Choosing a Brand Name: How Not to Screw it Up

I’m a little tired of people saying that groups come up with a brand name as an afterthought. If that’s true, those businesses are run by idiots. People put plenty of thought into their brand names, but it usually doesn’t go much further than picking a stylish name and dreaming up logo concepts. The truth is they’re actually shortchanging themselves and possibly even sabotaging their branding efforts by not going deeper.

Before you jump deep into the details of your logo, color schemes and the legalistic rituals of solidifying your brand, you need to do your homework and make sure you come out with a brand name that will be the foundation for everything else you do. Here are some rules to follow so you don’t fail colossally at choosing the right name for your brand.

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Keep it Short

This may seem like common sense, but I’m not sure people get just how short a name should be in order to remain memorable, and I do mean short. I’m talking, like two or three syllables at most. Think of the big brand names you know (“Google,” “Apple,” “Coca-Cola”). Short names resonate; they have a verbal and aural texture that makes them stand out of the ordinary so they stick.

Organizations that have long names often resort to acronyms, but those are usually hard to brand. You should stay away from them unless the acronym itself is especially catchy. Even then, people will likely not know what it represents, like “M&M” or “IKEA”, for example.

What Connotations Does Your Brand Evoke

Think of naming your business like naming a band. It can really help to have some kind of impact; have some meaning behind it. Hearing it should fire off a host of other associations with other ideas and concepts in people’s brains, or at least not bring up any negative ones. Those ideas, feelings and concepts will attach themselves—however obliquely—to your brand, and they shape the first impression people have of it.

A lot of companies try to walk the line between being edgy and offensive/ridiculous, but it often fails because they’re going for a gimmick rather than thinking about the core values they want their brand to evoke. Don’t think you can beat a cultural or linguistic association, it’s a losing battle, and your branding energy is better spent elsewhere.

Watch Out for Unknown Slang

Our culture is an increasingly complex and fragmented one, with each subculture having its own slang, phrasing and terminology. Therefore, you need to be careful not to run afoul of bad associations with your brand name. Check the Urban Dictionary and do exhaustive web searches to make sure you’re not naming your company or product line after a dirty euphemism or otherwise embarrassing slang. Then your brand will be a joke and you won’t have a prayer of controlling your public image.

Check International Usage as Well

It doesn’t happen so often now that checking your brand name is as simple as Googling it, but you could be stumbling on a brand name that matches one in another country, even if the name has a different meaning there.

International translations and slang can also get you into trouble by associating your brand with inappropriate terms and concepts. It’s impossible to fully guard against this problem, but in our increasingly globalized marketplace, you should at least screen for the most obvious translations and associations to avoid future branding problems overseas.

Always(!) Shop the Name Around before Committing

As with brain surgeons and hair dyes, it’s usually a good idea to get a second opinion before you really commit to a brand name. Sometimes you’re just too close to the idea to look at it objectively anymore. Float the name(s) you’re considering internally first and collect as much feedback as you can from the people most familiar with what your business is. Then go external and find some trustworthy folks who will give you honest opinions and expert advice about whether the name matches your branding goals and values.

Following these types of rules can help you avoid the worst branding mistakes. Hopefully, they’ll help warn you off of conceptually flawed brand names and steer you toward a name that makes it easy to shape the brand, and its accompanying linguistic and cultural associations, in a way that pushes the image you want for your product or company.

What’s the worst brand name you’ve ever heard of?

Mike Mann is an entrepreneur, author and philanthropist who funds his many charitable aims through profits from his many successful companies. Learn more about his principles of success in business and charity by downloading his book or reading his blog.