Naming a Company, Service, Product

You’re naming a company, service, or product. You’ve assembled a great creative team, analyzed competitors’ names to clarify market positioning, and determined an overall brand structure to accommodate future growth. You’ve sketched out a URL strategy, identified 7 to 10 brand attributes to focus the brainstorming, and secured a trademark attorney.

You’ve also agreed — hard as it may be — to let go of your working or internal name. As familiar as that name is, you know it isn’t appropriate for a wider audience of customers, prospects, and investors.

Before you take the plunge into the exciting, always choppy waters of naming, there’s one last step. Make sure you understand the categories of names available to you — and the advantages and disadvantages of each. Naming, like any creative endeavor, isn’t a terribly tidy process, but you can give it structure and discipline, if you decide, up front, which categories of names are right for your brand.

Descriptive names

These are names that describe a company, service, or product in a straightforward or literal manner. Examples: Holiday Inn, General Mills, Precision Auto, Foot Locker, Burger King, Best Buy, Pizza Hut, Two Men and a Truck.

The main advantage of descriptive names is that they make sense, immediately, to their intended audiences, whether internal stakeholders or external customers, prospects or investors. Because descriptive names require little explanation, they are easy to approve as part of a naming initiative, especially in organizations with multiple decision makers or siloed leadership.

But descriptive names have their drawbacks: They may already be in use in other market segments or industries; they may not differentiate a company, service, or product; and they may not seem particularly fresh or innovative. Perhaps the most notable drawback is that they are harder to trademark, what attorneys call “weak,” and they can be difficult to secure as URLs.

Metaphorical names

Metaphorical names rely on metaphor, borrowing meaning from one context and applying it to another. Examples: Amazon, Cracker Jack, Midas, Gateway, Touchstone, Dove, Firefox, Greyhound, Jaguar.

Metaphorical names offer numerous advantages: They are fresh, creative, and often quite memorable. Metaphorical names can also be wonderfully evocative, capturing an essence, evoking a sensation, signifying a feeling. It’s natural to create a story that explains the genesis of a metaphorical name, and stories can be strong contributors to any marketing effort.

Because of their uniqueness, metaphorical names are easier to trademark, and they have the potential to become dominant in an industry.

But the chief advantage of a metaphorical name — creativity — is also its drawback. It takes work, time, and inspiration to create these names. And many organizations have trouble approving a name that is not wholly rational or totally logical, even despite appropriateness.

Arbitrary names

Arbitrary names are seemingly unrelated to the company, product, or service they describe. Examples: Apple, Camel, Beefeater, Penguin, Blu Dot.

Arbitrary names can be easier to trademark; attorneys call them “strong.” But simply because they are strong, does not mean they have corresponding URLs. Take, for example, the name “pear.” Of course, is unavailable, but if you were to add a noun representing the product line or service that the arbitrary name “pear” is to represent, you might be able to secure the URL. For example, or are both available. (At least of this writing.)

A strong creative team can generate numerous arbitrary names that just might make sense for your brand. But be forewarned. Arbitrary names have a tough time getting approved in a logical or highly literal organization, no matter how happy they make the legal department. If you do choose an arbitrary name, over time and with consistent, hard-hitting marketing, it will begin to feel less arbitrary and more purposeful.

Composite names

Composite names are coined names created from prefixes, suffixes, or parts of words. Examples: Medtronic, Microsoft, SciMed, Gatorade, Snapple.

Some of these names are also called portmanteau words. Classic portmanteau words include smog, brunch, motel.

Advantages? Composite names usually make sense; they communicate brand attributes or product features. Because they’re unique, they’re easier to trademark and to create URLs for.

Drawbacks? They’re hard to create. Like invented names, they have to follow pronunciation and spelling rules to make sense. Case in point: Take two attributes of your brand. Snip those attributes into smaller components, called morphemes. Mash the morphemes together. Not so easy, is it?

Invented names

Invented names are just that: invented, newly created, or coined. You know these now-familiar examples: Exxon, Xerox, Kodak, Dasani, Noxzema, Teflon, Sanka.

Invented names make attorneys happy because they are easier to trademark. They make marketers happy because they offer more options for unique URLs. And they make company founders and product developers happy because they signal something entirely new, potentially groundbreaking, uniquely distinctive. They are, in essence, a tabula rasa.

But sometimes invented names go too far. Take Etelos, Iyogi, or Qoop. (Tip of the hat to New York Times columnist David Pogue for these gems, which he discusses in his post Seussical-Sounding Web Site Names.) What do they mean? How do you pronounce them? How do you remember them? Names like this require significant marketing muscle to achieve the stature of Zantac or Claritin or Paxil. (Yes, drug names are typically invented names.)

Moreover, it takes talent and time to create strong, interesting invented names that follow the phonetic and orthographic rules of English. Here’s a quick test for an invented name: If you see it, can you say it? If you hear it, can you spell it?

What’s your naming goal?

How do you choose a company name? How do you name a new product? Start with the type of name: Descriptive, Metaphorical, Arbitrary, Composite, or Invented. Some of these categories overlap, and some names defy any categorization. The point is this: There are advantages and drawbacks to any name — and any category of names. The key lies in determining which category best aligns with your marketing objectives.

If securing a URL is essential, invented names probably offer the best option. If creativity is paramount, consider metaphorical or arbitrary names. By focusing your creative team up front, you’ll reach your naming goal faster and build greater consensus for this critical marketing decision.