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Iconic brand names like Tesla, Starbucks, and Coca-Cola seem to stand out among the competition, carrying such incredible meaning and history. You only have to hear the name and you immediately know what they’re about.
It’s easy to assume that there is some secret formula for producing a brand name that will stand the test of time. So many of us have spent countless hours at the drawing board, pouring over iterations and variations of names, and we’re just waiting for the perfect one to jump out at us.
The truth is there isn’t any secret. There are no magic steps, no perfect formulas, and no easy blueprint to follow.
Today we’ll be talking about what’s in a name and some principles to keep in mind while deciding the name of your brand.
Highlights, Takeaways, Quick Wins
- Your brand name is what you put into it.
- A name means nothing on its own—it represents something.
- Your brand name isn’t going to have instant association—it’s going to take a lot of time for people to build those associations.
- Don’t worry about your brand name so much that it’s crippling.
- When choosing a brand name, start with your mission, values, and purpose.
- People aren’t going to connect with your brand because of what it’s called; they’re going to connect with it because of what it means.
- A brand name is just an entry point.
- Don’t get so caught up in the naming that you forget to emphasize what the name represents.
- Name your brand and then breathe life into that name.
- Don’t be generic in the name you choose for the sake of a small audience.
- 02:26 Cory: This is pretty much the number one question I get asked in response to my newsletters, the welcome email, or anything like that. When people sign up at BehindtheBrand.com to get access to the free guide and to receive weekly articles on building your brand, I include a question at the very beginning when they get the guide that says, “What’s your biggest struggle with building your brand?” All the time, I get emails saying, “I don’t know what to name my company/business/startup/band… I don’t know what to do.”
- 03:07 I’ve even had people say, “Do you have any suggestions for me?” I don’t really know their thing! It’s a hard subject for a lot of people, because it has so much to do with identity. My name is Cory, your name is Kyle, and there is so much meaning wrapped up in those names. We talk about naming a company or a business, but this also applies when you’re releasing a new product, line, or sub-brand. What should we name those things? Kyle and I want to take the lid off the pot and look at what’s in a name and how much emphasis to put on a name.
What Is a Name?
- 04:30 Kyle: This is a tough subject. Your first inclination is to have something that has this really deep meaning, something everyone will connect with and will instantly communicate what you’re trying to do. There’s a lot of pride in it, because you’re naming this thing you’ve created. It could potentially be around a long time, maybe even longer than you’ll be around, and that’s a big responsibility. That’s where people get really hung up. They want to find a name everyone will understand and connect with, and they hope it will end up being the next YouTube or Google of the world so people know that brand name.
Spoiler alert: a brand name is what you put into it.
- 05:47 Cory: Kyle and I love the concept that a brand is a personality (Related: e004 Understanding Brand as Personality and Why It Matters). You can apply so many aspects of personhood to a brand you’re creating. People have names. My name is Cory. I have a daughter named Rylynn. My wife’s name is Kristiana. I have a buddy named Andrew and another friend named Jeff. Everyone in the world has a name, unless you’re a spy and you have a number. If I just look at the word Cory, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but because of who I am, meaning is applied.
- 06:33 We inject our own meaning into a name, and that’s the point of identity. We know who we are personally, and we want other people to know us for who we are. Different things can be applied to that name. Some people might look at my name and think, “That guy’s really reliable, he works in branding, he’s a Californian,” or whatever. Other people might say, “I knew Cory in high school, and he was a jerk. He didn’t treat me well.” Different meanings can be applied to the name.
A name represents something—it means nothing on its own.
- 07:21 A name is just a name. A name is a word. It doesn’t have any meaning, except for what we apply to it. I want to give a couple of examples of brand names that are well known and think about where the meaning for those names came from. When I hear the word YouTube, what do I think of? What does it make me feel? That’s the point of a brand. A lot of people get caught up in the idea of having the perfect name, but you could have something random, generic, or a smattering of letters, and it would mean something to somebody as long as you put in the work to create that association.
- 08:09 Kyle: Look at words that are added to the dictionary over time. New words are added every year. “Selfie” didn’t mean anything until people started applying it to taking a picture of yourself. On it’s own, if you take that word out of context and you don’t show what it applies to or attach it to something, that word has no meaning. There are inside words that Cory and I have because of autocorrect, and no one knows what those mean except for us and a few other people. Eventually, if that were to perpetuate itself, that could become a word that most people use and that they associate with something specific.
- 09:09 You can come up with things all the time, new ideas that become something because of what you put into them. It’s easy to see when you think of a brand as a whole, and we’ve talked about that a lot on this show. Your brand perception, the equity you build, the people you have inside your company, and the clients you take on—we’ve discussed all of these things, and they are so much easier to grasp than the name. The name is just there at the forefront, so it feels like the most important thing when you’re starting.
Obvious & Not So Obvious Brand Names
- 10:08 Cory: I mentioned YouTube earlier, and this is sort of an obvious name. There’s some intentionality there of “you,” the company referring to you as a person, and then “tube,” slang for TV. This is you on TV. There’s a little bit of obviousness there. If I knew nothing about the reference to TV, I might think, “I’m going inside of a tube. What does this mean?” Now, we equate it with the second largest search engine on the internet. It’s video, it’s streaming, content, and consumption. Another example is Energizer.
- 10:50 I don’t know the full reach of Energizer, but they’re a battery creating company. I don’t know how far they go around the world. I guess they’re fairly global. With Energizer, I hear “energy,” and there’s something that connects to that word. Looking at their product, I know that Energizer stands for battery. Kyle had a really good one yesterday.
- 11:19 Kyle: Bank of America.
- 11:21 Cory: How much more obvious can you get? That’s the most obvious name I think I could ever think of. A couple others: Band-Aid, Scotch Tape, and a cinema chain that we have here in California called Galaxy Cinemas. You think, “Oh, that’s a cool name they decided to throw in front of ‘cinema,’ so I know it’s a movie theater.” As referenced in previous podcasts, we’ve got Snazzy McJeans For Teens, which is one of our Invisible Details brands. Another super obvious one is Kevin’s Plumbing. Kevin owns a plumbing company, and he will come plumb your house.
- 12:09 Those are obvious names, ones where you can kind of get an idea for what this brand is going to bring and what it represents just by looking at the name. That’s true of some more than others, but these are a little bit more obvious.
- 12:28 Kyle: In the chat, Austin said, “My sister-in-law works for Bank of America in London.” That’s what happens when you name something to be local, not global.
- 12:56 Cory: These still may retain meaning to us. Kyle, can you read a couple of these?
- 13:08 Kyle: One of them was the internet streaming service Hulu, which we found out had multiple meanings across various languages. Ugmonk is another example, which is a brand that Jeff Sheldon owns. He’s a Community member. Starbucks, Coca-Cola…
- 13:46 Cory: Speaking of Starbucks, Kyle knew the origin of Starbucks and I didn’t. Kyle, what is the origin of the name Starbucks?
- 13:53 Kyle: I don’t know why they associate this with coffee, necessarily, so I don’t know the origin of how they connect, but I know that it was named after Captain Ahab’s first mate in Moby Dick. His name was Starbuck. That’s why their logo is a mermaid, to illustrate the sea. I’m sure there’s more meaning behind that, but that’s where it came from.
- 14:27 Cory: I did a quick Google search for Hulu’s name, and it literally means “gourd” in a Chinese proverb, as a “holder of precious things.” It doesn’t necessarily mean streaming service, but now we’ve equated video streaming service and various other feelings toward this name Hulu. I don’t speak Chinese, so I would never have known that a “hulu” was a holder of precious things.
- 15:00 Kyle: A few others are Amazon, Instagram, Microsoft, Dribbble, Apple, and Albertsons.
- 15:14 Cory: Look at these words. It’s 2016, so ten years ago, before the iPhone was announced in 2007 and began this whole smartphone race to the top, if you would have said, “I have an Instagram,” I would have had no idea what that meant. I don’t even know what a gram is. What is a gram? You look at that and think, insta-gram, you can kind of see “instant,” but it’s not a word. It was created for this brand, they applied it to this app, and now people are on Instagram. It’s known. It’s a global phenomenon.
- 16:07 Amazon is the name of a rainforest down in South America. Am I going to be purchasing something from the Amazon? No, we’re talking about something else—shopping, online retail, global reach. You can look into the way they came up with that name, and it’s fascinating, although we don’t need to get into it.
Some business names don’t mean anything on their own, and in some cases, they mean something else.
- 17:20 An apple is something you eat, not a tech company that you buy from. Albertsons… is that the son of Albert? Because these companies have built up brands, stories, and something that invites other people in, now meaning has been applied to the name.
- 17:44 Kyle: Some of these brands have no meaning to somebody even now. For example, there may be a lot of people who don’t know what Dribbble is. It’s a sharing site for designers, so it’s very niche. Not everybody knows that. When I mention Dribbble, the first thing people think, at least in the US, is basketball. When you bounce the ball, you’re dribbling it. That’s what they associate the name with, but for me, it has a much different meaning than it does for somebody who’s a fan of basketball. Some of these names don’t quite have full association yet. Your brand name isn’t going to have instant association—it’s going to take a lot of time. It may not ever happen for everybody.
How Important Is a Name?
- 18:37 Cory: It depends on your target audience. It depends on who you’re trying to reach. I was thinking this, too, but Daniela in the chat room said, “When I think Dribbble, I think infants.” You know, when there’s a little bit of dribble coming out of your baby’s mouth? I’m about to get a lot of that since my wife is about to have our second baby. Everyone has different associations, so you need to work to build up the right kind of association with your brand name. You’re asking, “What am I supposed to name my brand?”
People worry about their brand name far too much and it can be crippling.
- 19:18 It cripples the creative process, because you’re trying to figure out the perfect name that everyone’s going to remember in 100 years instead of worrying about what it’s going to represent and building that up. That said, there’s a lot to be said for people who say, “We have this story and this meaning, and we want to make sure it’s represented well. Let’s gather in a room, talk through options, and come up with the best one.” There can be great creativity there.
- 19:46 Earlier on, Pam said, “I’ve had the opportunity to name several brands and companies in the past, when I was part of a design agency, and it’s an exhilarating experience for sure. The technique we used included a large room, huge presentation papers stuck to the walls, markers and highlighters, crazy thought-provoking questions, a facilitator with high energy, and hours of energy until the name emerged. Do you have ideas on how to do something like this on a smaller scale but still come out with something amazing?” The smaller scale is this.
When choosing a brand name, start with your mission, your values, and your purpose.
- 20:29 Before anything else happens, you need to have those things sorted out (Related: e002 Values, Mission, and Purpose). Figure out what you want whatever name you’re going to have to represent. Then, you also need to think of your target audience. How are they going to resonate with the name you’ve created? Move on from there. I don’t believe that the hours of brainstorming are necessary. That’s my opinion, because I believe that what the name represents is 1,000 times more important than the name.
Every Name Has a Story
- 21:06 Kyle: There should be some sort of story behind your name. For example, they were going to name Google as in the number “googol,” but when the guy wrote it down, he didn’t know how to spell it. He wrote “google,” which means nothing as a word. They intended it to mean this very large number, which would represent how many search results they could bring to people and the fact that it’s an “infinite” search engine. The name itself, though, doesn’t mean anything, and they’re fine with that. They know the origin story and they have this thing to share, but it’s not like they spent hundreds of hours coming up with this name. The story is fairly short. They had an idea in mind, they wrote it down wrong, and that ended up being the name.
- 22:23 Cory: There are so many examples of that. Chris brings up something very true, which is that a lot of names that have been mentioned and a lot of brand names are either plays on existing terms or, like Kyle said, they have some sort of story. eBay was originally going to be called Echo Bay, because the founder realized that there was a place for an auction website and he wanted it to be alled Echo Bay, but that domain was already taken. He shortened it to eBay, but now we recognize that eBay just means online auction, a place to buy new and used goods.
- 23:07 Another example is Etsy. A lot of people like the online, DIY, handmade style of Etsy. The founder of Etsy wanted a nonsense word to build the brand from scratch. That’s the story. He wanted it to be a nothing word, and he heard the Italian word Etsy, which means, “Oh yes,” and in Latin, it means, “And if.” He liked the way it sounded, so he decided to use it. There is always going to be some sort of story. Kyle mentioned Ugmonk earlier, and Jeff Sheldon is a good friend of ours. No one knows the origin of Ugmonk, and it has this mystery around it. People always ask what it means, and he says, “Maybe someday I’ll tell you,” but he never will. There is always going to be some sort of story, but you don’t have to sit there for three years trying to come up with the perfect brand name.
- 24:18 Kyle: Our entire priority list can change based on the name. Take a step back and think about what’s really important for a company, and the name is way down on the priority list. Like Cory said, you can pick a nonsense name, and in some ways, it’s a little bit more poetic. You’re breathing life into a word that has little to no meaning, and you’re making your brand mean something. It doesn’t have to mean something from the start.
People aren’t going to connect with your brand because of what it’s called; they’re going to connect with it because of what it means.
- 24:57 That’s the important part. People hiring Kevin’s Plumbing don’t know Kevin. They know that there is plumbing and that’s it. If he has his values in place, he works only with specific, higher-tier clients, or some form of curation for who he’s serving, his business will grow large and people will associate Kevin’s Plumbing with being a really premium brand.
A Name Is an Entry Point
- 25:46 Cory: The other interesting part about a name is that it’s very similar to a logo or other forms of visual identity in that it’s the entry point. A benefit to having something like Kevin’s Plumbing is that it seems more personal because Kevin is a dude. If it was Epic Destructo Planetary Plumbing, I may not trust that brand. You have these two brand names, and one is more personable than the other. Kevin’s Plumbing sounds friendlier. You can tailor the name to evoke a certain feeling from people, but it’s just the entry point. It’s people walking through the door and shaking your hand, the entry point to something deeper.
- 26:52 Kyle: The feeling, the message you’re wanting to get across, that’s the important part. How do you want someone to feel when they hear your brand’s name? That opens a lot of doors, and that’s one of the big takeaways form this. My wife and I watch an episode of something every night, and one of the shows we watch is called The Great Food Truck Race. It’s about these food trucks competing to be the best food truck. One of them was named something like Metal Burgers, and it looked like a 1980’s themed hair metal band truck. They served burgers out of it. For someone who wants to serve something fresh, like vegan hamburgers, that truck and that name would not apply to them.
- 28:17 The way they themed things and presented themselves, you could tell that their target audience was very male-driven. It totally depends on the feeling you want people to have. Even the crowd that they drew was definitely into that metal music theme. It’s interesting to think about that aspect of names.
- 28:51 Cory: People love their favorite brands because of what they do, not because of what they’re named. I didn’t fall in love with Kristiana because I saw her name. I looked at her name and I said, “That’s hard to spell. What is this name? Did they mess it up?” I fell in love with her because of who she is, the way she made me feel, and the way we connected.
You love something because of everything that’s behind the name, so make the emphasis of your brand name about building meaning, relationship, and story.
- 29:42 The name is just the entry point, that’s it.
Do Your Research
- 29:47 It’s very important to do your research—don’t use a copyrighted name. Just this last week, this new company released a prototype visual for a semi truck that’s all electric. The company is called Nikola. Does that sound like any other electric vehicle company that we know of? Maybe Tesla? They’re probably going to run into a lot of strife in that. There have already been a bunch of articles saying, “Look at these guys, trying to ride on the coattails of Tesla.” Do your research and don’t use a copyrighted or trademarked name.
- 30:40 Check the domains and the social media handles and make sure you get the .com (Related: e023 The Case for Consistent Usernames). Just make sure that with whatever you end up with, you can make a space for yourself online. That’s where the attention is going to be. If you have a local business, understand the culture and what people are going to be looking for, and go for it. The emphasis doesn’t need to be on the name. It needs to be on what the name stands for.
- 31:10 Kyle: If you, at any point, plan on having a global brand, make sure you research what the name means in other languages.
- 31:21 Cory: Hulu means “butt” in Indonesian, I’m not kidding. Some of that stuff you can’t really get away from, depending on what name you’re using. Do your research with those things. I was trying to name my apparel brand, and I had a bunch of different ideas. I was really overthinking it, and I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about the theme I wanted the brand to have. I wanted the brand to have the theme of telling a story in three words or less, so when I woke up, I thought, “Three Words Apparel.” Easy. It went from there. Sometimes it works like that and sometimes it doesn’t.
Stop spending months trying to come up with the perfect name or you never will.
Name Associations Can Change
- 32:34 Eric said, “It seems like brands like Huffington Post have had some flexibility to shift their name and their meaning behind a personal brand and a much larger company approach. Is this style of naming beneficial or too vague for a smaller, lesser-known brand?” Eric is talking about using your personal name for the brand, and it depends on what you’re trying to accomplish and where you see your brand going in the future. Disney started out as the Walt Disney Company, but Disney is huge now. That’s probably one of the top five worldwide known names.
- 33:13 Disney world, Disney parks, Disney channel, Disney this and that. That was his last name, but you don’t think, “Disney, oh, that’s Walt.” You think of the feeling. Anything can happen with a brand name. The more specific your name, the more limited it can be. If I name my business Cellphone Repairs for Android, then I’m not going to be able to become an iPhone retailer or move into Blackberry, because I am cellphone repair for Androids. It depends on what your goals are and where you want to be.
- 34:05 Kyle: Another one that did that was Facebook. They were originally The Facebook. A lot of brands have shaped and changed things over time.
- 34:25 Cory: Anything can mold. I might associate Huffington Post with Arianna Huffington, of course, because that’s her last name, but it means something else. It means news of a particular caliber. Anything can be shaped and evolve into a different shape.
- 35:17 Austin said, “If you’re not looking to build a household brand name like Starbucks, is it more important to have a brand name that is descriptive?” What do you think about this, Kyle?
- 35:32 Kyle: I don’t know. I don’t think so. The people you’re targeting will begin to associate that with the right thing. Going back to the Ugmonk example, nobody knows what that name is. There’s no story to it. He sells apparel and design prints and things like that. It’s a lifestyle brand. It has nothing to do with the brand. His company isn’t big enough that everyone knows who that is by any stretch of the imagination—there’s still a small segment of people that really know what Ugmonk is, in the big scheme of things. For the people that do, it is a household name to them. For the people you’re targeting, they will make that a household name for themselves.
- 36:25 My wife is a teacher, not a designer or in this industry, but she knows who Ugmonk is now because of me and my stuff from them, because I’m friends with Jeff. She knows who Ugmonk is, and it has become a name she’s very familiar with. It’s common for her.
Don’t be generic for the sake of a small audience, because every company starts with a small audience.
- 36:58 Cory: There are different implications for both. Let’s say you have an ice cream truck, and you want to decide between Ice Cream On Wheels and Penguin Ice. One is descriptive—“Okay, there’s ice cream and it moves around,” and one is Penguin Ice. Are they literally selling ice from a glacier with penguins on it? No, that’s not what it means. To me, Penguin Ice is easy to say, it’s fun, it’s catchy, and it could have a mascot of a penguin eating ice cream. That isn’t descriptive. It could even be Mr. John’s Penguins, and that could be your ice cream truck name, but what matters is what it means to me. It can be descriptive, but it doesn’t have to be. Again, it just matters what it stands for, what it means.
Don’t Overthink Your Brand Name
- 38:09 Go back to your mission, your values, and your purpose. Think about what you’re creating if you’re creating a certain kind of product or you want to reach a certain market, and how far you want to go in the future. Is this something you want to do for one to two years and get bought up by a larger company, or are you trying to build something that’s going to be around for years to come? Is this something you want to be a long term company or product? Think through those things, but don’t get caught up in the name.
- 38:45 Don’t let yourself get caught up. If you want to have brainstorming sessions with people, go for it. Twitter was pulled out of a hat. It almost was Jitter. It was between Jitter and Twitter. I’m not kidding. These guys got together and had a brainstorming session, and they said, “What word do we equate with your phone buzzing in your pocket when you get an update from someone else?” They threw out some fun words, they liked two of them, threw them in a hat, and pulled out Twitter. Now, everyone who’s on the internet knows what Twitter is. Get other people involved in picking a brand name if you want.
Don’t get so caught up in the naming that you forget to emphasize what the name represents.
- 39:57 Kyle: It’s important to get a name very early on in even the planning process for your brand, if you haven’t set up your brand yet. As you go through the process of figuring out your values, mission, and goals, once you solidify those and define those well, you can call the brand what it’s supposed to be called. That solidifies meaning in your mind and helps you not feel so awkward about the name. Every new company, when you name it, feels awkward at first. You think, “Did I name that right? It doesn’t sound right.”
- 40:34 If you start saying, “The mission of Cory’s Roofing is to do such-and-such,” it starts to become something you associate things with. If Hulu chose that in the beginning and they started defining what Hulu is like and who it’s targeting and all of those things, they say Hulu 50,000 times, and that solidifies it as this thing that actually exists and isn’t just a concept.
- 41:30 Cory: Then you’re using that name in your words while you tell people about it, instead of saying, “Hey, I’m starting this tech company where you can stream videos with contracts and…” Instead, you can say, “Hulu is…” This may not be at the very beginning, before you’ve sorted through your mission, purpose, values, and target audience, but it should be early on. Then, you don’t get stuck and lose your momentum. You want to keep your momentum (Related: e017 Regaining the Momentum You Started Out With).
- 42:20 I think a lot of people get nervous, because they think, “I don’t want to change it in two years if I decided to do something else.” Okay, don’t make something you’re going to want to change. You’re building up name equity, so don’t worry about changing it. You have to build up the brand equity with whatever name you go with. If your goals change, if everything changes and you start a new company or change direction, then go ahead and change it. It may evolve.
- 43:02 Kyle: Cory’s about to have his second child, and he knows the kind of values and morals he wants to instill in his child. If he doesn’t name his child when he first has it and tries to name the child two years in, there would be a much bigger weight to tailor the name to fit who they are. Instead, we name children when they’re born, so the association and meaning is breathed into that name over time based on what they do. We don’t see what they do and then name them. A lot of people do that with a brand, and I’m guilty of this myself. You start to develop the brand and then you name it, and that’s tough, because you feel like you need to encompass all of these things into it. You don’t.
Name your brand and then breathe life into that name.
- 44:28 Cory: We got a lot of conversation in the Community chat, a lot of people saying things like, “Here are some methods that have been helpful for me in naming things. I like the the idea of mashing words together that come from your values and your mission, combining words, made up words…” There are so many ways you can do it. Just make sure that it’s memorable, that it’s not copyrighted or trademarked, and carry on. Some people might have listened to this episode expecting a five step process to picking the perfect name, and that’s not what we did. We did that intentionally. I don’t want people to get caught up, but I want them to move forward and really work on the personality and the inside.