How to Pick the Perfect Brand Name

Dan Heath and Chip Heath on what we can learn from the world's brand kings.

Even more than the crazy wigs and high-protein clothing, it's the name that makes Lady Gaga. If her name were Bethany Cranston (or, say, Stefani Germanotta), forget about it.

Everybody wants a Gaga name for their new product/website/startup. But if you've ever brainstormed about names, you know how deflating the process can be. The URLs for every four-letter word in the English language have long since been snatched up. Yet you crave something unique, something legally protectable. So here come the artful misspellings ("Gene-yus") and the syllable mashups ("TechnoRiffic"). Later, as you review your whiteboard full of gawky names, someone walks by with a BlackBerry and you seethe with envy. That's how it's done. (Hey, has anyone trademarked Graype?)

No one in the naming world has generated more envy than a boutique firm called Lexicon. You may not recognize the name. But Lexicon has created 15 billion-dollar brand names, including BlackBerry, Dasani, Febreze, OnStar, Pentium, Scion, and Swiffer.

Lexicon's steady success shows that great names do not come from lightning-bolt moments. (Nobody gets struck 15 times.) Rather, Lexicon's magic is its creative process.

Consider its recent work for Colgate, which was preparing to launch a disposable mini toothbrush. The center of the brush holds a dab of special toothpaste, which is designed to make rinsing unnecessary. So you can carry the toothbrush with you, use it in a cab or an airplane lavatory, and then toss it out.

Lexicon founder and CEO David Placek's first insight came early. When you first see the toothbrush, Placek says, what stands out is its small size. "You'd be tempted to start thinking about names that highlight the size, like Petite Brush or Porta-Brush," he says. As his team began to use the brush, what struck them was how unnatural it was, at first, not to spit out the toothpaste. But this new brush doesn't create a big mass of minty lather — the mouthfeel is lighter and more pleasant, more like a breath strip. So it dawned on them that the name of the brush should not signal smallness. It should signal lightness, softness, gentleness.

Armed with that insight, Placek asked his network of linguists — 70 of them in 50 countries — to start brainstorming about metaphors, sounds, and word parts that connote lightness. Meanwhile, he asked another two colleagues within Lexicon to help. But he kept these two in the dark about the client and the product. Instead, he gave this team — let's call them the excursion team — a fictional mission. He told them that the cosmetics brand Olay wanted to introduce a line of oral-care products and it was their job to help it brainstorm about product ideas.

Placek chose Olay because he believed that beauty was an implicit selling point for the new brush. "Good oral care means white teeth, and white teeth are better looking," Placek says. So the excursion team began to come up with intriguing ideas. For instance, they proposed an Olay Sparkling Rinse, a mouthwash that would make your teeth gleam.

In the end, it was the insight about lightness, rather than beauty, that prevailed. The team of linguists produced a long list of possible words and phrases, and when Placek reviewed it, a word jumped out at him: wisp. It was the perfect association for the new brushing experience and it tested well; it's not something heavy and foamy, it's barely there. It's a wisp. Thus was born the Colgate Wisp.

Notice what's missing from the Lexicon process: the part when everyone sits around a conference table, staring at the toothbrush and brainstorming names together. ("Hey, how about ToofBrutch — the URL is available!") Instead, Lexicon's leaders often create three teams of two, with each group pursuing a different angle. Some of the teams, blind to the client and the product, chase analogies from related domains. For instance, in naming Levi's new Curve ID jeans, which offer different fits for different body types, the excursion team dug into references on surveying and engineering.

Necessarily, this often leads to wasted work — in the case of the Wisp, the excursion team found themselves at a dead end with the Olay project. But it's precisely this willingness to work in parallel, to endure some inefficiency, that often leads to a break in the case, as with the BlackBerry.

When Research in Motion engaged Lexicon, Placek and his team knew that they were fighting negative associations with PDAs: They buzz, they vibrate, they irritate us and stress us out. So he challenged the excursion team — again, unfamiliar with the actual client — to catalog things in the world that bring joy to people, that slow us down, that relax us. In other words, the antidotes to those negative PDA associations.

The list grew quickly. Camping, riding a bicycle, having a martini on Friday night. Taking a bubble bath, fly-fishing, cooking. Having a martini on Thursday night.

Later, someone added "picking strawberries" to the list. Someone else plucked out the word strawberry. But one of Lexicon's linguists said, "No, strawberry sounds slow." (Think of the similar vowels in drawl, dawdle, stall.) Soon it was crossed out and replaced with the word blackberry underneath. Hey, wait, the keys on the PDA look just like the seeds on a blackberry. Epiphany!

Actually, no. "Most clients feel that they're going to know the perfect name as soon as they see it, but it doesn't happen that way," Placek says. Even "BlackBerry" was not easy to sell. The client had been leaning toward more descriptive names such as "EasyMail." (Interestingly, the same was true of past blockbuster names: Some at Intel had wanted to call the Pentium "ProChip," and some at P&G had wanted to call the Swiffer "EZMop." And no doubt someone wanted to call Budweiser "EZGut.")

As Lexicon's success demonstrates, a great name can make a big difference. When some smart marketer renamed the Chinese gooseberry a kiwi, the fruit became a huge hit. But we shouldn't overheroicize names. After all, we live in a world where some of the most powerful brands are called Microsoft, Walmart, and General Electric. Clearly, a mediocre name isn't destiny. For every Lady Gaga, there's a Katy Perry. So maybe there's hope for you after all, Bethany Cranston.

Dan Heath and Chip Heath are the authors of the No. 1 New York Times best seller Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, as well as Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.

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44 Comments

  • uncialmkt

    More or less above are great tips for medium businesses. For those entrepreneurs who see lunch time as crunch time, there is this Indian guy Namesh, I have repeatedly gone to, for my niche specific websites. Educated and technical when naming a websites! the report I get surpasses my expectations all the time...here is the link http://namesh.com/. Iwould recommend him for any small business as they need professional naming MORE than big brands who can hire the best of the digital marketing teams and have the capacity to drain a lot of money to rank well among the competitors in the Search Engines..

  • Bobby Goyal

    I m looking for short brand name for bakery and dairy products and ready to pay the charges. Contact on sanjeev@leisureexports.com

  • cutegirl_m143

    i want your suggestion about paints n jacket brand name.please suggest me new name of brand.which is not used ever before my id is cutegirl_m143@yaho.com

  • Raphael Oluwasegunfunmi Scales

    Consult the Business Name pro. i will brainstorm five suitable namaes for your new business for just 5$.

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  • Pradeep Goyal

    I want to launch a new range of mobile handsets in India. Mainly would be low end phones. Kindly suggest a good brand name. My mail id is goyal.united@gmail.com

  • Raphael Oluwasegunfunmi Scales

    Consult the Business Name pro. i will brainstorm five suitable namaes for your new business for just 5$.

    Fiverr.com/segeonline

  • frozenlemons22

    Great post. A perfect brand name results in growth of business to an extreme height.

    • FrozenLemons
  • Alex Desilva

    Hello I want a name for our Bespoke/Handbuilt Retro Teardrop Caravan/Trailer company in the UK...any Ideas please?

  • Raphael Oluwasegunfunmi Scales

    Consult the Business Name pro. i will brainstorm five suitable namaes for your new business for just 5$.

    Fiverr.com/segeonline

  • 100006781391339

    Hi,

    We want to launch a new product for our medium size company, we have created a patented LED Curtain light System that is inserted in any size Media Displays. I can give you more info.

    What would best your best idea? Send me an email to gds2@m-graph.com

    Thank you

  • hi , my name is marzie fallah , i want a brand name for women clothing and same for a boutique , my brand will be a persian brand , pls help me with suggesting some names . tnx

  • Rajat Daga

    Hello, I am looking for a brand name for clothing hope you can advise me on daga.rajat9@gmail.com.

  • Rana Sohail

    hi dear sir i want name for leather goods like bags and wallets please send me on my email rsohail42@yahoo.com

  • Raza Shah

    Hello, Im trying to start up a small business of selling auto/car detail cleaning products such as micro finer cleaning towels, microfiber drying towels, microfiber wash mitts and various products used for washing, cleaning and detailing cars and want to come up with a brand name. if anyone have any ideas or suggestions please email me at agharazashah@hotmail.com. Thank you.

  • Kunle Campbell

    I've found that marketing is a lot easier if you brand name is indicative of exactly what your business embodies e.g. 'Oxford Cake Shop' - which happens to be the #1 cake shop in Oxford. The only drawback with this strategy is if the business was to make a pivot from a strategic perspective. e.g. if the Oxford Cake Company wanted to become a bakery, they may need to rebrand.
    Keeping it simple is usually the best option.

  • Khalan

    These are great and inspirational naming stories. It is also interesting to hear the alternative names some of the companies wanted to use for their products.

    Though Lexicon certainly seems to offer a great service, not everyone has the budget for such a service.  For many startups, substantial initial investments slow the company down.  Fortunately, there are a handful of quality services out there that allow entrepreneurs affordable naming options.  A great place to start in these cases is with a name generator or a brand name marketplace such as brandbucket.com.

  • Purvaladdha

    hello m launching a brand for leather accessories please sugest me brand name which will describe accessories