What’s in a Name? 5 Questions to Ask Before You Commit to Your Forever Brand

Sometimes, the name of a product comes to us, fully formed, long before we’ve hired a soul or prototyped a thing. Other times, the name is the very last piece of the puzzle to fall into place. Whether you are struggling to come up with the right name or simply checking whether yours works, here are five questions you can ask yourself.

1. Does the name describe your product?

To be descriptive, a name does not have to be literal. In fact, many of the best brand names are simply evocative. Think Greyhound (a bus named after the fastest dog breed), Amazon (a mighty and fast-flowing river of products), Shutterfly (speedy photography), and Oracle (the all-knowing software company).

Other brand names are synonymous with their founders—Ben & Jerry’s, Ford Motors, Hewlett Packard, Disney. Some of the most successful brands use names that are completely stripped of imagination or artifice: SalesForce, Texas Instruments, Electronic Arts. Being downright literal hasn’t hurt their success.

“Apple is a great name. It’s simple yet deep. It can mean nothing or it can mean the world.”
— Robert Williams, Client Giant

2. Does the name describe your user?

Perhaps more important than whether your name describes your product is whether it actually speaks to the user. When Steve Jobs introduced the iMac in 1998, he claimed that the i stood for internet, individual, instruct, inform, and inspire. These are the qualities his customers were looking for. Note that he didn’t call it the aMac for Apple.

3. Does the name communicate benefits or differentiate you from the competition?

Did you know that the name Haagen-Dazs means absolutely nothing in Danish? It’s a made-up word, but it sure sounds more sophisticated and exotic than the average ice-cream brand. Nike was the ancient Greek goddess of victory. Uniqlo is a Japanese clothing company, but that brand stole from the English word “unique” to denote an inexpensive line of clothes with a worldly flavor.

“Names have a rhythm. Saying them out loud makes this rhythm easier to spot.”
— Robert Williams, Client Giant

4. Is your name memorable and easy to pronounce?

The easiest test of a name’s pronunciation practically is to ask people to read it out loud. Do they stumble? Starbucks, Pandora, Reebok—these are unique and original names, but no one is going to mispronounce them. Skype, the merging of “sky” (like the cloud) and “peer-to-peer,” came readymade to be used as a verb.

“The spectrum of distinctiveness runs from generic on one end to fanciful on the other. In between are descriptive, suggestive, and arbitrary trademarks.”
— Nancy Friedman

5. Is it too generic? Or too specific?

Obviously, a too-generic name is just, well, boring. It can be hard to remember. And it is almost impossible to legally protect. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office specifically looks for a name to be distinctive in order to be worthy of a trademark. If you’re planning on naming your cutting-edge cloud-based service application “Cloud-based Service Application,” you might want to dig a little deeper.

Using generic names has worked for some companies: Hotels.com, Cars.com, the actual product Beer. But these are outliers. Irony might not be what you’re going for.

Unlike nearly every other aspect of creating and marketing a product, the name shouldn’t necessarily evolve over time. You’ll want to choose a name and stick with it. So make sure you ask yourself these five questions — and really consider the answers — before you secure that domain name.

Read our book Got Ideas? How to Turn Your Ideas into Products People Want to Use for more insight into why bureaucracy is bad for digital products.