Naming: A High-Stakes Game

Think about the difference several well-chosen words can make in either bringing to life or breaking a compelling idea.

Compare BMW’s tagline The Ultimate Driving Machine to Ford’s Drive One. Just a few words can make all the difference in the world. BMW’s tagline is a bang. Ford’s is a whimper.

Would you rather have Wi-Fi in your car or a Bluetooth?

Now think about phone companies. Is TeleConnect a better name than Orange for a telecommunications service? Which company would be most innovative? Which would bring something new into your world? Which name stands a better chance of helping you to differentiate yourself in a crowded marketplace of ideas? To use the company’s wonderful tagline, The future is Orange.

But conventional research often kills seemingly risky names like Orange, Bluetooth and Twitter—names which otherwise might outperform more suggestive, literal names like TeleConnect, Wi-Fi and QuickText.

Fact is, a brand name is the most powerful piece of messaging. It’s also one of the most ubiquitous components of any branding program. No matter what, the name is always there—whether you see it in the small black and white print of a newspaper article, hear it on the radio or watch it brought to life on a television screen.

Pursuing a name is an involved process that can be time-consuming and expensive—involving trademark clearance, language and linguistic analysis, registration of domain names and corresponding activities, such as positioning and visual identity. And the marketplace is crowded, making it hard to find a name that is both unique and compelling. In Q1 of 2012, there were more than 1,752,424 active name registrations in the U.S. alone. Given these high stakes, organizations increasingly want more assurance that they’ve chosen the right name. So when selecting a name, it is important to use the right decision-making tools.

The goal of name research is to determine whether a name accomplishes its purpose—is it distinct and does it prompt consideration? In addition, we wish to understand how a name affects perception—how does it contribute value to the brand, what is the brand personality that the name helps to create and is the name flexible (e.g., is there brand stretch)? If done well, name research can also reveal the interplay between words and other brand elements such as messaging and visual identity.

Name research also mitigates risk—what we call the “disaster check.” This is especially critical when naming global products or multinationals, where a language gaffe can turn into a public relations nightmare. Just as important is what name research does behind the scenes—helping to inform the rationale for a name decision and overcome the biases, internal politics and idiosyncrasies that can sway client decision-making.

This paper explores the nuts and bolts of name research—what it can accomplish, how to prepare for research, the different research methodologies that can be used and the pitfalls to avoid when designing research and interpreting data.

Why research a name?

Practitioners will tell you that the creation of a corporate or product name is rooted in gut instinct. Although it is a blend of art and science, clients have to embrace a certain level of ambiguity. Given the level of investment, this can feel a bit uncomfortable, and often leads to a request to validate or winnow down the selection of names that is generated. So it is understandable when naming experts bristle after receiving requests to test or measure their creativity. But this doesn’t have to be a stand-off. Naming is poetry, not a blueprint. But that doesn’t mean we can’t evaluate a name to make sure the poetry works.

Other clients will ask us why they should bother conducting research at all. To put it simply, research allows us to understand the assets and liabilities of a name and what it can do for a brand. It isn’t a matter of identifying the “winning” name, but rather understanding the options—and how a name, together with visual identity and messaging, can accomplish its purpose. There are several situations where research proves to be particularly useful:

  • The company wants to understand how well a name works in different regions of the world
  • Stakeholders are not in agreement or individual stakeholders have a name that they strongly favor
  • The decision is extremely political or the project could have far-reaching consequences (e.g., a company acquisition, the dissolution of a brand or product line)
  • The corporate culture is very consensus-driven and the company needs data to help drive decision-making
  • The company recognizes the ability of the name to play a role in the marketing mix that can provide either creative or strategic value, and it seeks clarity on the name’s potential to deliver such value

That said, there are a few instances where we’ve recommended that clients not test a name because the value does not outweigh the investment. For instance, when a client comes to us with several similar names, or names that are very literal and less dimensional (e.g., Smart, IQ, Professional), name validation may not be as useful. With such a nominal difference, it is not worth $50,000 to split hairs.

What can name research tell you?

Here we should begin with a discussion about what name research is not used for. Your goal should never be to choose a “winning” name or determine the likeability of a name. You would never ask a focus group participant to develop a strategy for your product. Similarly, do not look to consumers to generate names.

Instead, research should demonstrate a name’s ability to support the brand positioning and attributes while distinguishing the product in the marketplace. In particular, name research will reveal:

The associations or connotations that people tie to a word can be feelings, thoughts or imagery. They can reveal who might use the product, what the product says about the person who uses it, what someone thinks a product (or company) would stand for, be or do. This includes any unforeseen negative associations that people have with particular words.

Dimensionality is based on people’s perceptions, feelings and the range of associations they have with particular words and brands—be they visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile or taste. In short, what kind of experience will a product by this name deliver? Dimensionality also has to do with the level of engagement—how extensible a word is, how rich in meaning it is. Greater dimensionality is a key indicator, at face value, of a name’s ability to be memorable and engage consumers at an emotional level.

As an example, take the word “juju,” whose associations are wide-ranging and rich in meaning: groovy/hip, taboo, mystery, exotic, small, cute, friendly, witchcraft, confidence, luck, sex/sex appeal, magic, illicit, powerful and medicine. Juju has more dimensionality (range and diversity of associations) than a name like “canopy,” which elicits very literal (and limited) associations (e.g., picnic, tent, outdoors, parachute).

Dimensionality is also critical because it is a measure of the flexibility of a name. The more flexible a name is, the easier it is to adapt to different product line extensions or price tiers. Names with greater dimensionality can provide companies with more up-market (and down-market) stretch.

Value contribution
It is vital to know how well the name contributes value to the concept, category and brand. Does the name reflect the desired brand attributes? Does it echo the desired corporate values? While value is important, it is critical to distinguish between value and fit. Fit to category is not necessarily the end goal if the strategy is to differentiate the brand. This can be challenging. Research has shown that people will judge the appropriateness of a brand name based on their beliefs associated with the brand name and the product category. Within the context of research, they are likely to prefer a brand name that fits to the stereotype of that particular product category.1 But often, in the real world, the opposite is true.

Messaging, voice and positioning
Through qualitative projection exercises, we can explore consumer needs and brand personality traits, which contribute to the brand voice.

Emotional engagement
The overarching goal of any brand—whether a product or service—is to forge a strong bond with the consumer. It is crucial that we know what a name elicits—not only thoughts and imagery, but how a name makes a person feel. That feeling can come from using the product or what that product says about the person who uses it (e.g., when she drives a Porsche, she feels powerful and accomplished). When a brand can tap into emotional attributes, it is extremely advantageous because they are easier to defend (and harder for competitors to replicate) than purely functional ones, such as price.

It is easier to ask for a product (or recommend it to a friend) if the name is simple to pronounce. As an example, take Façonnable (fa-SON-ah-bluh), the French apparel brand. It is difficult to pronounce if you’re not a French speaker and difficult to remember if you are unfamiliar with the brand.

Auditory resonance
The importance of sound cannot be overstated. When a person hears a name for the first time, there is always a reaction—positive or negative. We know that consumers associate certain words or sounds with particular meanings, and they tend to respond positively if the name matches the attributes that are associated with that product category.2 For instance, sports cars typically convey speed. So words that sound fast or suggest high performance tend to test better than words that do not. We also know that different sounds and letter combinations can elicit specific characteristics. Names that contain a long “e” sound (as in teeny) tend to be perceived as small. Conversely, when producing a long ”o” (as in Omega) or a short “a” (as in America), the voice box is larger and the mouth is wide open. Therefore, these letter combinations sound like something that is large.3 In a comparison of 200 top brands, names such as Kodak and Coca-Cola were historically more successful.4 Why? They contain the letters “P,” “T” or “K” or have a hard “C” sound. These forceful letters (called plosives) require air pressure in your mouth. They dominate other letters in the words in which they appear, and draw our attention. Brand names beginning with plosives also tend to have higher recall scores than non-plosive names.

Preparing for research

It is critical to answer several questions before the validation of a new name can take place. First, you must determine what is important to your target audience (desired benefits) and what will ultimately influence a purchase decision (preference drivers). Once you know what these drivers are, you must determine how you measure up against them. All these inputs will contribute to your brand positioning and name development.

In addition to the up-front research, you’ll need to execute language checks and a trademark search. The trademark work should come before any research takes place. It makes no sense to spend time and effort on name research if you don’t have rights to use the names in question. That leaves the language checks. The ideal scenario would be to vet language issues before name research begins. But there are times when the budget is expansive (or the timeline prohibitive), so clients may execute the two in parallel.

Also important is developing a clear understanding of the brand architecture and the role it will play in naming (e.g., a house of brands versus branded house or hybrid strategy). In addition, you should research your competitors’ naming conventions as well as those of the category as a whole. Then, identify the white space of unoccupied territory and situations when names should not defy category conventions.

Choosing the right methodology

Once the groundwork has been laid, we develop a research plan to understand the strengths and weaknesses of different methodologies and how they can work together.

Qualitative thinking is what drives name research. Even when we conduct quantitative name studies, our focus is on participants’ perceptions, feelings and their associations with particular words and brands—be they visual, auditory or experiential. The most thorough approach is to combine both qualitative and quantitative. But restrictions on time and budget can make this untenable.

When names are ready to be evaluated, we suggest one-on-one interviews rather than focus groups, because the researcher can obtain in-depth feedback with the ability to probe in detail. The face-to-face interaction also affords more creativity. For example, you might ask someone to select images from a magazine to describe the type of person who would drive a Tesla. That’s much harder to do with surveys, which are much more structured and provide limited opportunity for extemporaneous discussion. Qualitative research is also ideal when there are visual representations of the name (e.g., logo, packaging), because participants can interact more fully with the stimuli.

The benefit of quantitative research is that the sample is large enough so that the results are projectable (representative of the entire population being researched). Clients feel that they can sell a name internally because quantitative research confers statistical rigor and validity. When developing corporate or product names that will be used globally, quantitative research can also be more time- and cost-effective than qualitative.

Whether qualitative or quantitative, a name evaluation typically consists of several rounds. We call this test structure a “phased reveal.” The idea is to elicit feedback from test participants incrementally, so as not to bias their perceptions. The questions asked in each round can vary depending upon the research objectives, but there are several areas of inquiry that typically appear in a name evaluation.

  • Round I: The name at face value. No other information is revealed to the participant. Here, our objective is to understand what feelings, imagery, experiences or perceptions are triggered by the words.
  • Round II: The name in context. After the name is revealed, the product category is introduced to determine how perceptions may change. At this stage, we begin to see how strongly each name reflects the desired functional and emotional attributes of the brand. In qualitative research, we can probe further, exploring human traits associated with each name, and whether these align to the desired brand personality and voice.
  • Round III: Association with the corporate brand. Here we observe how perceptions change when the client’s brand is associated with the name, including any negative connotations. For example, an initial reaction to a gasoline named “EcoFirst” might be positive. But when associated with BP, reactions turn negative due to a lack of credibility and in congruence between the claim (signaled through the name) and the corporate reputation. During this round, we also explore conversion (likelihood to consider, buy and/or recommend) as well as brand stretch (e.g., to what degree a name encompasses high and low price points).

Pitfalls to avoid when designing research and interpreting data

The appraisal of names can be fraught with challenges and unseen pitfalls—in particular, the misinterpretation of data.

Be aware that certain types of names sometimes test better than others

Context is everything. As a result, it’s difficult to make the case that one type of name is inherently better or worse than another. That said, there are situations in which names can elicit particular reactions from individuals.

Because a coined word (e.g., Kleenex) is made up, it may be difficult for people to connect the word to a functional attribute (e.g., comfort). So it’s not uncommon for coined names to receive lower ratings on functional brand attributes. The upside is that in certain contexts, coined names can be more distinctive, and therefore more likely to pass trademark clearance and domain name searches. Coined names are also more flexible because of their ambiguity, so they can adjust to changes in a company’s positioning or product offering. They also simplify buy-in at the executive level because, unlike real words, people don’t have literal associations with made-up words. So in that regard, they tend to be less polarizing.

Evocative names (e.g., Cloud tissues) have a rich range of associations. They tend to engage people and support an experience, but are not as immediately transparent as suggestive names.

Suggestive names (e.g., SofTish tissues) are literal and tend to score more highly than evocative or coined names. They require less “thinking” or interpretation. The downside of suggestive names is that they may fail to stand out.

Context is important, but can skew the results

The researcher’s goal is to simulate reality as much as possible. This is called ecological validity. When testing a name, if there is no context or real-world simulation, our understanding of human perception and decision-making is fl awed and/or incomplete. Providing context through notional applications—the name displayed on a business card, product packaging or an employee handbook—contributes to what is being communicated about the product or company. There are other visual cues such as typeface and color. A tagline can add further definition to the name as can the company brand.

The source of the name (company brand) is just as important as its visual representation. For instance, premium is a brand attribute that is coveted by many companies. It designates the high-end of a product portfolio. Consider a new premium skin care line called “Dimension.” What would you expect to pay if you were to buy this at Target? What about Neiman Marcus? One brand’s premium product line is not the same as another. That is why it is important to provide context when researching a name.

However, providing this real-world context can also skew the data—what is known as the positivity principle.5 When people see the name on a business card, an advertisement or packaging, it confers validity to the name. Consumers assume that if a Fortune 500 company has adopted the name, it has some merit and should be given the benefit of the doubt. As a result, they tend to respond more positively to names that look “established” whether or not they are actually in use.

With brand attributes, more doesn’t mean better

Brands wish to communicate particular attributes or functions (e.g., quality of customer service, low price, safety). Therefore, it is useful to see whether a name delivers any of the characteristics that your company or product wants to be associated with.

Some clients believe that the more a name reflects the desired brand attributes, the better. This is only somewhat true. Names alone do not need to convey all the desired attributes (and most do not). If a name doesn’t project a particular attribute, other elements—such as typography, a logo, packaging design, the in-store experience, advertising—can compensate. Remember that all these elements work together to create an impression.

Memorability is good, but difficult to measure

Memorability is critical. We know that more meaningful names are easier to remember and that high imagery names are easier to remember6 than low imagery names.7 In addition, memorability can lead to greater word-of-mouth sharing, which makes it cheaper to build brand awareness.

While it is important to know whether a name is memorable, testing memorability is challenging. A true measure requires a lapse of time—can a name be remembered a day, week or month later, when a buying decision takes place? This cannot be accurately determined at the end of a 20-minute survey. So, memorability questions should be taken with a grain of salt if asked within a single evaluation. What we can measure is the memorability of one name versus another at that given point in time.

Negative associations can be positive

Invariably people will have negative associations with a word. However, it is important to know how to interpret the data. Sometimes, bad is good.

Negative capability describes a situation in which associations that would otherwise be negative have a potentially positive affect. Again, consider the name “juju.” It might be interpreted as powerful, illicit, exotic or secretive. This could be extremely beneficial if you were naming a perfume, but a liability if you were naming a money market fund. FCUK, Urban Decay, Death Cigarettes—all these names are negative at face value, but have been transformed into brands that are hip and edgy.

Brands and categories fit differently

“Fit to brand” is a typical metric of success when testing names—to what degree a product name is consistent with the corporate brand image. There is also “fit to category”—to what degree the product name resembles competitor product names within the category (e.g., pharmaceuticals). But to survive, companies and products must differentiate themselves within the marketplace. By definition, differentiation is at odds with fit to category, which is more about assimilation. This presents branders with a conundrum: differentiated ideas (product names, features or design) are essential ingredients for an effective brand strategy, but these same ideas are disliked by people because they are unfamiliar.8

Category bias should be avoided

When associating names with desirable brand attributes, it is important to look outside the product category. This ensures that the category isn’t revealed prematurely (triggering all the inherent category biases), and also allows researchers to test brand attributes that typically are not associated with the category in question. For example, “beautifully designed” might not be a brand attribute people associate with thermostats. But if research participants are told that they are evaluating the names of luxury watches, it would be an easier question to answer. Sometimes it is necessary to break people’s existing perceptions of the category.


Name research can be costly. But it can be used to mediate the even costlier internal debates that can stymie a product’s rollout. Name research can also mitigate risk— especially in situations where a global brand is about to be launched. But before research begins, it’s critical to understand what research can (and cannot) achieve. The intention is not to pick a winning name or quantify the value of a name. But if done well, name research can provide insight into the minds of consumers, how they respond to particular words and what impact this can have on their relationship to your product, service or corporate brand.

Nikolas Contis is global director of Naming for Siegel+Gale.

1. Bodenhausen and Wyer, 1985.
2. Peterson and Ross, 1972.
3. Jim Singer, President/Creative Director, Namebase, “Teensy and Humongous Inc.”
Available at
4. Yorkston and Menon, 2001.
5. Anthony Shore,
6. Kanungo, Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 53, 1969.
7. Robertson, Kim R. “Recall and Recognition Effects of Brand Name Imagery,” Psychology and Marketing, Volume 4, Issue 1, Spring,1987.
8. Bruce Tait, “How Marketing Science Undermines Brands,” Admap, October 2004.

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