Steve Jobs was clearly not one for following rules. In his biography of Jobs, Walter Isaacson writes that Jobs named his company Apple in the late 1970s because he was frequenting an apple orchard around the time.
Regardless, Apple is an incredible name that brilliantly represents the business vision and carries a deep symbolic meaning—the human experience.
Naming a business today, however, can be more complex, considering the large volume of businesses and taking into account that your name will be noticed over and over again on social media. It's no surprise that everyone wants a two-syllable, modern, spunky name that instantly makes an impression. And though that's not a wrong strategy, naming rules can be a bit overrated. For instance, Accenture or Salesforce are just as impressive as Slack or Zoom—for reasons I will explain later.
As someone who has been a part of thousands of naming projects, I am going to introduce you to five brand naming rules that you can bend or break, yet still come up with a brand name that's simply magical.
As a branding geek, I have worked one-on-one with over 500 companies in the last few years. Some of them come to me with the prerequisite "I have to have a short name."
Honestly, there's nothing wrong with a short name. In fact, it does come packed with great value; it can be memorable, modern, etc. But it's problematic if you look at it as a strict rule rather than what it helps your brand achieve, and whether it's feasible for you.
For example, companies that choose short English-word names (Stripe, Apple, Monday, etc.) often have sizable marketing budgets and can afford the premium domain names and URLs needed for it. But not all small businesses can.
Furthermore, it's a misconception that a longer business name makes you look like a small business. Take Berkshire Hathaway, for example. The name is long, epic, and representative of an investment behemoth with a market cap of over $700 billion as of April 2022. Imagine such a legendary conglomerate with a short and punchy name. It probably doesn't sit too well.
Hence, the brevity of the name should be in sync with the type of business, the brand, and its customers.
Recently, I worked with a large company in the B2B technology sector for a naming project. After initially seeking an agency's expertise, the company came to us and said it had to have a name along the lines of "Alexa." The company's rationale was that it's the top fad in naming, and it wanted to capitalize on it.
But when we talked about the brand and the product, it turned out to be an extremely high-end brand that was uber expensive and tech-rich. Names such as Alexa and Siri are more household-level, whereas we were dealing with an enterprise-level tech solution.
Eventually, we went in the diametrically opposite direction with a name that was prestigious, eminent, and, ultimately, successful. (Think along the lines of Accenture—modern, classy, distinct from some of its competition, and high-quality). Getting there, however, required that we deeply understand the brand.
Another popular naming rule is that the name must describe the product or service. Examples are QuickPay, Salesforce, DocuSign, etc. No doubt those brands did a spectacular job at choosing a pragmatic name. But that doesn't always need to be the case.
Some companies that swayed the other way are Slack, Monday, and Apple; yet, they hit the nail on the head. Those names in no way describe what the brands do, but they are still highly compelling.
Slack, in fact, is an extreme outlier for choosing a name that denotes the opposite of what it does—yet it works wonderfully. And Mailchimp, despite being a B2B company, chose a fun and somewhat cute name.
It's also vital to understand that you can't have a pragmatic, say-it-as-it-is name today unless you do something unique. Realtors often come in and say, "I need a practical name that immediately says what I do." But when we ask them what's distinctive about what they do, the answer is, "I sell homes, and people can trust me, so I want a name that reflects these values." Guess what? That's every realtor on every block.
Salesforce came in relatively early in the CRM space and was able to get a practical, powerful, yet simple name referring to empowering sales teams. Some of the newer platforms in the space, however, had to look at more outside-the-box names such as Monday and Intercom. Another example is QuickPay: a highly pragmatic name because it entered the payment space fairly early, but today similar companies are using more brandable options such as Bolt and Stripe.
Naming experts will often tell you to choose an evocative name that stirs up instant emotion: honesty, joy, trust, etc. Examples are Triumph Motors or United Technologies.
Yet, it's not a one-size-fits-all approach. Do you want your brand to evoke an emotion if you are a complex technology company or an investment banking solution? A hefty name such as Goldman Sachs, for example, perfectly serves its purpose and would not be as effective if it were a brand name that made you feel joy.
A common naming rule and advice from branding experts is that your brand name be easy to say and, hence, easy to remember. The easiest way to do so is to choose an English name or phrase that is widely known. Examples are Amazon, Mailchimp, HubSpot, etc.
I do advocate this rule and believe that it shouldn't be broken, but it also doesn't apply to all brands or industries. One of the biggest outliers is cosmetics and luxury clothing. An elegant, often foreign name is associated with opulence. Classic examples include Burberry, Gucci, Estée Lauder, Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent, and many more. Hence, this rule isn't the sole touchstone of a successful brand name.
Many brand-naming rules are totally valid and viable, yet none is the holy grail. That's because each brand's purpose, identity, and target audience are different from other brands'.
A short name will help you sound avant-garde. A pragmatic name will get to the point fast, without large marketing spend. An evocative name will play on imagination. Yet, each of those still has its downfalls. Expedia is a modern name, but it's not practical or emotional. Sharpie is a short and snazzy name, but it doesn't stir up emotion or clearly say what it does.
So, a surefire way for your brand name to succeed is to do the groundwork behind understanding the brand itself, instead of simply following a rule.
'Name That Brand': Naming Expert Mike Pile on Marketing Smarts [Podcast]
Six Naming Trends to Help Your Brand or Product Stand Out