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Finding balance on the naming tightrope

11 April, 2022 Share socially

In all my experience of brand and marketing over the past twenty-three years, there are few tasks more fraught than creating a new name for a business, product or service.

Rob Meyerson’s recent Harvard Business Review article provides an excellent primer on creating or evaluating potential names for a brand or business. But the reality for most executives and marketers is that it can be the equivalent of walking a tightrope: it’s easy to suffer the ignominy of a fall. And, if you do get to take a few steps before the tightrope starts to wobble, it can be almost impossible to regather your balance and control of the outcome.

However, there is a way to ensure that your naming project doesn’t become a circus.

Firstly, by understanding that naming is creative only to the point that a clear, structured and disciplined process enables it to be so.

And secondly, by recognising that the creation of the name is only the start of the task of making it meaningful and valuable to your commercial endeavours.

So where to start? Let’s go back to the beginning.

Once upon a time

If you are ever presented with a naming challenge – having gone through the experience a hundred times or more – I can honestly say that it helps to try and avoid it at all costs.

There are a dozen ways to solve a naming challenge without having to name or re-name something new, and exploring these will save your team and your business effort, time and money.

Sometimes creating a new name is unavoidable for obvious reasons. For example, a global brand sells one of its local operations and the local business needs a new name under which to operate – for example, when a private equity consortium acquired GE Money’s Australian and New Zealand operations and needed a new brand, Latitude.

At others, a new name can be an unnecessary addition that only detracts from the customer’s experience. For example, Commonwealth Bank’s payments app Kaching was integrated within a few years into its core banking app as simply another function.

If you definitely need to create a new name, then you definitely need to get your strategic story straight. This is your balancing pole as you walk the naming tightrope: the stronger the strategic rationale, the longer your balancing pole, the more stability to perform your creative acrobatics. You’ll need it when the tightrope starts to wobble – by which time it’s too late to backpedal to the start. (As you can imagine, walking backwards on a tightrope is even harder than walking forwards.)

Don’t look down

If you determine the need for the new name and secure the organisational alignment required, there are some essential supports to put in place before you grab your strategic balancing pole and step onto the naming tightrope.

Naming cannot simply be a creative skill in order to succeed, you will need a clear process with the structure and discipline to guide you.

Firstly, your strategic rationale is only as good as the naming brief it produces. That naming brief is worth nothing if it doesn’t acknowledge the full spectrum of naming types and territories, as well as narrow the lens to help you focus on what success looks like.

Don’t forget the mandatory must-haves. Trademarks classes? Market geographies? Cultural considerations? Domain registrations? Social media handles?

All of which, taken together, will help you identify the success criteria to review and evaluate the names themselves – thanks to that oft-repeated mantra, ’the freedom of a tight brief’.

And, the best time to engage your legal team? Now.

If you structure your approach in this way, clarify your process with all involved, and maintain the discipline from end to end, then you can feel sure-footed.

Only then can you step onto the tightrope and start the part of the process that is generating names themselves. It’s inspiring – think synonyms, combinations, derivations, alliterations, translations, transliterations and all manner of wordplay. It’s exhausting – expect to generate hundreds of names as you follow your brief’s lead down all kinds of avenues, alleyways and even the odd cul-de-sac. And, it can also be deflating as you discover how many names are already trademarked. It’s only your process, its structure and discipline that can keep you from looking down.

As you grip your balancing pole more tightly, a clear-eyed focus on the brief will ensure you avoid distractions and keep you looking straight ahead at your targeted outcome.

Is it a word, a name or a super brand?

It’s at this point that I must make an important admission.

All those hundreds of names you’ve now generated, reviewed, evaluated? Something in the order of three, four, five hundred names? None of them are actually names, or at least not yet. They’re just words, no different from the millions of others we use everyday to describe myriad objects and experiences. What’s more, they will only ever be plain-and-simple words until you give them the investment of time, effort and support that they naturally need to grow into names that are as meaningful as they are memorable.

Having accepted that reality, you’re now faced with a quandry. How to know which words could become names? And not just any old name, but a super name for a super brand?

Yes, you have your sound strategic rationale as your ever-present balancing pole, your naming brief and process with its structure and discipline, but you still require something more to inform and inspire the decision-making process. On the one hand, that requires what can best be described as a suspension of disbelief on the part of everyone involved; on the other, that you present the words as realistically as possible so that they even look, feel and sound like names.

Don’t just list each name on a presentation slide.

Put it into a call centre script, read it aloud.

Add it onto your website, how does it feel?

Write it into a media release, what does it say?

Make it feel as real as possible. So that you can prompt people to respond as realistically as possible.

They think it’s all over

After a few rounds of naming, screening, shortlisting, selecting and re-selecting, you’ve found your name.

Even before you’ve finished celebrating agreement on a name that you and your team can each variously love, like or live with – all three are good outcomes! – the party can be premature if you haven’t got your legal team to green-light the trademark too.

The lucky few, having engaged their legal team from the start, stand tall and straight as they near the end of the process. Others find their tightrope quickly begins to wobble under their feet as meetings diarised for the grand reveal quickly turn to dust.

What’s more, besides the legal trademarking, there’s also the complementary task of securing URL registrations and social media handles to match your chosen name. All of which can add an unexpected level of complexity if you walk the naming tightrope unprepared.

A useful aid at this point in the process can be a third party to act as a broker to purchase domain names and social media handles. Always use a third party for this. You will add zeros to the sale price if you do it yourself in the wild west of the world wide web – where every name is worth nothing to anyone until it’s worth something to you.

For one brand I helped name, the make-or-break moment came down to a series of phone calls to a man leading a camel train across the Simpson Desert in Australia. For he happened to be the owner of a particular domain that happened to fit the new name for a company rebranding itself post acquisition. The domain was sold and the new name launched largely through the strong relationship with the legal team that had been forged from the start – the fact that the legal team understood how and when to provide their support was not only enabled but also emboldened by the process.

The end of the beginning

If you reach the end of the naming tightrope, it’s the end of the beginning – and the start of a new and exciting chapter in your brand’s growth and evolution.

Building meaning into your name is imperative and so begin the internal and external communications and interactions to fix the new name in people’s minds. It’s only with this investment of time, effort and support that your chosen word will realise its true potential as your brand’s name. So, invest wisely in the confidence that all the time you invested in taking each and every step on that naming tightrope will be worth its weight in gold.

An abridged version of this article was first published by The Australian on 4 April 2022.