Name it, nail it

Today, we’re used to seeing unusual brand names. Google, Velcro and Xerox have become part of our vernacular. So if you’re choosing a name for your brand or business, does this mean anything goes? How will you know you’re making the right choice?

Branding | 4 minutes read | Gary Mcilwaine

Name it, nail it
Name it, nail it

We’re often asked to help name or rename a brand. Sometimes it’s for a new entrant to a market, or a merged firm. Other times, the aim is to promote growth. Just occasionally, the need for a fresh name is prompted by a crisis.

Naming can be great fun. It also needs to be done well – as getting it wrong can be costly. The rebrand of “Monday” (formerly PwC Consulting) was a multi–million pound exercise, yet within five weeks of the unveiling, PwC was in talks with IBM to sell the unit. IBM proceeded, and scrapped the name “Monday”. 


If you’re naming a brand, keep the following basics in mind:

No name can explain everything. Meaning grows and develops over time, and a name can convey only one or two elements of the business. That said, a name needs to be flexible enough to fit future service offerings (unlike Carphone Warehouse).

Names are part of a system. A name should be part of your brand strategy, and needs to work with your positioning, identity and messaging. It has to fit in.

Don’t fall in love with a name – yet. At an early stage, it’s important to stay objective and keep options open. The name you love might not be available.

Be memorable. A good name is bold, distinctive, and easy to spell and say. It can be unexpected in your sector – but not too unexpected. Also, consider any unfortunate connotations in other languages.


Brand names tend to fall into three categories. 

Descriptive names use what a brand does (think Bank of America or British Airways). 

Suggestive names use a core characteristic or desired association (think TalkTalk or Easyjet). 

Abstract or made–up names (think Wii or Accenture) present a blank canvas, allowing free rein to shape the brand’s meaning and associations.

History, context, competitors, and ambitions will influence your choice of name. A descriptive name could limit expansion, and will be hard to protect. A made–up name may attract mockery at first – but it can be easier to protect, and gives more scope to shape meaning into the future.

Some companies and brands, such as IBM and BMW, are known by an abbreviation. Generally, we’d recommend steering clear of abbreviations–as–names. They can be difficult to pronounce and remember, and may have meaning only if you know the longer name. IBM (International Business Machines) is one of the world’s most iconic brands, and over the years has established its name as meaningful in its own right. Even so, IBM’s marketing and advertising budget, keeping it front–of–mind, remains massive.

Abbreviations work best as acronyms that are easy to say. These might be abstract (Ingvar Kamprad pulled it off, combining his initials with those of his farm and village to create IKEA), or meaningful (US telecoms company Southern Pacific Railroad Internal Network Telecommunications, known as Sprint, benefits from the association with speed).

Abbreviations can also work well for established firms. Ernst & Young glided into the age of Twitter in 2013, truncating to EY.


Don’t pick a name that makes you one of the trees in the forest, and then spend the rest of your marketing budget trying to stand out.

Danny Altman, Founder, A Hundred Monkeys

Stay objective

The hardest bit of naming is staying objective.

Mathew Weiss, MD, Superunion

Naming is highly subjective. But to name a company or brand successfully, you need to stay as objective as possible.

We help our clients do this by making sure they define a clear position for the brand before they consider a name. We ask:

– Who is your audience?
– Why are you doing what you do?
– What do you want to be known for?
– What do you want your customers and clients to experience?

A change leadership firm founded in 2011 by a group of McKinsey partners asked us for help in finding a new name. Change leadership can be perceived as wishy–washy or ephemeral. Business leaders can’t always see its potential benefits. We needed to help the firm communicate continuity and power.

The business was a joint venture with McKinsey. The partners liked the idea of two things coming together to create a new, dynamic business culture, building energy and gaining momentum. We linked this with the concept of a river that never ceases to change, and created a brand narrative to reflect this. With the help of a range of people from the firm, we generated a large batch of names. We then began to eliminate names, coming up with a shortlist of a dozen. Explorations with “aber” (confluence of waters) and “kyn” (the firm’s aim to nurture community) led to the firm’s eventual choice of name: Aberkyn.

When choosing a name, it’s so important not to rush the process. Don’t rule out options too quickly. Stay positive and open: sometimes a name can grow on you. It’s important, too, to consider risks and payoffs. A more unusual name could be more distinctive and memorable.

Sometimes, a name just fits. The founder of a cafe near the medieval Tonbridge Castle came to us with her vision to invest in communities. We helped her to examine her own values alongside historical context and location. The name she chose – Beyond The Grounds – is both simple and distinctive. Drawing on coffee, the castle, and the vision, it works three ways.

Testing is crucial. Order your final list (eight or nine names) in preference, and think about context. Say a name out loud, again and again. Write it down. Imagine your receptionist answering a call. Keep asking: does this name reflect the positioning? Will it appeal to the target audience?

Then check your name. Take the strongest options to trademark registers, looking at the business class you operate in. Check domain availability. As you consider options in multiple markets, do some initial ‘quick and dirty’ register searches, which will highlight obvious barriers to use and registration.

What might seem a strange name at first could become familiar over time. Orange, Accenture and Diageo all faced criticism as they launched, but Accenture’s rebrand was timely, distancing it from the turbulent Enron scandal.

Sometimes, finding the right name is pure serendipity. Obstacles can be overcome. Twenty–five years ago Pierre Omidyar launched AuctionWeb. He wanted the website address to reference his consulting firm, Echo Bay Technology Group. But the domain was taken by a gold mining company. Having secure venture capital in 1997 AuctionWeb was renamed after Omidyar’s second–choice domain – eBay.

PS. Our name?

The Canadian academic Calvin Seerveld inspired us greatly in our early years. He said: “Fire your art until it emits sparks that warm, or burn, those it reaches.” We hope we’re still doing that.


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