A couple of years ago I published a post about the importance of writing a naming brief before you start your naming project. I thought I’d said all that needed to be said on the topic, but I continue to get queries that suggest more advice may be needed. So here are detailed guidelines for anyone (a) embarking on a do-it-yourself naming exercise or (b) planning to engage the services of a professional name developer.
Here, for starters, is what a naming brief is not:
- A naming brief is not a business plan. Your cash-flow projections and exit strategy are vitally important to your business, but they aren’t relevant to the naming exercise.
- A naming brief is not an elevator pitch. A naming brief is longer, for one thing. And it isn’t a pitch.
- A naming brief is not a design brief. Getting warmer, but a naming brief focuses on language rather than looks.
Two recommendations as you prepare to dive in:
1. Write the naming brief in the third person, even if it’s for your own company. This will help you take a step back and look objectively, even skeptically, at your own project.
2. If you’ve been using a placeholder name or a code name for your company or product, stop. Now. Instead, use “NewCo” or “NewProduct” or “XYZ” throughout the naming brief to talk about your project.
Got it? Let’s get started.
1. Concept statement. Begin the naming brief with two or three sentences—no more, please—that set the stage. “Until now, laser hair removal has taken place in doctors’ offices or medical spas,” began one concept statement I wrote. “The new XYZ technology allows consumers to use laser hair-removal technology in the privacy of their homes.” (I named this particular technology Tria, which later became the company name as well.) Another concept statement read, in its entirety: “By investing in equitable outcomes, XYZ Company changes the way divorces are fought and resolved.” This XYZ became Balance Point Divorce Funding.
2. Overview/background. Take a couple of sentences to describe the company: where it is, when it was founded, what it does. Then introduce the naming challenge; for example, “The name must make a strong statement and suggest ‘breakthrough’ and ‘innovation.’” Or: “XYZ is currently in stealth mode, and plans to relaunch under a new name in October 20xx.”
3. Market. Describe your customers or audience here, as specifically as possible: “Customers are Brooklyn dog owners with high disposable incomes ($150,000 to $250,000 HHI) and busy lives.” “The audience for this program comprises college students pursuing engineering and science degrees. In high school, they competed in science fairs; more than a quarter of them applied for a patent while they were still in their teens.” (Both of these examples are hypothetical.)
4. Competitors, vendors, and partners. Name names, please: the point here is to identify all names that might create confusion or conflict with the name of your own company or product. For example, I once worked with a company that had two major competitors whose names began, respectively, with “X” and “Al-.” There was no point exploring names for my client that began with those letters—the potential for confusion was too high.
You may want to include notes about your competitors’ names: enviably memorable? silly? hard to pronounce or spell?
5. Naming history. Few naming projects start with a completely blank slate. If you are renaming a company or product, write a sentence or two about how the original name was developed and why it needs to be changed. If you’re naming something new, include all names that have already been suggested—even if you don’t like any of them.
6. Brand personality. Be as objective as you can and list as many adjectives as possible that describe how your brand “feels” or “acts.” Is it playful, aggressive, serious, diligent, zany, compassionate, straightforward, iconoclastic? If two personality traits appear contradictory—risk-taking and dogged?—ask yourself whether your customers will be confused by the contradiction. If necessary, add a phrase explaining why both are valid.
7. Naming objectives (what the name should or must communicate). Objectives are best expressed as a list of words, short phrases, or sentences. An imaginary list of naming objectives might include up to a dozen bullet points—but keep in mind that no single name is capable of communicating 12 objectives. (A successful name communicates one or two objectives and may suggest a couple more.) Here’s a list of objectives from a naming project of my own from several years ago (the client made a piece of technological hardware):
- Corporate stature
- The future
- Vision, sense of sight
- True digital
- Cool, smart
Each objective was supported by a brief explanation: “Corporate stature: A serious contender in the eyes of investors, customers, and prospective employees.”
8. Naming criteria (how the name should or must be constructed). This is where you specify all your linguistic requirements and wishes. If all your products are named in alphabetical order and this is the sixth product in the series, then include a bullet point specifying that the name must begin with an F. If you’re interested only in English-language names, that’s a bullet point. If you’re OK with coined (made-up) names, numeral-based names, or Klingon names, each of those criteria goes into this section.
The naming brief for the technology project I mentioned in #7 included these criteria:
- Suggestive names (Palm, Google, Flickr) are preferred over descriptive names (Blogger, DirecTV)
- Coined names OK, but avoid “sounding like a drug” and be sure the word can supported by a story
- Consider Romanian as a source language
- Consider Sanskrit as a source language
- Consider other non-English words
- Avoid names that can be reduced to TLAs (three-letter acronyms)
- Avoid Rs and Ls in initial sound (problems in East Asian market)
Other projects have included criteria such as “Name must appear legible in all-lower-case type” and “should sound cool and modern.”
I end every list of criteria with three non-negotiables:
Depending on the project, “available” may mean “for trademark protection” or “as a domain,” or both. Sometimes I create a separate category, “Domain Criteria,” that includes specifics such as which extensions are acceptable: .com, .biz, .co, .me, etc.
9. Miscellaneous ideas. Sometimes a great name arrives via a side route rather than a main artery. In this section, include any facts or associations that have influenced your company or brand: books, music, mentors, travel destinations, the name of the restaurant where the founders first sketched out their ideas on a napkin (and even what they ate and drank).
Two final notes.
One: You may already have come up with a name without going through the naming-brief exercise. I urge you to write the naming brief anyway, with one caveat: Avoid the very strong temptation to reverse-engineer the brief to fit the name you’ve already picked. The point of the exercise is to discover what you’re naming and why. What you learn may surprise you.
And two: The naming brief is a written document. The point is to get the ideas out of your head and onto paper.
And remember, for a reasonable fee, I’m available to critique your naming brief and suggest areas you may have overlooked or underdeveloped. Read about my naming services for small businesses. UPDATE: I no longer offer low-cost naming services, but I do review naming briefs over the phone. Please read about my Clarity.fm services.
Read other posts in my Naming 101 series.
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