Product Naming Is Not For The Timid – Naming The Baby

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Anyone who is responsible for finding suitable product and brand names knows that it is a difficult task. It is a lot harder than picking a name for a child because it has to be unique enough to obtain the rights to trademark and advertise, but the idea is the same – it is permanent and can do great damage to your product or child (remember the boy named Sue).

It’s later than you think. Start yesterday.

Like most things, the way to get a name that does more good than harm is a matter of using a good process or being really lucky, and maybe some of both. Let’s say that you won’t always be lucky, so it’s a good idea to pay some attention to the process. The first common mistake is choosing a name when you need it. Imagine if a young couple came up with the name of their precious bundle of joy at the moment the hospital official set to filling in the birth certificate. Well, that is pretty much what you see most companies do. Lot’s of time is spent making projections about the trajectory of sales for the first few years (most of which is wrong and later discarded), but very little time is spent thinking about a name for a product during the development phase. So when is the right time to start searching for a name? The answer is: as soon as product development begins. Serious development begins when the product specs are being established.

It may just grow on you.

My method is to create a “blastoff brochure” as soon as I have a fairly good idea of what the product (company or category) is going to be. A blastoff brochure is an inexpensively produced sales piece for the product that I plan to roll out x-years from now. It includes all the category, product and component names presented in a cogent sales presentation. It serves as a document that engineering, management, investors, external vendors, etc can use for design and communication briefs. Stand back because the complaints about the name and the product story are about to begin – and a good thing too because you still have time to react (or enough time for the organization to get used to it).

“Great idea, Boss!”

For the time being, let’s avoid a discussion of how to research names and move right to name validation process. The most common process, particularly for small companies and start-ups, is the founders, senior management or a board member thinks of something “clever that they really like.” The clever creator does the typical validation, “Hey, I came up with a name for the alpha project: (fill in the blank). What do you think?” If it is an employee who likes his or her job, the name will probably sound great. If it is someone else that has had seven entire nano-seconds to consider it, the idea will seem, “hmm, yea – okay”, maybe even good. Then, when it has to be applied to signage, products, communication and the vicious death-squid in the trademark registration office, the idea may not seem so clever.

If you want it done right, pay a lot!

“Alright,” you say. “The pressure is too great, the stakes are too high. I’ll hire a professional naming company!” Not so fast. I’ve seen that movie and it didn’t end so well. I once hired a company that advertised a creative staff of polyglots with a crack legal department. They promised they would present us with a long list of great names that were sure to please and be available to trademark in worldwide markets. Outcome? After a month of creative invention, their presentation was funnier than on open-mic night at the local comedy club, but a lot more expensive. We were out many thousands of dollars (francs, in this case), had an unusable list of polyglot gibberish and were a month closer to launch – and still no name. After all, it was a professional naming company that gave the name Nova to Chevrolet, a name that means “doesn’t go” in some romance languages!

It ain’t legal ‘till Legal says it’s legal!

Imagine that by some stroke of incredible luck a name falls from the heavens. It is a perfect expression of the product’s intrinsic value and is totally in phase with the company’s brand message – it is PERFECT. The CEO and the sales force thinks it’s great and the customers think it will be the new category name – the next Kleenex. You’re done. No so fast!! What about Legal (or, your lawyer brother-in-law)? How many times have great names gotten dashed on these rocky shoals! Our lawyer actually had a form for name submission that asked for an estimate of sales that would be generated by products bearing this name and how many years before the name and its derivatives would be retired. Yea, right – like I know! Against those certainties, he calculated how much it would cost to defend this name in all markets, versus some imaginary neutral name like “Khonsekag.” Yea, right – like he knows! In fact, the legal department started to license any combination of letters and sounds that they thought were “clever, and they really liked” and were available for worldwide registration. The names were put in a name bank for us lucky marketers to draw on. Let’s just say, there were not a lot of withdrawals from this stash of treasures.

It is about the product!

Is there hope? Well, yes – sure! Give yourself enough time, get a basket of candidates and input from everyone you can – especially the market. Test the concept with as many customers as you can, give the legal department a heads-up and check it out with the sales force (they serve as early detection of unforeseen, unpleasant nicknames). And, remember the cardinal rule of naming products: If the product is REALLY GOOD the name will work out just fine!

Was “Barak” any better than “John?” I don’t think a marketer in his or her right mind would have picked Barak Hussein as a name for an American presidential candidate, but a good story, a great ground campaign and two years of tireless promotion – and it’s a sale!


About the Author:

Dave Bertoni is a strategic marketing professional with extensive senior management experience in multi-national corporate as well as startup environments. In the last 25-years he has brought over a dozen technical products to domestic and international markets, as well as forming and funding three high-tech startups. He helps medical technology and high tech firms to uncover new opportunities, establish clear goals, overcome difficult business challenges and achieve sales and margin targets.
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