My 7 step framework for naming your brand

August 17, 2021

While working with ad agencies early in my career, I got involved in projects related to branding. These projects would often involve identifying a name for a product/business and then concept testing it. 

Brainstorming business names/brand names became my favourite part of this exercise and with time I got better at it. Since I was in client servicing/account management, there was also this unsaid competition with the creative team, and I worked towards consistently producing names that the creative team would appreciate and include in the concept testing.

During my time in advertising, exploring domain names and SEO while recommending brand names wasn’t a thing yet. But as I moved towards digital marketing I learnt about domains, exact match domains, various TLDs, SEO, etc., and today all these are key to review when finalizing a brand name. 

In this blogpost, I will share everything I know about finding a name for a product/business, and I hope it helps you. 

Is there a difference between a brand name and business name? 

Yes, and to put it simply: Business name (or trade name) is for legal/tax purposes, while a brand name is for marketing purposes. Brand name is how your customers/audience know you For example - iPhone is a brand name owned by a business whose ‘business name’ is Apple Inc. (used to be Apple Computer Inc.) This article is intended to highlight and talk about the brand name specifically. 

In most small businesses however, the business name and brand name are the same. Please note that in this article they have been used interchangeably. For a small business owner/entrepreneur/start-up founder, business name and brand name are usually the same. 

Brand + Name = Brand name 

This seems obvious (and it is) but it deserves a section. Most people looking for ‘a name for their business’ are essentially looking for a brand name. As you’ve seen in the previous section, there is a difference between the two. 

Once you are aware that you need a brand name and not a business name things get clearer. Since brand name is for your target audience/customers, you should leverage it to connect with them. Your brand name can communicate your product/service category or the value proposition. 

Branding (verb – action): Branding is essentially ‘perception hacking’. The process of intentionally shaping how your company’s products and services are perceived.

And since the name is part of your business branding, you need to be careful on how it is perceived. That’s the reason ad agencies conduct concept testing to check if the brand personality aligns with the options of names before concluding on one. 

Interesting, but does a brand name really matter? 

It depends. Marketing is not so binary (thank goodness). 

Your target audience and the competition in your industry determine if the name really matters. 

Here is an example - a local landscaping company and a meditation app. Where do you think brand name is more important? 

If the local landscaping company is operating in a small town, a basic brand name like ‘name of the town’+’landscaping’ should be good. Here, I assumed there isn’t a lot of competition in the market and therefore brand name wouldn’t matter as much. 

In a large town/big city however, a basic name won’t do. There are hundreds of players in the market and a basic name might not attract attention. An effective brand name is one that stands out, and clearly speaks to the consumer / user. 

Let’s now focus on the meditation app. This is a digital product and the competition is fierce - there are over 2500 meditation apps available. You definitely need a brand name that is a) unique b) communicates the app’s benefit c) easy to remember. ‘Calm’ for example is a great name for a meditation app. 

I hope you’ve got an idea of when and where brand names really matter. Since most of my work is around digital products, I will explain my brand name process using the meditation app as an example, later in this post.

What should a good brand name communicate? 

  1. Product / service category: Some brand names require explanations supported with a long story attempting to connect the name with the product/service. In these times of decreasing attention spans, you need to make it simple for your customers - creative business names are welcome but they need to be on point. On this topic, Allan Dib in his legendary marketing book suggests “Always choose clarity over cleverness”.       

My first entrepreneurial venture was into ethnographic / research filmmaking. It was in 2012 and I  named it ‘Research Frames’. Getting the domain ‘researchframes.com' (not with me anymore) was like icing on the cake. This brand name conveyed to my target audience that the business is related to research and photography / videography. 

Similarly, the name AirBnB does a great job of explaining what the service is about. 

But iMac doesn’t say it is a computer/desktop, nor does Adidas say it is a sports apparel manufacturer? That’s because these companies have spent billions of dollars on advertising and establishing what their brand name stands for. Even if you have all the advertising budgets in the world, I will still suggest going for a clear brand name. 

  1. Benefit / value proposition: A business can use the key benefit of the product / service in their brand name (instead of product/service), and this can work pretty well too. ‘Instant Pot’ for a cooking equipment and ‘Night Nurse’ for a flu medicine are great examples. 
  1. Location: For certain products / services, a specific location makes it relevant / appealing for the target audience - the location communicates a brand promise. This is particularly true for the food and beverage industry. Cornish Sardines and Vidalia Onions are two such examples. For small businesses serving a small geographic area, the location name-play can help ring a bell with the community. 

What are some of the potential names you can generate by using these naming rules?

Finding the domain name: 

You have a brand name in your mind and it communicates the essence/value proposition of business/brand quite well, should you just run with it? 

Once again it depends. 

I have seen most founders/business owners get too attached to the domain name. The domain name is certainly important but not always, please see below when the domain name really matters: 

If you are convinced that the domain name is important, you’ll need to secure a good domain name for your brand/business. A good domain name is: 

Unique: If ‘ABC Cafe’ is a potential name for your cafe, you might want to check: 

  1. There aren’t too many cafes with the same name online. You don’t need to worry so much about ‘ABC Petshop’ though, as that is a different industry. 
  2. You are able to find .com, .co and/or the country domains for your business. Domain and social media handles availability is a good indicator of uniqueness mostly. 
  3. If you are a new business, I suggest you also check trademark protection for the name.

Short: The shorter your domain name, the easier it is to remember (mostly). The short and simple domain names are generally hard to get, and they get auctioned for thousands of dollars! That being said however, you can always find a work around and not pay thousands of dollars (if you don’t want to). 

ABCcafe.com for example, is available but is selling for $5000. If you don’t want to spend that kind of money on the domain, you can go for ABCcafe.co or ABCcafe.ca (if you are in Canada). In case you really want a .com domain, you can make it ABCcafeTO.com (TO for Toronto) or ABCcafeUK.com (some abbreviation for the city or country might be a good idea in this case). 

What comes first domain or the brand name? 

The name in most cases, but there have been times when I would change/tweak the brand name if I was unable to get a good domain. 

A sneak peek into my 7 step naming process: 

I enjoy working on branding / rebranding projects where I need to figure out a business name or brand name. Let me share my naming process with an example of a meditation app: 

  1. Make a list of related words: This can be as simple as synonyms in some cases, but for meditation I looked up related words. From the related list of words, I came up with the following: 
    1. Unmonkey Mind (Monkey mind is a term for a chaotic mind) 
    2. Retreat 
    3. Being
    4. Strickle 
    5. Still down 
    6. Pause
    7. Calm
    8. Reflect
    9. Quiet 
    10. Peaceful 
    11. Gently Still 
    12. Serene
    13. Placid
    14. Tranquil
    15. Hush
    16. OM
    17. Kindness 
    18. Gratitude

Most of these words are synonyms of peace, as I believe that is the key benefit / value proposition of the app. You need to come up with as many names as you can, please don’t analyze at this stage. 

  1. Select important words: Not all the words in Step 1 will be usable. Tranquil for example, is nice but it is slightly difficult to spell and Calm is already taken by another major meditation app. At this stage, I will select 5-6 words that can help me in my naming process. Please keep in mind that your target audience should understand / know these words. Please see my selection below: 
    1. Retreat
    2. Being
    3. Gently Still
    4. Pause
    5. Placid
  1. Generate possible names: Now, we will start generating possible names. You can mix and match these words, use synonyms or other prefix/suffix to come up with names - ‘pausemoz’ and ‘placidmind’ for example. Most people stop after 10-15 names, but I would urge you to keep going. I focussed on Still and Being, and this is what I came up with: 
    1. Stilling Down
    2. Still Retreat
    3. Still & Kind
    4. Still Will 
    5. Still Me 
    6. Still Ville
    7. Strickle 
    8. Still Being
    9. Still Street
    10. Being Still 

You can similarly use other words from step 2 and come up with a good list of possible names. 

  1. Checking domain availability: Select the names you like most and check the domain availability. I really liked Stillville but the .com domain was $2000+ and StillWill.com was around $5500. I always prefer .com domains, followed by .co and sometimes .ca (because I am based in Canada). 
  1. Getting the .com domain: This is not a dealbreaker for most people, but I prefer .com domains. And I know that most good .com domains are taken. There is nothing wrong with your country specific domain like .ca or .co.uk and other short TLDs like .co or .io. If you are getting any of these popular TLDs at a price you like you can go with them. 
  1. Arriving at the final name: After trying several names, my final pick was StillMind or Stilling. For there selected words .com domains were not available, so I decided so add extra ‘L’ to the still. Generally I don’t like names such as Livelii (for lively) and Unyte (for unite) but Still with extra ‘l’ emphasized the stillness in my opinion. stilllmind.com and stillling.com were both available. I went with www.stillling.com, which is about ‘still’ and ‘being’.
  1. Testing the name: We all have our biases, including the ‘I am not biased bias’. It is therefore important to test the final name with a few people in the target audience. If you have friends in the target audience it makes things easier. When testing a name always provide context along with the name(s) - what is the name for and why are you testing it. 

That is my process and it has served me well over the years. I hope this helps you coming up with a great brand name/business name .

Pro tips:

1) Your first 10-15 names are generally not the best ones. Don’t stop there, this is a common mistake I see when brainstorming with clients. 

2) Alliteration is great! Names like Coca-Cola and PayPal that start with the same consonant are desirable. 

3) If you are in the food business, and struggling to come up with a name - adding the word ‘Grandma’ in the name can help at times. 

**UPDATE - Oct 8th 2021**

Recently finished reading the book 'The Brand Gap' by Marty Neumeier and the book had some great insights on brand and brand name. I really liked the seven criteria of a good name by the author:

  1. Distinctiveness: Uniqueness, standing out from the crowd esp from other names in its class? The best brand names have the "presence" of a proper noun
  2. Brevity: Short enough for day to day usage without being reduced to a nickname
  3. Appropriateness: Should fit well with the business purpose of the company
  4. Easy spelling and pronunciation: The audience should be able to spell the name once they've heard it, and pronounce it after seeing it written.
  5. Likability: Will your audience enjoy using it? Names with a good 'mouth-feel' do better.
  6. Extendibility: A great name offers endless opportunities for creative execution/brandplay.
  7. Protectability: Can it be trademarked? And is the relevant domain available for your online presence?

E.g. Smuckers - distinctive, short, spellable, pronounceable, likable, portable, and protectable.

A couple of quotes I liked on brand name:

"The need for good brand names originates with customers, and customers will always want convenient ways of identifying, remembering, discussing, and comparing brands.".

George Bernard Shaw’s advice applies to brands as well as people: “Take care to get born well.

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