is an essential ingredient in creating a great name.

Qualities of Powerful Names

Once you have a clear idea of the brand positioning for your company or product, the name you pick should contain as many of the following qualities as possible. The more of them that are present, the more powerful the name:


  • A name that people will talk about.
  • A name that works its way through the world on its own.
  • A name that's a story in itself, whether it's at the local bar, on the job, or on CNBC.


  • What does the name suggest?
  • Does it make you feel good?
  • Does it make you smile?
  • Does it lock into your brain?
  • Does it make you want to know more?


  • How does the name physically look and sound?
  • How does it roll off the tongue?
  • How much internal electricity does it have?
  • How does it sound the millionth time?
  • Will people remember it?


  • Does the name have attitude?
  • Does it exude qualities like confidence, mystery, presence, warmth, and a sense of humor?
  • Is it provocative, engaging?
  • Is it a tough act to follow?


  • Is the name a constant source of inspiration for advertising and marketing?
  • Does it have "legs"?
  • Does it work on a lot of different levels?

The key is to step outside the box that the industry -- any industry -- has drawn for itself, and to do it in a fresh way that hits home with the audience. To accomplish this, it is necessary to think about names in this fashion:


  • Positioning: different, confident, exciting, alive human, provocative, fun. The innovative name forces people to create a separate box in their head to put it in.
  • Qualities: Self-propelling, Connects Emotionally, Personality, Deep Well.


  • Positioning: different, confident, superhuman, evocative, powerful, forward thinking.
  • Qualities: Self-propelling, Connects Emotionally, Personality, Deep Well.

As an exercise, go back and see how the other names deconstructed above -- Apple, Caterpillar, Banana Republic, Yahoo!, The Gap, Stingray, and Fannie Mae / Freddie Mac -- stand up when held to these high standards. These are the qualities that separate a potent, evocative name from a useless one that is built without a considered positioning platform, such as BlueMartini or Razorfish. Random names like these disallow audience engagement, because there are no pathways between the image and the product, and no room for connections to be made.

Decision Making

Clearly, you are not just choosing a name, you are also making a number of important decisions in order to find the pitch-perfect tone for your brand, for your voice in the world.

Most corporations have no problem delegating marketing and advertising issues to the marketing department, but when naming is involved, especially naming the company itself or key products, suddenly everyone wants to have a say in the process, and it can quickly become politically and emotionally charged. Therefore, it is essential that you keep the number of people involved in a naming project to a minimum, that they have real authority, and that they all understand the ideas outlined above.


Steve Manning and Jay Jurisich co-founded San Francisco-based Igor, a maverick naming and branding agency focused on bringing myth and meaning back into company and product names. They also publish the influential Snark Hunting blog about naming and branding in popular culture.

Further reading: