Forget what you think you know about naming. Experts will tell you that a good name needs to be a single syllable, with an easy pronunciation and a clear link to whatever the name represents. But follow these rules and you might just end up lost and forgotten in the crowd. When it comes to names, the stranger the better.
Now, I’ve spent a lot of time naming. And I’ve come to realize just how strange it is. Strange that it’s a legal exercise as much as a creative one. Strange how we interact with names—using some as verbs, giving others nicknames. Strange how the unfamiliar and unpronounceable can be embraced by the public. And strange how just some random characters and syllables can become so rich with meaning. It’s part of the branding process in which a humble piece of fruit can become synonymous with exceptional technology.
Now let’s get Apple out of the way early. Because it’s easy to point at Apple now and say how strong a name it is. Hindsight is truly a wonderful thing. But in the world of Amiga, Atari ST platforms, and IBM PCs, before Apple was Apple, Apple was a strange choice for a company name. And purposefully so. It was intended to be different from your very first interaction with the brand, and impossible to forget.
The Von Restorff effect
You see, we’re hardwired to notice what’s different. In the 1930s, German psychiatrist Hedwig von Restorff found evidence that things that stand out attract more attention and are more memorable. And isn’t that exactly what you want from a brand name?
Apply the von Restorff effect to branding and you begin to see how, for example, Monzo became the U.K.’s most recommended brand in 2019 thanks in huge part to its standout neon coral bank card. Or conversely how all the startups with short human names (Oscar, Eve, Albert, Emma, Marcus, Bennie, Lola, Clara, Casper, Dave, etc.) seem to blur into one.
So I’d argue it’s strangeness—not length or easy pronunciation—that marks the success of a brand name. And perhaps if we aspire to distinctiveness and memorability rather than brevity, safe conventions, or any comfortable connotations, our thinking and our choices will become stranger, braver, and ultimately better.
With that in mind, along with some of the oddest inspiration around, here are your there-are-no-rules rules to nail a strange and successful name.
The positives of negative connotations
In choosing a name with all the connotations of inactivity and sluggishness—where users could potentially be termed slackers—Slack transcended dictionary definitions, creating a behemoth brand that allows its users (myself included) to be anything but slack. How strange.
(Struggle to) say it with pride
TBD (twitter handle @TBD54566975) is probably the antithesis of Apple. Part of Block and focused on a future where everyone can access and participate in the crypto-economy, its name is obscure, open to interpretation, and, frankly, intimidating to say aloud.
No less than four syllables
Brevity is often part of a naming brief. The fewer syllables the better. And sometimes for good reason. For example, the length of a name on packaging is a very practical consideration. But I love long names—from the thoughtful beauty brand’s pun, OUI the People, or the descriptively and deliciously dull WeBuyAnyCar, to the wild and wonderful Baboon to the Moon. And doesn’t a brand that sells bags “unlike anything ever seen on the baggage carousel” deserve such a far-flung name? Limit your character count and you risk limiting your creativity.
Make it unclear what it is
Gotta make it abundantly obvious what you do, right? Not necessarily. Abstract options offer huge flexibility and great future-proofing. Sure, Amazon probably needed some initial explanation, but love it or loathe it, it’s a name that can now handle any type of business diversification. And remember what Restorff said: In day-to-day conversation about shopping, a word like Amazon is bound to stick out for its peculiarity, and then stick in your mind.
Don’t follow your gut
Gut reaction is a killer for good names. Even Netflix (which is anything but strange) was famously almost cut from the long list because it reminded someone of porn. Throw in the likes of Spanx and Virgin, and it’s clear that if the product and the brand experience is right, naming committees should never be so bold as to judge any option—however strange it seems at first—as wrong.
Because in a world where I can pick up my Apple (a piece of fruit), type into Google (a numerical typo), find my nearest 7-Eleven (some simple opening hours), pop on my Jumbo Shrimp sunglasses (who knows?), and go pick up a can of Liquid Death (who cares?!) . . . who’s to say that strange names aren’t successful names?
David Ormondroyd is the creative director at Ragged Edge.