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Choosing your company’s name can be excruciating. This one decision will have significant branding consequences for years. After all, it’s your organization’s entire story, distilled down to one or two words.
Many business owners struggle to come up with just one viable name. Steve Cecil, on the other hand, regularly comes up with hundreds. This ad industry veteran has named businesses since 2001 and worked with hundreds of companies, including GE, Nike, and Bank of America.
“For example, I was asked by the Innovation Team at General Mills to help launch a few new Yoplait yogurts,” said Cecil. “They told me one had just six simple ingredients, so I listened hard and named it Simplait. Then they told me about another extension with twice the fruit, so I named it Fruplait.”
According to Cecil, a powerful name must instantly communicate what customers should expect to feel.
“The most important requirement of modern-day naming is to rise above the level of what the company makes and does, pushing past the product functionality or mere service offering and transcending into the realm of what the (intended) brand experience is like—or as—to the user,” he said.
Research is critical to Cecil’s process, and for good reason. He’s seen what happens when business owners choose a business name without adequate research.
“In the 1995 Adidas/Nike/Puma/Fila battle for supremacy among 18-34-year-old males, cheeky sneaker-maker Reebok bucked the trend by targeting women,” said Cecil. “So it was both baffling as well as horrifying when they named their new shoe ‘Incubus.’” All 53,000 pairs of the $60 shoes had to be immediately recalled.
“In their apparent delight at discovering that the trademark was unregistered, they failed to consult Mr. Webster, who defines incubus as ‘a mythical demon who has sex with women in their sleep,’” Cecil said.
A typical naming assignment takes Cecil between two and three weeks, during which he delivers around 300 names. He begins by conducting an in-depth marketplace survey to examine opportunities for new brand archetypes. He then takes four to five hours to fully digest everything he has learned from his research, client conversations, and planning sessions.
“When my mind is literally brimming with ideas, I sit down for the first of two creative sessions,” Cecil explains on his website. “I start by building around theme words which execute on your creative brief, I look to other languages for roots and morphemes [the smallest grammatical unit in a given language] to borrow, and I ideate profusely.”
During this first creative session, he generates approximately one name per minute. During the second creative session, he types up his notes in search of additional channels worth pursuing. Once he’s generated a full list of names, he sends the list to his client.
“The best way to come up with a great name often involves first coming up with a great number of bad names,” Cecil said. “You have to work through the first couple (hundred) obvious ideas before you get to the brilliant-but-not-obvious connections that are truly memorable and marketable.”
A name has value beyond basic branding, and the process is more complex than just choosing the one you like. Legal compliance and search engine compatibility must also be taken into consideration.
This is why Cecil—once his clients have whittled hundreds of names down to just 20—conducts preliminary research with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) database.
“There are numerous free resources [like Trademarkia and the patent and trademark search functions at USPTO.gov], but I use the ThompsonReuter’s Compumark Saegis on Serion tool for legal prescreens,” said Cecil. “In addition to this robust subscriber-only service that can scour all 178 trademark databases worldwide, I do find Google to be helpful in gauging the common-law ‘speech-stream visibility’ of a word or phrase.”
It’s a complicated process, but the end result is very straightforward. Five “finalists”—each with a fully developed explanation for why the name is a strong candidate—are delivered to the client. Cecil strongly advises his clients to remain objective when choosing the winner.
“Before you even start ideating, prioritize the criteria you’ll use to evaluate the names. Naming is subjective, so try to quantify your bias,” he noted. “Answer this question as many times as you can, in order to capture everyone’s expectations: ‘I want a name that . . . ‘”
Overall, Cecil encourages business owners to choose names that can help yield more business. “Your name should give you an advantage in a competitive scenario, and you need a new one if it doesn’t,” he said.
Ritika Puri specializes in business, marketing, entrepreneurship and tech. She writes for American Express OPEN Forum, Forbes, Investopedia, Business Insider, CMO, the SAP Innovation Blog and others.
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