Innovators, marketers, entrepreneurs, and managers will face the vexing problem of creating a name for something they have created dozens of times in their lives. Here is a guide to efficiently creating a great name.
If you prefer to learn via video, here is my Wharton Online tutorial in video format.
Full Dot-Com Availability
I’m going to start with a strong assertion. In today’s world, you must own the domain name associated with your product, brand, or company name. This means that if your name is Acme, you must own acme.com. Not acme.net, not acme-widgets.com, notmyacme.com. ACME.COM. To understand why, consider the bicycle company, Trek. For almost twenty years, if you typed trek.com (as many, many potential customers did), you would end up on a website that displayed “We’re not Trek Bicycles.” Eventually, a deal was reached and now Trek bicycles owns its own brand, but likely at considerable cost. Cannondale, Specialized, Cervelo, and Litespeed did not have this problem. (In fairness, let me point out that Trek is a great name that was created in the 1970s well before domain names were relevant.)
With few exceptions, you will rely at least in part on the internet to reach your stakeholders. I believe you will lose at least 5 percent of the people seeking you out on the web, and probably more, if you do not own the domain name associated with your brand. There may not be any other single managerial action that can have as big an impact on the effectiveness of your marketing communications as picking a product name that is fully dot-com available.
In some cases you can acquire a perfect name that has been registered by someone else. But, honestly, this is hard for smaller companies with limited. Maybe Microsoft can go and acquire Bing.com for millions of dollars. But, in most cases, you can’t do that. As a result, you are probably going to have to create or discover a name that is fully available. Using the process and tools described in this document you’ll be able to create an outstanding name. Investing your time in the naming process is usually a lot more pleasant and cost effective than dealing with some slimy domain squatter who happens to own a name you think might be pretty good.
The importance of dot-com availability therefore usually drives your naming process. Simply put, you should only consider names that are either available for registration or that you are confident you can acquire for a reasonable price. There are sites that make checking names fairly easy, and list domains available for sale. One such site that is pretty good is Sedo.com. Sedo is aggregator of name sale listings, and most domains that are really for sale will be listed there. If you use the Sedo advanced search tools (e.g., limiting to dot-com names) and focus on the “buy now” listings within your budget, you can often find some good candidates. For instance, I purchased the domain MakerStock.com for about USD 5000 when starting the associated business. I found that name by searching on Sedo for names starting with the word “maker.”
Now that the dot-com axiom is out of the way, let me be more nuanced. A great name is:
- Easy to remember,
- Easy to say,
- Unambiguously spellable,
- Evocative of the thing it names,
- Laden with positive associations,
- Legally and practically available for use (i.e., dot-com available).
Rarely will a name do all these things equally well. For example, Amazon is a great name and does almost all these things, but it is not exactly evocative of the thing it names. Should Jeff Bezos have called his company booksonline.com? No. Bezos had big ambitions for internet retailing and it was right for him to pick a more general name with interesting and positive associations than to perfectly align his company name with his initial product strategy. The name Amazon has even allowed the company to extend its service offerings to information technology infrastructure. Company names need not necessarily evoke the company mission. However, for small companies, creating recognition and the right associations for a product name that has little intrinsic relevance to your product is expensive. You are usually better off naming your new product in a way that communicates its key benefits.
How do you create a name that delivers on these criteria? Most organizations take one of two approaches:
- Hire a naming consultant.
- Run your own naming tournament.
Big companies often hire consultants. Consultants have given us some great names like Blackberry and some duds like Monday. Most naming consultants charge anywhere from $1000 to $100,000, with the cost usually dependent on the level of testing performed on the name. There are some outstanding naming consultants out there. For example, take a look at the work of Alexandra Watkins (Eat My Words), a namer with a distinctive style (clever puns, aversion to synthetic names).
If you don’t have the resources for a consultant, you can run your own naming tournament. The name Accenture was created by an internal tournament among employees at the former Anderson Consulting. “Tournament” is used here in the sense of an innovation tournament…incidentally the title of my recent book. You can see the book website for some of the details of how to manage innovation tournaments in general. In sum, a tournament is an organizational process by which you identify a lot of candidates and then filter them to find those that are exceptionally good. Of course this is exactly what the naming consultants do. Moreover, many naming consultants outsource some of the name generation to freelancers…which you can do as well.
After a few comments about the people involved in your naming tournament, I’ll outline the two key steps of generating names and evaluating names.
As with most human endeavors, individuals vary considerably in their ability to generate and evaluate names. You need to engage some word people in your process. These folks are not usually all that easy to identify. I do not know of any formal studies of the attributes of word people, but I suspect they are creative generally, they notice little patterns and details, and they are good with spoken and written language. You, the reader, are not necessarily a word person. Do not rely only on your own abilities to create a great name. Get some help.
Creating a Set of Candidate Names
To create a set of candidate names, you need to first articulate the mission of the name. What is the product, service, or company about? What attributes do you want it to have? Once you’ve done that you are ready to generate some lists of chunks— words or fragments of words that will be the building blocks for your names. I recommend that you create lists of dictionary words, proper nouns, and other roots. A root is usually a chunk derived from Latin, Greek, or other languages that carries some relevant meaning. The following graphic lists some examples of chunks for the naming of a new bicycle seat. After generating the chunks you are going to either use the chunks directly or, more typically, combine, mutate, and affix the chunks to create the names.
(BTW, lest you think this example is fanciful, see my bike seat named with this process here.)
A few comments on types of names. First, the naming community has some exotic terms for different types of names (e.g., fictitious names, descriptive names, allusive names, etc.). Rivkin and Sutherland (2004) wrote an outstanding book on the naming business with an excellent discussion of these categories. But honestly, I find that these distinctions are not that useful in guiding the generation of names. You’re happy to consider all types of names. In the illustration above I show a simple typology comprised of natural names, which are those formed from words that are in the dictionary, and synthetic names which while evocative of natural words, are made in part of chunks that do not exist in the dictionary. I also distinguish between simple and compound names. This is a loose distinction intended to capture the extent to which the name is a standalone chunk or is constructed from a combination of chunks.
Second, you are very unlikely to find a simple natural name that is dot-com available. On the other hand, it’s really easy to find available domains for compound names, whether natural or synthetic.
Finally, I wouldn’t bother with abbreviations. Short ones are not available. Long ones are ridiculously bad names. None of them really work very hard for you in evoking brand associations. They really only work when a company has invested billions in creating brand equity already (e.g., IBM, KFC, and UPS).
I recommend you do the hard work on your own of thinking of word chunks that could comprise your name. But, LLMs such as ChatGPT are really good assistants. You can provide a description of your naming challenge and your initial ideas and have the LLM generate names. You may even be able to get the tool to check dot-com availability for you. I can’t imagine not giving the AI tools a chance at this task — it’s too easy not to try it.
I recommend a three step process for evaluating names: nominations, spreadsheet screening, and testing. (Of course, you are only considering names with full dot-com availability, right?)
First, just gather nominations from your word people in response to a request like “Submit your 20 or so favorite names.” If a name isn’t in someones top 20, it probably isn’t worth considering.
Second, create a spreadsheet listing all of your names with a set of evaluation criteria for each name. I recommend these:
- Length (in number of characters).
- Availability of key spelling variants (you shouldn’t use the name YouTube if you don’t own Utube…in my opinion…although YouTube didn’t follow this guideline and created a windfall for the company Utube.).
- Quality of brand associations (1-5 scale).
- Unambiguous spelling (1-5 scale).
- Ease of pronunciation (1-5 scale).
- Liking by team (1-5 scale) – this metric will probably be computed from independent votes of team members.
- Trademark issues (1-5 scale) – See note on trademarks below.
Note on Trademarks
First, any trademark of any value is registered as a domain name. (Can you imagine establishing a trademark without acquiring the domain, if available?) So, the first simple trademark search is a check on domain availability. If you are considering a name, you have already verified that the domain is available, right? Companies with lots of money do formal trademark searches, usually by hiring trademark search firms. They have access to proprietary databases as well as to arcane public databases, which allows them to confidently identify potential trademark conflicts with a potential name. Fortunately, the dominance of Google lets you achieve just about the same result for free. It is very hard to establish trademark rights in the U.S. without that trademark appearing somewhere on the internet. Because trademarks are usually distinctive strings of characters, they are easily located with a Google search. So, a simple first-cut at a trademark search is to run a Google search on your potential name.
After you’ve analyzed your names every which way, discussed the alternatives with your team, and googled them all, you probably have about 10 finalists. At this point, I recommend some testing with your target audience.
Testing with your audience is easy, so there are not really excuses for not doing it. You should not adhere slavishly to test results. Let me repeat. You should not adhere slavishly to test results. But, you would be stupid to ignore them. You almost always learn something important.
Before you test, you should go ahead and register the domain names. There are several companies that will register domain names for you for less than $10/name. The $100 for 10 names is well spent at this point. You can sleep easily knowing that you own the .com domains while you test the names.
A simple on-line survey of the target audience can be an effective test. You can do the survey with Survey Monkey or another survey administration tool. You should strive for 30-100 respondents solidly in your target community (e.g., market segment, community profile, etc.).
- Tell your respondents a little bit about the product, service, or organization. List the 10 names, with the order of presentation randomized for each respondent. Ask them to rate the names on a 1-10 scale (with radio buttons or the equivalent) based on “liking.” For example, your survey question might be “How well do you like each of the following names (1= hate it | 10= love it).”
- On a separate survey page for each name, and with order randomized, ask the respondents to type any associations they have with the name. For example, your question might be “Type any thoughts or associations that you have when you see this name.
- Then, on a separate page, without allowing any backtracking, give the respondents a blank form and ask them to simply type any names they recall.
- Finally, on the last page, list the names again and ask the respondent to recommend the name they think would work best for the product, service, or organization (i.e., whatever it is that you are naming).
With these simple questions you are able to estimate: (1) liking/disliking, (2) associations (positive and negative), (3) recall and spelling ambiguity, and (4) overall recommendations from your audience.
Here’s a link to a Qualtrics survey that follows this format. Feel free to play around with it.
Again, you should not adhere slavishly to the results. You should factor your findings into your managerial decision process. For example, I was involved in a naming project for a recommendation website where one of the candidate names was “Rexy.” There were two problems revealed by testing. First, some users indicated that “rexy” is slang for an anorexic person. Who knew? Second, some people typed in “Recsy” as a recalled name, which was a spelling variant whose domain we did not own. Those were important factors that led us to abandon Rexy as a candidate.
Just Choose a Name
After you’ve identified a few hundred candidates, screened them to identify the best 10 or so, and tested them with your audience, think about the best names, talk it over, and then just choose one. Don’t obsess too much. Names almost always grow on you. I remember when we were naming the company Terrapass, we really wanted to use the name Ecopass. We viewed Terrapass as a distant second choice. But, although we were in negotiations to acquire the name Ecopass from its owner, we couldn’t get that deal done in a timely fashion. So, we just went with Terrapass. Looking back, I can’t imagine the company as Ecopass. Terrapass just seems better and right.
Karan Girotra and Karl T. Ulrich. Empirical Evidence for the Role of the Domain Name Itself in Website Performance | PDF via SSRN