Naming Things, Part 1: Conventions

Naming a product or company is probably my most favorite creative assignment of all. I’ve gotten asked to name everything from a professional sports team to combo meals to CPG products, and even though the outcomes of each are wildly different, there are significant similarities in the process. 

For me, the first and most important concept to understand is the conventions that govern how that particular product or category names things. Let’s use minor league baseball as an example. For an MiLB team, there are very few constants, with the only one being you have to be able to put “the” in front of it, with or without the city name. The names can be mono-syllabic (like Cubs or Braves) or it can be incredibly long, like the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. And even though I wouldn’t recommend it, an MiLB team name can be silly, like the Biscuits, Shrimps, or the beloved Trash Pandas from Rocket City, Alabama. 

But other industries have much tighter constraints. Think about something like fintech. These names are almost always combinations of two words, like Braintree or Pitchbook. They almost always have a word that decodes as financial in the name, too, like PayPal or SoFi. And since most of them come out of the startup universe, they also love to have little decodes that make them feel nimble and active, like Chime or Tala. 

It’s also super important to understand the time period conventions, as well. If you’re a student of naming, you can pretty much peg when a company was named within about a 5-year period. Portmanteaus of business words, like Accenture? Mid to late 90s. Original dotcom  boom names desperately trying to sound digital, like eBay? 2000. Losing the last vowel of a word, like Flickr? 2004. Ampersands that put together two different ideas, like Tuft & Needle? 2012. Words trying to sound like actions, like Spotify? 2014. Replacing letters that look weird but could phonetically be pronounced correctly? 1993 or 2018.

Why is this important? Depending on your brand strategy, it’s super important to understand how you want the name of your new brand addresses the market. Is it a challenger brand that needs to feel like the category or does the brand need to pull influence from others industries? Is your brand trying to sound nimble and dynamic or solid and stable? Do you need to feel simple, approachable, smart, energetic, confident, personal? Regardless of these questions, it’s super important to be able to answer them before you start brainstorming new names. The last thing you want to do is name a bagel shop that sounds like a law firm. Unless, of course, you want a bagel shop that works for lawyers.