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Product Naming is Easy … Until You Try to Name a Product

This is part two in a three-part series on naming. Click here to read part one and part three.

When I was a kid growing up in Houston there was a neighborhood pool that, in addition to several diving boards, had a diving platform that towered above the water. To keep kids from climbing up the ladder, changing their mind and causing a scene at the top, the standing rule was that once you went up the ladder, the only way down was to jump off into the water. So you needed to seriously consider the whole process, including the landing, before you even started up.

The rule made sense to me. When you stand at the bottom of a diving platform looking up, 25 feet (7.5 meters) doesn’t seem all that high (supposing you don’t mind heights). However, somewhere around the middle of that ladder climb, your brain starts to contemplate whether this is a good plan, whether you really want to carry through with this and whether you’ve got friends swimming nearby who can pull your battered body from the pool if things go badly.

Standing at the edge of the platform looking down is when you fully grasp that 25 feet in diving terms is closer to base jumping from the Empire State Building. But since walking back down the ladder is not an option, you take a deep breath, jump off and pray for the best.

I think product naming is the same experience for some people.

It looks easy from a distance. Seriously, how hard can it be to come up with a decent name? A handful of people take the plunge and make it into the water without drowning. The form might not be all that great, but as long as the goal was finishing the process, no one is worse for the experience. But sometimes the stakes are higher, the exposure a little more severe and just jumping off won’t cut it. That’s when the act of naming changes to the art of naming.

WHY HAVE A PROCESS FOR NAMING?

The purpose of processes is generally the same regardless of the category. They’re not there for the one-offs. They’re in place so you improve your chances of repeat success. A naming process rarely includes gathering people in a room to brainstorm for an hour and calling it a day. Every naming agency on the planet has a process, generally for the same reason—to increase their chances of coming up with good material that will make it into the market on a regular basis. But if you insist on naming products, brands or companies on your own, at least do yourself a favor and do what the naming agencies do. I’ve outlined LPK’s typical process below to help you climb that ladder and jump confidently into a new name.

THE NAMING PROCESS

Briefing
This is where we all get on the same page. It’s led by the team/client with the business challenge. I recommend getting into the details here and not glossing over the little points. When done right, everyone can race off in different directions and yet still end up at the same finish line. Be sure to consider the success criteria for the work. It’s always best to establish those here, so choosing the new name will be a bit easier later.

Immersion
Every year we have clients who ask if we can skip this stage. The short answer is yes, but generally I have found it extremely helpful to have the namers, writers, strategists and linguists all the way through to the attorneys well informed about the category, consumer, channels, products, brands, portfolio, etc. For a small client and project, this is pretty light. For a large company with global interests, it may take some effort to get everyone up to speed. But without this step, you run the risk of people generalizing solutions to a problem that may or may not exist.

Strategic Options
We have found it helpful to have some strategic aiming points before we send the team off to do great things. This helps ensure you don’t get a ton of name candidates in one narrow area. For example: Digi-Action, Digi-Cell, Digi-D, Digi-Drive, Digi-Life, Digi-Max and so on. Not horrible in an exploratory, but also not a great range to overcome biases. Some people focus purely on number, as if having 1,000 names will guarantee success. There is no magic number. Have fun with the strategy and use it to push boundaries. That’s where the great names come from.

Creative Development
This is where the name candidates get the biggest boost. Some people like to work in large teams, some with small teams and others like to hole up alone in a closet somewhere. At LPK, we use a combination of approaches to generate a broad range of ideas from different angles. We also lean on our namers and linguists in each of our global offices to bring fresh perspective and regional relevance to our naming projects. Whether you send everyone down one path or use parallel paths, have one team or two or consider wildly dissimilar approaches is up to you.

Filtering
There’s a saying in songwriting that great songs aren’t written as much as they’re rewritten. The magic is in the rewrite. I think the same applies to naming. Just because you have some names people on the team “like” isn’t enough to make them great. You should take into consideration whether the name fits the company, the brand, the product, etc. Does it fit the person who will use the product (or the person who might buy it for the user)? Can people pronounce the name? Does it sound right in context?

When we name for products aimed at kids, we make sure kids can say the name and would like to say the name. And don’t think that adding a Z to a name or cheating on spelling (e.g., Chipz or Krazy Kidz) will endear your product to kids anywhere. By contrast, if you’re naming liquor for hipsters, you should make sure the name sounds like something the audience can say out loud in a bar call. No one wants to shout out some awkward word in a crowded bar surrounded by their friends. And if you can’t pass this basic test, you probably won’t last long on shelf either.

The point here is simple: names that seem right for some categories may be horrible misses in others. A health-oriented product probably shouldn’t sound like a cell phone, while a technology startup might not match with a pharmaceutical name.

There are plenty of weighted scales, metrics and formulas to help quantify whether a name works or not. Find what works for you. But start with the basics and work outward, not the other way around. You’ll make yourself and your team crazy if you make the solution about the complexity instead of the brilliant idea.

Trademark Clearance
My belief is that a name that isn’t cleared to use in the market is just an interesting word. It’s like holding a photo of someone else—no matter how much you like it, it’s still not you. This is one reason we check every name for trademark clearance before we share them with our clients. If we don’t—and people ask us to skip this step all the time—the people making the decisions always seem to fall in love with the name that can’t be used. So we just eliminate the chance for disappointment by requiring that all names get some form of clearance before the first presentation. No one ever regrets not having to sort through names they can’t use.

Audience Exposure
Steve Jobs didn’t like focus groups and put a ton of great names into the market. You can, too. But since most of us fall an IQ point or two behind Steve, and don’t own the company, we’ve found it helpful to get an idea of what people think about the names we want to use. I prefer qualitative discussions before quantitative because I like to understand what words people use to describe the name, product, brand, experience, etc. Quant research means they have to choose between words I give them. It’s just not the same thing in my opinion.

My caution for any research is to not try to combine too many things in one session. We get asked to design logos around wordmarks or product names so we can take the complete design with name options into one round of research. This is dangerous for the simple fact that people can and will kill good names because of the design or color, and, conversely, choose weaker names because they like the look of the design.

Assess and Apply
If you make it all the way through the process with something that’s a fit for the challenge and can revolutionize the market, celebrate the success for what it is. If not, get back to work. Don’t get discouraged. Sometimes the best names come out of the third, fourth or fifth rounds of effort. Not always, but sometimes.

So while naming can look easy from a distance, when you get into the details, it can seem like scary business. That’s when having a process, and perhaps a good agency partner, can help you enjoy the journey from idea to launch.

This article is an edited version of the original LinkedIn post: Product Naming is Easy … Until You Try to Name a Product.

LPK Vice President, Managing Creative Director Kelly Smith works across LPK’s portfolio, transforming organizations and building B2B and B2C brands—from small, family-owned businesses to Fortune 50 companies. When Kelly’s not immersed in organizational-change issues, you’ll find him buried in a business book, playing his guitar or chasing a triathlon personal record.

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