Branding Strategy: Names

Posted by Alex

If you’re like me, you have piles and piles of notebooks filled with half-baked name ideas for firms, bands, and the like. When I was in college, I think I went through about 30 pages of (truly) terrible names before settling on something for my former band*. Basically I’ve never really perfected this technique. Whether it’s for a new band, new client, or my own (eventual) design studio, it is always a long and arduous process to think of the perfect name. (Herein lies the problem — looking for the “perfect” name is often the creativity killer for me.)

My process generally starts with a pencil, thesaurus, dictionary, and my iTunes playlist (pieces of song titles have served me well). It’s worked in the past, but for a recent project, I decided to try something new. I based my exploration off of Josh Levine’s useful chart that divides naming styles into six categories. You can see the chart above for examples and read the full descriptions here. I tried to go through the list three times, thinking of a potential name for each category on every rotation. What ended up happening was I thought of about 30 names in the metaphorical category, avoided the descriptive, and thought of one or two for each of the others. After about two hours I had my name, at the bottom of my metaphorical category list.

Of course, my normal process is not unlike this most recent one — but the added structure and formulaic approach really seemed to help me in this case. I just hope to be able to replicate it in the future. I would recommend giving this chart a try if you are looking for new brainstorming techniques. Just switching things up is really all you need to spark something cool. I’m sure everyone has their own strategies and I’d love to hear some if you’ve got them!

*Crazy story actually — the name I eventually decided on (Running Lights) was the same name my Mom had sent me in response to my plea for suggestions. We had thought of the exact same name, on the same day, without any direction or communication. I told this story to my band mates and that was that — how could we go with anything else!

15 Comments Leave A Comment


Andrew S. says:

August 12, 2009 at 6:10 am

In addition to all of this I’m always concerned with the word (or words) visually. It can really add or subtract from things.


Jason says:

August 12, 2009 at 6:41 am

I usually go through a Latin dictionary and mash different words together until I find a name that both isn’t on Google and looks great visually (as Andrew said). There’s nothing more satisfying than having every Google result on the page lead to you, although you’ll have to be okay with using something completely meaningless and abstract


Jonathan says:

August 12, 2009 at 7:08 am

Great post. This is one of my favorite parts of the process. I normally sit down with a good beer and use the translation app, as well as my Latin dictionary, on my phone with a pencil and paper. Also the idea of meaningless and abstract is great because there are no other predisposed ideas other than what this brand stands for. An inspirational book for me on this subject is “The Brand Gap” by Marty Neumeier.


Bas says:

August 12, 2009 at 7:57 am

@Jason: I think it’s a bit disappointing that many people (bands & brands) start by looking in a Latin dictionary.


alex says:

August 12, 2009 at 10:19 am

I would agree about the latin dictionary; it can be a great place to start and is a good way to just get the ideas flowing. It can be pretty hard to brainstorm prefixes and suffixes etc just from memory.

@Andrew- Agreed. I will usually stick to the same couple of beginning letters for visual reasons (when possible). I have always been displeased with my name visually — “Alex Cornell” always feels unbalanced to me. I always thought “Tom Ford” had it pretty good in this regard — he has a pretty bad ass looking business card.


Inua says:

August 12, 2009 at 11:59 am

Absolutely fascinating, I am in the process of sketching out a story, set in West Africa about a boy with no name, who grows to be a troublesome man, who is banished on the condition that he names himself.

However, he is unsuccessful and his brother, who works in branding, has to do it… and apply the western concept and processes of commercial naming – to an African Tradition… however, I did not know where to begin.. this is brilliant, but I have a tonne more questions…

for instance, is there an actual JOB TITLE for this sort of work?
Is it just a part of being a Brand Strategist?
Do you know anyone who does this for a living here in London? I would love to interview him/her?



Lester says:

August 12, 2009 at 3:36 pm

You’ll find job titles in the branding and creative industry fairly arbitrary, Inua. The job title of Brand Strategist will certainly work. I’ve also heard naming experts with the job title of Brand Naming Consultant.

Try contacting the people at Nomen UK:

25c Victoria Street
Kent ME1 1XJ
P: + 44 (0) 1634 400 232
F: + 44 (0) 1634 400 390

(They’re headquartered in Paris, but have an office in London—I can’t vouch for how helpful they’ll be)


Alex / HeadUp says:

August 13, 2009 at 8:12 am

Naming is an extremely challenging task, but also exciting and enjoyable. I rarely get clients and projects coming to me in need of a name, but when it does open up to me, I always try to imagine myself in the shoes of the stakeholder (internal or external), or the musician if it’s a music-related project. Names often come to me, as do most ideas, out of the clear blue.

One example was naming the videogame mod I created back in 2004/5, a WWII FPS set in North Africa (modded from Call of Duty). In a veritable ocean of names for mods and WWII games, it’s tough to sound exciting and descriptive without sounding cliche (“Day of ______” or “_____ of War” blah). I eventually came up with “Upon the Burning Sands”.

I’m trying to come up with a name for an ambient-related project I have planned for a couple yrs down the road. I want the name to sound like it’s a massive biotech conglomerate, so coming up with one that isn’t taken and that fits the part will be a challenge.

I never thought of using the latin dictionary but that sounds like a good idea.