“Unlike most challenges you’ll face, this one is in a field in which virtually everyone claims expertise.”
Startups and spin-outs are notorious for creative misspellings and decidedly poor brand and product names. It’s a practice born out of necessity, and naiveté. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
For years we’ve been giving the same spiel — a set of best practices from our own experience, and more than a little plagiarism from Steve Manning and the good folk at Igor International, who we recommend without reservation.
We consult frequently on naming and branding, and had a meaningful hand in the birthing of Siri, Saga, Republic Wireless, Bottlenose, The Daily Dot, Filament Labs, Chasm, Muse, Kernel, Finite State, Litmus Health, Rewired, Clear Labs, Civic I/O, and more.
Here’s what every entrepreneur needs to know about naming and branding before getting started. And as always — learn the rules in order to break them.
There Are Different Kinds of Names
“I don’t care what you say about me, just spell my name right.”
Knowing what kind of name you need is the key to ultimate success. If in your decision-making process you can first settle on a name type before putting marker to whiteboard, you will have done yourself and your team a serious favor.
The three classic name types are: evocative, descriptive, and invented.
Some people include a fourth category — experiential. Experiential names don’t generally work well in technology, because all technology is experiential, and the dividing line is in that sense false. Experiential names come more into play with consumer packaged goods, or pure services plays.
You can read more about name types
(the examples are outdated but the best practices remain).
In our opinion, evocative names are best for innovative technology companies and most startups, because they are pivot-proof, and have room to grow, and breathe. Names can span more than one category too, which can be a positive or negative, depending on your goals.
The meanings behind some evocative names are intentionally opaque, but that doesn’t stop them from being effective. Siri comes from Norse myth, and refers to a fearless woman who leads you into battle. You’re unlikely to know the etymology, but most people assume femininity, and the name is undoubtedly anthropomorphic.
Similarly Mozilla, an invented name, comes from a combination of “Mosaic killer” and Godzilla — but you don’t have to “get it” in order to “get it” — do you?
Descriptive, or “functional” names for technology companies on the other hand suggest a tool, or a square peg in a square hole. Zappos was, for example, originally ShoeSite.com, and did well to make the switch. Facebook however has been, shall we say...very successful with a descriptive name. In naming and branding, there are as many exceptions as there are rules. For some B2B brands especially, descriptiveness is an advantage; being unsurprising can be valuable. But in general, you should avoid a descriptive name unless you have a specific argument in support.
We generally recommend against invented names. They are often justified by domain acquisition problems (see also: the government of Libya). Some succeed despite themselves — they feel like something that already exists, but that you just didn’t know about yet. Still, those cases are rare, and they usually require help in the form of an explanatory tagline. They’re often less memorable, and have phonetic problems (what you hear is not what you type).
Overall, keep in mind that some names will straddle categories. For example, Google sounds invented to most people. But it’s evocative to a geek who understand the oblique reference to a googol, the number represented by 10 to the 100th power. Google thereby evokes great scale. The brand very cleverly forks meaning based on audience.
Republic Wireless is another good example. Their name makes it clear what exactly they do (it is descriptive) but they also evoke a sense of belonging not to a customer base, but to a nation, or a movement (it is evocative). They’ve managed to have their cake and eat it too.
Here are some good examples of each name type, for future reference. We always love to debate the quality of new names, and dispute their sorting, too. This is great exercise to conduct with your team, too — cite your favorites, attempt to classify them, and explain yourselves along the way.
- Evocative: Saga, Kernel, Siri, Totem, Etherpad, Twitter, Riverbed, Twine, Quora, Handle, Tumblr, Oracle, Pandora, Shazam, Foursquare, Yammer, Spanning, Fab, Fancy, Nest
- Descriptive: FriendFeed, Facebook, GoToMeeting, Groupon, Bump, Netflix, About.me, Paypal, Airbnb, Kickstarter, Evernote, SeatGeek, OtherInbox
- Invented: Roku, Citrix, Weebly, Etsy, Meebo, Skype, Gowalla, Zynga, Nintendo, Nokia, Mozilla, Mozy, Pleo, ZocDoc
Names Are Not Brands
“Customers must recognize that you stand for something.”
Okay, so you've chosen a name! Congrats. Does that mean you have a brand, too? Don’t flippantly substitute one (names) for the other (brands). Names are not immediately brands, and brands are not merely names. Too many entrepreneurs leave a lot of value on the table by conflating their name and brand.
You think to yourself:
I know there’s a difference, and I know there’s value in doing this the right way, at least in theory. But I’m a startup, and I can’t be troubled to hassle the issue. I’ll circle back later on when I have more time and money. For now, it’s bare bones, baby. Beggars can’t be choosers. I just need something to put on the website. Like, yesterday.
Building a brand is not as simple as choosing a name, no matter what kind of hurry you’re in.
A name isn’t the full story. Once you have a name, you’re not done. You’re only starting. A brand in contrast, is the more holistic experience of your company, product, or feature.
To illustrate the overall point:
Just think about your own name — the name your parents gave you.
Your name means something to you and others — it might have a history, or it might evoke a certain feeling (laughter, respect, fear).
In contrast, your personal brand is much bigger in effect — it’s about people’s experience of you. Your reputation. Your way of dressing and addressing. Your pattern of behavior. Your track record. Your cohorts and your collaborators. Your friends and family. Your actions. Your words.
Experts will wax poetic on many more subtleties, but typically a brand consists of a name, a logo, and a tagline.
In the best cases the brand also has pillars (values, behaviors), and a recognizable voice (tone, tenor). A brand is often enforced with style guides -- rules for use, including like capitalization, sizing, font families, color palettes and more.
Brands are also extended and/or decorated with everything from mascots and theme songs to spokespeople, invented nouns and verbs, origin myths, slogans, sayings, and more. Get creative!
But be careful. Any and all creative should still be, and always be, in absolute service to your deepest values — your non-negotiables, as we often say. Embellishment for its own sake will only dilute the intended effect.
The Best-Kept Secret
In Naming And Branding Is
The Theory of Negativity
“All the best names are provocations.”
The theory of negativity is not invoked often enough. It calls for a certain tension in the name and/or brand, because it’s a tension that calls our attention, and ensures retention in memory. There’s a lot of naming and branding mumbo-jumbo out there. The Theory of Negativity is the one thing you ought to absorb.
Don’t confuse the Theory of Negativity with Negativity Bias however. The former is all about tilting your head 5 degrees to the left and looking at things anew. The latter presupposes that we human are naturally more reactive to stimuli that make us feel threatened — a poor branding strategy if there ever was one.
Quick, what’s that construction equipment company, the one that’s yellow-clad, and indestructible? The one that makes baccos and bobcats? This is one of Steve Manning’s favorite examples.
Almost all of you guessed right — Caterpillar is the answer. And yet, aren’t caterpillars small and soft, vulnerable, slow-moving, and weak? And since when did a construction equipment company become a mainstream brand? Why do you even know the name Caterpillar? You haven’t ever operated their machinery, have you? How the heck did that happen?
Caterpillar isn’t completely dissonant as a name — it’s just surprising. It has inherent tension. The Theory of Negativity doesn’t mean that you have to invoke opposites per se, or be combative. Like most construction sites, a caterpillar in time evolves and emerges changed, beautiful, and complete. the name is quite apropos for what the company does, if you think of the outputs of the product instead of the product itself.
Square is a great recent startup example. Square is, for one...square. Literally. The name is descriptively accurate, if nothing else. But Square is not at all square, not in the colloquial sense of being staid, or conservative. Or is it, sort of? Certainly Square needs your trust and that of its partners, like any financial institution. But at the same time, they’re very much thinking outside the box. That’s classic Theory of Negativity.
Let’s say you didn’t use the Theory of Negativity in your name itself. That’s okay. Let’s say the name you picked was Leaf.
So, what’s Leaf going to look like, and feel like?
You just imagined a green logo. With veins and leaves growing outwards from it? Of course you did. This isn’t a test — it’s just an exercise in basic human assumptions.
The Theory of Negativity would suggest for the Leaf logo, you skew inorganic — think piping and metals, rust, dark colors, and weight. Now you might head in other semi-unexpected directions — “leaf ” as in a leaflet, or leaves of paper. But that wouldn’t be quite as strong, and bold.
The Theory of Negativity requires a certain risk tolerance. But for entrepreneurs, isn’t that one of your biggest advantages? You don’t have much money to protect, and you don’t have much money to spend. You need viral coefficients, and word-of-mouth effects. And you very much need to be memorable. If you can acquire a user or a customer more effectively than your competitors, you win.
Some brands and some products and some features can’t be risk tolerant, or so they think — security systems, financial institutions, and privacy-sensitive information systems have a strong counter-argument. Still, it’s a losing one.is one example — you certainly don’t want someone piloting your plane who has never taken flight before, do you? In the travel business, is lack of experience, or pristine-ness an advantage? It can be, if you’re signaling a new day, or a new line of thought.
Anything innovative makes a particularly compelling case for the Theory of Negativity, because you’ll want to encourage the comparison with old and new ways of doing something, legacy/incumbency, and disruption.
Disruption, as so many like to say, is often...disrupting. Violent, even. The Theory of Negativity ensures that you perform disruption, and signal it wherever you go.
And the Theory of Negativity might even come into play in your tagline, your “noun phrase”, your visual feel, and/or your voice and values. Regardless, we’d encourage you to seek out tension, remembering that being expected is the surest way to be forgotten.
With an understanding of name types, a healthy respect for the difference between names and brands, and the wherewithal to welcome tension and contrast in and around any experience of your company, product or service — you’re on pretty solid ground.
Building consensus among team members when it comes to this stuff is another matter however. Naming and branding is so hard because the very best make it look so easy. When it looks easy it’s tempting to think that anyone can do it. When anyone thinks they can do it, it’s harder to appreciate excellence. When it’s harder to appreciate excellence, confidence in your final decision is generally absent.
Our best advice to you as you move forward with your colleagues is to talk about constraints and, again, your non-negotiables upfront. Like Siri, do you need something anthropomorphic? Do you bridge online and offline worlds, making a phonetic name an absolute must? Are you an e-commerce site, making the organic SEO value of your domain name disproportionately important?
- Maybe you want less than 8 characters, and fewer than 3 syllables.
- Maybe you have to translate globally.
- Maybe you don’t.
- Maybe you need to stand in stark contrast to incumbents in your category.
- Maybe you need to project a certain pragmatism.
- Maybe something quite ordinary is in your case a virtue.
- Maybe your logo needs to look tactile even when it isn’t.
- Maybe you need to evoke another era.
- Maybe you need to play well at large scales — on billboards, and banners.
- Maybe you want to break from traditional color palettes with a splash of something completely new.
- Maybe you just don’t want to be...cliche.
If you achieve consensus on such parameters at the outset of any naming and branding process, the final choice is easier to make. Does it meet all of our constraints? If it does, then it’s a finalist. You don’t get to go back and change the constraints post-facto. Well-articulated, specific constraints make decision-making a relative cinch.
Sometimes empirical testing outside of human opinion is useful in resolving last- mile disagreements, and sometimes it’s not. That’s grounds for another post altogether, we think.