Quick. Look at these images. Which is kiki? And which is bouba?
Did you attribute kiki to the pointy shape? And bouba to the rounded shape?
I did too.
But can you explain why you made that decision? Probably not, right? For most people, it just “feels right.”
But if your decision was arbitrary, then why do 95% of people make the same choice (Ramachandran & Hubbard, 2001)?
More importantly, why do some names “feel right” for certain products?
How can you construct a name — a name with no inherent meaning — so that it sounds right for your product or business?
I genuinely wanted to know.
So I spent 200 hours analyzing the academic research on linguistics. Turns out, there is a science behind it. Certain names sound right for specific reasons.
I consolidated that research into a four-step naming process. I call it the Kolenda Naming Process. This article explains that process in detail.
Don’t be fooled by the obnoxious length. I made this article as concise as possible. The article is long because this topic is more complex than it seems.
If you need to create a name in the next 5 minutes, you can follow the summary below. However, you won’t have the context. You’ll be blindly following my advice…and that’s never good.
So if you have 30 minutes, I strongly urge you to read the article. It contains a lot of details that I can’t fit into a visual summary.
But without further adieu, here’s the Kolenda Naming Process…
Table of Contents
Choose the Correct Type of Name
Identify Meaningful Phonemes
- Do Sounds Contain Meaning?
- How Do Sounds Acquire Meaning?
- What Are the Types of Phonemes?
- What Are the Meanings of Phonemes?
- What Are the Meanings of Phonaesthemes?
- What Are the Meanings of Letters?
Compose a List of Potential Names
- Path A: Neologistic Naming Process
- Path B: Associative Naming Process
- Path C: Descriptive Naming Process
- Path D: Deviant Naming Process
Choose the Best Name in the List
- Factor 1: Which Names Match the Ideal Length?
- Factor 2: Which Names Match the Ideal Complexity?
- Factor 3: Is the Name Enticing to Say?
- Factor 4: How Many Spelling Variations Exist?
- Factor 5: What Are Potential Abbreviations?
- Factor 6: What Are Translations in Popular Languages?
- Factor 7: Does the Name Exist Elsewhere?
- Factor 8: Is the .com Domain Available?
- Factor 9: Is the Name Available on Social Platforms?
- Factor 10: Should You Add a Version or Number?
- Factor 11: What Do Your Target Customers Think?
STEP 1: Choose the Correct Type of Name
Certain types of names are better suited for certain products. So let’s categorize the types of names that exist.
NOTE: I’ll be using the terms product and business interchangeably. There is a difference. However, that difference won’t affect this naming process. By the end, you’ll still generate the most suitable name — regardless whether you’re naming a product or business.
What Are the Different Types of Names?
In my research, I didn’t find specific classifications of brand names. So let’s change that.
We’ll categorize names on two dimensions: wording and relevance. Those dimensions create a helpful 2x 2 matrix:
Based on that diagram, you can probably infer the meanings. But just in case…
- DESCRIPTIVE – Word or phrase that describes the product
- ASSOCIATIVE – Nonword(s) that describes the product
- DEVIANT – Word or phrase with no relevance to the product
- NEOLOGISTIC – Nonword(s) with no relevance to the product
I always try to keep my explanations simple. Unfortunately, though, we need to add more complexity
Those two dimensions — wording and relevance — aren’t mutually exclusive. They’re spectrums. So although matrices are great…we need to transform that matrix into a scatterplot.
Let’s illustrate with soaps and detergents:
Look at the neologistic names (bottom-left). Barf isn’t a typo. I actually found a Persian brand called Barf. I’m guessing they forgot to check the English translation. Or perhaps they’re targeting an eccentric market. Who’s to say.
Regardless…Barf and Nivea are both irrelevant to the product. However, Barf is a word. Nivea is a nonword. You could argue that barf should be in the deviant section (top-left) because it is a word. But the intention was neologistic.
Here’s the main takeaway. In that scatterplot, all of those points are subjective. For any quadrant, some names might be more “word-like” or “relevant” than others.
So now that we’ve categorized the names, we can pinpoint which name would be most effective.
Which Name Should You Choose?
Each name offers benefits and drawbacks. And those factors comprise two categories:
- CATEGORY 1: Branding Goals
- CATEGORY 2: Business Goals
Category 1: Branding Goals
In terms of branding, I chose five factors that you should consider in a name:
Factor 1: Which Names Are More Persuasive?
All types of names can be persuasive. However, you should usually avoid the top-right and bottom-left of the scatterplot.
Why? The answer involves congruency.
Meyers-Levy, Louie, and Curren (1994) found a U-shaped relationship between the persuasiveness of a brand name and its congruency with the product. Persuasive brand names are moderately incongruent with products.
For example, I adjusted the names of three popular games:
The researchers proposed two underlying reasons for that finding.
First, incongruent names capture attention because they trigger curiosity. Oftentimes, that curiosity produces a pleasant sensation in our brain (which we misattribute to the product).
Second, incongruent names require more cognitive resources:
“…consumers may assume that all information offered to them by the marketer is meant to be relevant or informative and they will consequently try to make sense of it. If the ambiguous name is uninformative in the literal or semantic sense, consumers will search for a pragmatic meaning or reason for the communication…” (Miller & Kahn, 2005, pp. 87)
Oftentimes, that search for meaning will lead to an “aha” moment. We discover the connection. We solve the puzzle. And it feels good. In turn, we misattribute that pleasantness to the name.
“…[consumers] process ads more extensively when products bear incongruent brand names and they experience the satisfaction associated with identifying a meaningful relationship that fits the brand name with the product…” (Meyers-Levy, Louie, & Curren, 1994 pp. 52)
However, those benefits only occur with moderately incongruent products.
- With fully congruent names, we have no puzzle to solve
- With fully incongruent names, we can’t solve the puzzle
That’s why you should avoid the top-right and bottom-left of the scatterplot:
A persuasive name isn’t necessarily the “best” name for your business. You should also consider the other factors in this section.
Factor 2: Which Names Are More Memorable?
Contrary to popular belief, descriptive names are the least memorable.
But how could that be? Descriptive names explain the product. So how could they be less memorable than a nonword — a name with no relevance to the product?
Cheung, Chan, and Sze (2010) used an EEG to determine how we conceptualize brand names. They found that…
“…brand names tend to be processed through semantic routes. Similar to proper names and nonwords, they are represented in the lexical systems of both hemispheres.” (pg. 1)
According to our brains, a brand resembles a proper name (e.g., John, Fred, Mary). And it makes sense. Proper names identify the collective attributes of a person — much like brands possess various attributes (e.g., emotion, personality).
But we don’t use descriptive proper names. When is the last time you met somebody named Tall Skinny Man? You haven’t.
Not only would that name sound unusual, but our brains would also have trouble encoding it. The descriptive nature would complicate that process. Descriptive names can work. But they need to convey the connotation of a name.
Thus, memorable names avoid the extreme top right of the scatterplot. With soaps and detergents, Wright’s Traditional Soap would be more memorable than Simple Skin Care.
Likewise, extreme deviant and neologistic names are also less memorable. Remember the U-shaped relationship between congruence and persuasion? Memory works the same way. Memorable names need moderate congruence with the product (Robertson, 1989).
Thus, memorable names avoid the top-right and extreme left of the scatterplot:
Factor 3: Which Names Are More Distinctive?
Not surprisingly, descriptive names are the least distinctive:
“…the name is most essential to pave the road to distinction. Because unique names – unexpected names – interesting names – not only stick with us, but also frame our expectations for the broader brand experience.” (The Naming Group, 2016)
However, descriptive names aren’t entirely bad. As you’ll see next…
Factor 4: Which Names Are More Relevant?
In our scatterplot, the type of wording — word vs. nonword — is neither good nor bad. However, the relevance dimension can help.
Consider books and courses. With informational products, people often base their purchase on the relevance of the name. If a nonfiction book doesn’t sound relevant, oftentimes customers will have no need for it. So relevance can be useful.
Among the four types of names, descriptive names are the most relevant — followed by associative names.
But here’s an important distinction. Relevance isn’t meaningfulness.
Both deviant and neologistic names can (and should) be meaningful. Meaningful brand names are evaluated more favorably (Kohli, Harich, & Leuthesser, 2005).
How are those concepts different?
Think of Apple. Apple is a real word — yet the word has nothing to do with computers. So it’s a deviant name. And it’s positioned toward the top left of the scatterplot.
However, that relevance is surface-level. If you dig deeper, you’d realize that the name is meaningful. The Apple “brand” is creative, unique, and different. So it makes sense to use an unexpected name. Even though the name is irrelevant, it’s still meaningful.
The same concept applies to other businesses with deviant names: Pandora, Amazon, Dove, Tide:
- On the surface, those names are irrelevant to the product.
- Below the surface, you can extract metaphorical meanings from those deviant names.
The same concept applies to nonwords. Consider the bouba-kiki effect. Those words have no semantic associations. Yet 95% of people associate meaning with those names.
That’s because the sounds —themselves — contain meaning. And we’ll look at those meanings later.
But here’s the main point. Your name doesn’t need relevance. It can help some products. But it’s not critical. However, your name should always be meaningful.
That concept will make more sense throughout the article. For now, let’s examine the final branding characteristic…
Factor 5: Which Names Are More Emotional?
Suppose that you want your name to convey these characteristics:
No descriptive name could convey that much information (and still sound appealing). However, a deviant name could convey all of that information in four letters: Dove.
Because of their metaphorical nature, deviant names can convey the most emotion.
CATEGORY 2: Business Goals
Every business is different. However, I chose three common business goals that involve your name:
- Legal Protection
Factor 1: Which Names Are More Scalable?
Neologistic names are the most scalable.
With an irrelevant nonword, you begin with a blank canvas. Over time, you’ll be able to paint the exact perception that you want:
“…with a nonmeaningful name (e.g. Exxon), the marketer begins with a “clean slate” and can generate product images without interference from existing perceptions.” (Robertson, 1989, pp. 66)
That benefit helps you expand to other countries because of the language factor:
“The increasingly global nature of many markets requires that meaningful brand names be translated to achieve consistent meaning…If flexibility and adaptability are given higher priority, then a non-meaningful name is attractive.” (Kohli, Harich, & Leuthesser, 2005, pp. 1507)
However, a relevant name — though less scalable — can perform better with smaller budgets:
“…for a given promotional budget, it would be easier to attain a desired image by building upon the base of existing, meaningful perceptions rather than starting with no such perceptual base.” (Robertson, 1989, pp. 66)
Think of it like an automatic vs. manual transmission. Automatic transmission is easier. But a stick shift will give you greater control.
- If your budget is large, then choose greater control (neologistic)
- If your budget is small, then choose the easier route (descriptive, deviant, associative).
Factor 2: Which Names Offer Legal Protection?
Ross Petty is a professor of Marketing Law at Babson. In a paper, he describes four categories of trademark strength. Luckily, those categories align perfectly with the four types of names in this article:
“Most countries recognise roughly four categories of intrinsic trademark strength. The strongest trade marks and brand names are fanciful—made-up words or numbers that have no prior meaning such as KODAK…The next strongest are arbitrary marks—words that have meaning but no association with a particular use such as APPLE computers or CAMEL cigarettes. The third level of strength is suggestive marks—words that allude to product features or performance without actually describing them such as RAIN DANCE car wax of SURFVIVOR suntan lotion…The fourth and weakest category of trade names is descriptive words—words that describe the product, the company founder’s family name or the geographic origin of the product.” (Petty, 2007, pp. 191-192)
To summarize, these names are ordered from strongest to weakest:
Disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer. So don’t rely on my advice.
Factor 3: Which Names Are Better for SEO?
I know what some of you are thinking.
Nick, you made a mistake in your initial summary. Descriptive names have the greatest benefit for SEO.
If it were 2005, you’d be spot on. This tactic worked like a charm.
Fortunately, (or unfortunately — depending on your vantage point), those days are gone. Keyword-heavy business names have lost their power. According to Rand Fishkin, head of Moz:
“For a long time, [exact match domains] did have quite a bit of power. They’ve gone down dramatically in power. These days MozCast is reporting 2.5% to 3% of domains that appear in the top 10 over many thousands of search results are exact match domains…it’s gone way, way down over the last few years.” –Whiteboard Friday, Sept. 2014
Nowadays, a catchy and memorable name is more important than a keyword-heavy brand name.
In fact, descriptive names can be harmful for SEO. If your name is descriptive, search engines will have trouble identifying your name. They’ll assume that you’re referring to the topic or description of your product.
That’s why nonwords are great. Neologisms have no semantic connections with anything — so they’re entirely unique. Search engines will easily identify your name.
But deviant names can also work. Even though your name will be associated with a topic, search engines can make that distinction. You won’t hear Apple talking about their collection of “Red Delicious” or “Granny Smith” products. So search engines will know that “Apple” isn’t referring to the fruit.
If you still want to use a descriptive name, you could combine the old school with the new school. Suppose that you sell graphic design services. You could create a unique name for your overall business (e.g., Colorik), and then use descriptive names to identify the services in your collection (e.g., Colorik Logo Design, Web Design by Colorik).
With those naming conventions, you take advantage of co-occurrence. When people mention your products, your name will be nearby. So it reinforces the connection between your business and important keywords:
So I haven’t answered the question. Which type of name should you choose?
If you weigh all eight factors equally, you could use the scatterplot below. I overlaid each scatterplot. So darker regions signify overlap — thus a stronger opportunity.
In the end, any type of name can work. One type isn’t better than another. You simply need to weigh the importance of each factor.
However, I do have one universal suggestion. You should always avoid the extreme top-right of the scatterplot.
“…in their simplicity, [descriptive names] pave the way to daunting brand challenges: competitor encroachment, loss of trademark, lack of distinguishing identity, and the hidden killer, consumer apathy. A name that does not challenge us, does not excite us or tell us something new is a name that’s far more likely to blend. And blending is the antithesis of branding.” (The Naming Group, 2016)
Step 2: Identify Meaningful Phonemes
Let’s try another exercise. Which table is mil? Which is mal?
Over 80% of people assign mal to the big table (Sapir, 1929). Did you?
So that begs the question…
Why do some words — even nonwords — feel like a better “fit” than other words? Do certain sounds contain meaning?
Let’s tackle those questions.
Do Sounds Contain Meaning?
In order to understand the meanings of sound, you need to know two concepts in linguistics: arbitrariness and sound symbolism.
Researchers used to believe that language was arbitrary.
The only exception was an onomatopoeic word — a word that resembles a sound (e.g., woof, bang, fizz). Otherwise, sounds held no inherent meaning.
Essentially, it looked like this:
But that belief has lost steam over the past few decades — thanks to some interesting findings:
1. Certain sounds share meaning across all languages.
The bouba-kiki effect produced the same effect for the Himba of Northern Namibia, an extremely remote population with no written language (Bremner et al., 2013).
2. People can decode the meanings of some words in other languages.
English speakers (with no experience in Japanese) could identify Japanese words related to pain (Iwasaki, Vinson, & Vigliocco, 2007).
3. Children attach meaning to sounds, even when they’re too young to read.
The bouba-kiki effect produced the same effect for children as young as 2.5 years old (Maurer, Pathman, & Mondloch, 2006).
Those findings paved the way to…
Most researchers now accept sound symbolism (see Lockwood & Dingemanse, 2015 for a review).
SOUND SYMBOLISM — Sounds contain inherent meaning
For example, the sound ‘sn’ is often associated with concepts related to the mouth and nose (e.g., snore, snout, snack, snort, sniff, sneeze).
At this point, you might be thinking: why don’t we make all communication symbolic?
We actually tried…
In 1668, John Wilkins wrote a paper that proposed a specific vocabulary. In any given word, the first two letters referred to a semantic category (among 40 categories in total). And the remaining letters provided more detail.
It might sound good in theory. But it failed horribly in practice.
Our language benefits from arbitrariness. We need different letters among related words. Otherwise, we’d create mass confusion:
“…if there were a close correspondence between form and meaning then the possibility of confusing the word for sheep with the one for cow is increased (e.g., if the two animals were referred to as feb and peb, respectively).” (Monaghan, Christiansen, & Fitneva, 2011, pp. 327)
So don’t discount arbitrariness. Rather, you should appreciate the coexistence of sound symbolism and arbitrariness.
“They can coexist because each brings its own advantages for learning words and using them in communication. By supplying perceptual analogies for vivid communication, sound-symbolism allows for communication to be effective; by providing the lexicon with greater depth and distinction, arbitrariness allows for the efficient communication of concepts.” (Lockwood & Dingemanse, 2015, pp. 2)
In other words…
- Sound symbolism makes communication more vivid because it reinforces the intended meaning.
- Arbitrariness makes communication more efficient because it allows a wider selection of letters.
At the end of the day, yes…sounds contain meaning.
But how did those meanings emerge? In order to apply my naming process, you need to understand the sources of meaning.
You won’t understand the implications right now. But you need to know this information so that everything will “click” later.
So let’s answer that question …
How Do Sounds Acquire Meaning?
After scouring the research on linguistics, I identified five sources of meaning:
Source 1: Frequency Code
Generally, we associate high-pitched sounds with smaller sizes (and vice versa).
John Ohala is a linguistics professor at Berkley who proposed that “frequency code.”
“…[the frequency code] associates high acoustic frequency with the primary meaning of ‘small vocalizer’ and thus such secondary meanings as ‘subordinate, submissive, non threatening, desirous of the receiver’s goodwill, etc.’ and associates with low acoustic frequency the primary meaning of ‘large vocalizer’ and such secondary meanings as ‘dominant, aggressive, threatening, etc.’” (Ohala, 1984)
You can blame our ancestors.
Whenever men were in danger, they wanted to project a low-pitched bellow to intimidate predators.
Women, on the other hand, wanted to alert help nearby. However, they couldn’t attract too much attention — otherwise they would alert more predators in the vicinity.
That’s why they developed a high-pitch yell:
“Because high-frequency sounds are absorbed into the air far more readily than low-frequency sounds, the high-pitched female scream is perfect for summoning help without signaling other predators. ” (Feinson, 2004)
You can see this behavior in other animals:
- When a dog is aggressive, it growls.
- When a dog is submissive, it yelps.
We even follow the frequency code when we ask questions — by raising the intonation of our voice:
“The person asking a question can be viewed as requiring the cooperation of the person to whom the question is addressed. Therefore a supplicating intonation is appropriate. A declarative statement, on the other hand, signals the speaker’s self-confidence and control of the information conveyed.” (Ohala, 1997, pp. 3)
Thus, we associate meaning with the tone and pitch of sound.
Source 2: Perceptual Fluency
Processing fluency plays a powerful role in names — as you’ll see later.
For now, one type of fluency is perceptual fluency. We judge stimuli based on visual characteristics that are irrelevant to their inherent meaning. For example, people perceive prices to be smaller in magnitude when those prices are displayed in a smaller font (Coulter & Coulter, 2005).
Similarly, we infer characteristics about a name based on the visual characteristics of the letters. Think of the bouba-kiki effect:
“…people might only consider the sound [b] to be rounder than the sound [k] because the letter b is rounder than the letter k.” (Lockwood & Dingemanse, 2015, pp. 8)
Among the five sources of meaning, perceptual fluency seems to be the weakest source. But it still has merit.
Source 3: Kinesthetic Fluency
Another common source involves a kinesthetic factor — which I’ll dub kinesthetic fluency. We infer qualities about what we’re saying by how we’re saying it.
With the bouba-kiki effect…
“…articulating kiki involves sharp inflections of the tongue and relates to the sharpness of the jagged image and the rounding of the lips and oral cavity during the articulation of bouba relates to the roundedness of the images.” (Yardy, 2010, pp. 8)
Source 4: Facial Feedback Hypothesis
Similarly, the position of your mouth can also play a role.
I describe the facial feedback hypothesis in Methods of Persuasion. But here’s the gist. We subconsciously determine our attitudes and emotions based on our current facial features.
In the classic study, people evaluated a cartoon more favorably when they were forced to hold a pencil in their mouth — a position that forced them to smile (Strack, Martin, & Stepper, 1988).
That same principle applies to sound symbolism:
“…the very pronunciation of these sounds require a specific distortion of the speaker’s face, which reinforces the emotion-response of the listener.” (Feinson, 2004)
In a clever study, participants were more likely to help recipients if their name ended with a hard “e” sound — because it forced them to smile (Kniffin & Shimizu, 2014)
Sure, you could consider naming your product or business with a hard “e” sound (coincidentally, Pogacar et al. (2014) found that successful firms disproportionately include hard “e” sounds in their name).
But that’s probably overkill. Later I’ll walk you through a more effective way to find conducive sounds for your name.
Source 5: Blending
This final factor is pretty interesting. And it might be the most powerful.
Over time, our language has experienced blending — a process where we combine words to create a completely new word (see Smith, 2014).
Look at the specific years that these words entered our language:
If we frequently apply the same sound to similar words (e.g., the “-ash” sound above), we begin to associate that sound with a particular meaning (e.g., we associate “-ash” with hitting).
Based on my assessment, we associate two types of meaning with those blended sounds:
1. Valence Meaning
First, we associate a general emotional tone. For example…
“…back vowels such as the [u] sound in dull or ugh are often found in English words expressing disgust or dislike (e.g., blunder, bung, bungle, clumsy, muck), and words beginning with sl also tend to have a negative connotation (slouch, slut, slime, sloven)…” (Duduciuc, 2015, pp. 113)
2. Semantic Meaning
Second, we also associate concrete semantic meaning.
Consider homophones. For example, exposing people to the word “bye” can increase their likelihood of purchasing a product — due to the phonetic similarity with “buy” (Davis & Herr, 2014).
Sounds absurd, right? But here’s why…
Whenever you read a word, you subvocalize those sounds. In turn, you activate all semantic associations related to that phonetic grouping:
“…consider a consumer reading quietly. She reads an article ending with “bye” and subvocalizes the word sound associated with “bye.” This word sound is also associated with “buy.” At this point, meanings associated with both “bye” and “buy” are automatically retrieved from memory.” (Davis & Herr, 2014, pp. 1064-1065)
At this point, the researchers argue that we use a process called “homophone suppression.” We suppress those unrelated meanings so that our brain doesn’t integrate them into our perception and behavior.
However, our brains are lazy. Oftentimes, we become distracted and we skip that process. When that happens, all of the unrelated meanings stay activated — creeping into our perception and behavior. That’s why bye can make you buy.
The researchers found direct support for that phenomenon, and they summarized the steps in this process:
But don’t jump the gun. Before naming your product, Byminow (catchy, right?), you need to understand the meanings behind certain phonemes.
I know I keep pushing it off, but we need to tackle one final topic before discussing those meanings…
What Are the Types of Phonemes?
Before I explain the meanings, you need to understand the categories of sounds.
First, every word contains one or more phonemes — which are the smallest units of sound (see Yorkston & Menon, 2004).
Phonemes differ from syllables and letters. Consider the word “the” — which is comprised of three letters, one syllable, and two phonemes:
Among the 44 phonemes that exist (Harrington & Johnstone, 1987), you might assume that each phoneme contains a specific meaning.
- An “a” sound means _______
- A “b” sound means _______
- A “c” sound means _______
Unfortunately, it’s not that cut and dry.
Meanings usually spread to categories of phonemes — not individual ones. And there are two broad categories: vowels and consonants.
Obvious…right? Well, you need to consider the classifications within those phonemes.
We usually categorize vowels using one classification.
Classification 1: Front vs. Back
The most common classification is front vs. back (see Klink, 2000).
- With front vowels, the tongue is positioned near the front (e.g., e, i, e)
- With back vowels, the tongue is positioned near the back (e.g., o, a, u)
But you should know a crucial detail. This category — front vs. back — is a spectrum (Yorkston & Menon, 2004).
That distinction is important. Why? Generally, vowels toward the outermost points will contain the strongest degree of meaning (which we’ll discuss soon).
Consonants can also be categorized as hard and soft. But the following two classifications are more common:
Classification 1: Voiced vs. Voiceless
This classification involves your vocal cords:
- Voiced – Sounds that vibrate your vocal cords (e.g., b, d, g)
- Voiceless – Sounds that don’t vibrate your vocal cords (e.g., p, t, f)
Classification 2: Fricatives vs. Stops
Another category involves air flow from your mouth:
- Fricatives – Sounds where air flow escapes the mouth (e.g., s, f, z)
- Stops – Sounds where air flow stops at the mouth (e.g., p, k, b)
Just a disclaimer, I’ve excluded certain details to simplify the explanation. If you want the full scoop (or the full list of phonemes), you should check some of the references in this section.
But now that we’ve discussed the categories of sounds, we can finally discuss the meanings of sounds.
What Are the Meanings of Phonemes?
Certain phonemes contain meaning. That’s why you should consider the sounds that will encompass your name. Those phonemes subconsciously shape the perception of your brand:
“…consumers use information they gather from phonemes in brand names to infer product attributes and to evaluate brands…the manner in which phonetic effects of brand names manifest is automatic in as much as it is uncontrollable, outside awareness and effortless.” (Yorkston & Menon, 2004, pp. 43)
To create a suitable name, you need to use phonemes that share meaningful characteristics with your product. That congruency will increase processing fluency — and your name will “feel right.”
I summarized these meanings in the initial summary of this article. But this section will describe each meaning in more detail. And I’ll also include the studies where I found this information.
We associate certain sounds with physical size. That’s why most people make the same decision with mal vs. mil:
Most studies examine physical size. But the meaning involves metaphorical size as well.
For example, Abel and Gilnert (2008) analyzed the names of 60 cancer medications. Since companies want their medication to be associated with tolerable chemotherapy, the researchers believed those names would correspond with smallness.
And they were right. Most names incorporated sounds that were congruent with a smaller physical size.
Finally, this meaning also refers to physical distance. Ultan (1978) analyzed 136 languages. He found that languages use the same vowel sounds to convey distance:
- Front vowels convey close distance (e.g., “this”)
- Back vowels convey far distance (e.g., “that”).
I condensed all of the research into these tables:
Like the bouba-kiki effect, certain sounds convey physical shape. The most common distinction is angular vs. rounded.
For example, Lowrey and Shrum (2007) found that…
- Names with angular sounds benefit products that are angular or sharp. People preferred Brimley (over Bromley) for a knife.
- Names with rounded sounds benefit products that are round or smooth. People preferred Bromley (over Brimley) for a hammer.
But this meaning stems beyond tangible shape. In a study with ice cream, people preferred a rounded name (Frosh) to an angular name (Frish) because the rounded name conveyed smooth and creamy ice cream (Yorkston & Menon, 2004).
In fact, this meaning also involves modes of thinking (e.g., thinking precisely vs. thinking abstractly).
Let’s try another exercise. The person below is performing a sheeb task. So what is she doing? Take a guess.
Maglio et al., (2014) asked people the same question — alternating between a sheeb task and a shoob task.
Turns out, people gave precise answers with the sheeb task (e.g., “she is writing a list”). When asked about the shoob task, people gave broader answers (e.g., “she is getting organized”).
Another category is speed. The primary distinction is fast vs. slow.
Here are the meanings.
Sounds can also convey luminosity. Certain sounds can be bright vs. dark.
Next is beauty. Sounds can be sophisticated vs. rugged.
Unfortunately, I could only find evidence connecting front vowels to sophistication and back vowels to ruggedness (Klink & Athaide, 2012). So the consonant meanings are still unclear.
Based on the research, however, I would argue the following meanings:
Earlier, I mentioned that shape (angular vs. rounded) is associated with modes of thinking (thinking precisely vs. thinking abstractly).
Those modes are important because they influence our evaluation of products:
- When people think precisely, short-term benefits are more important
- When people think abstractly, long-term benefits are more important
Researchers found support in product names. In one study, Maglio et al. (2014) showed participants a medical treatment that relieved pain:
- Dari was more effective for short-term treatments (because it contained phonemes associated with precise thinking)
- Daru was more effective for long-term treatments (because it contained phonemes associated with abstract thinking)
Before choosing a name, determine the type of benefits that you offer. Are they short-term or long-term? Use relevant phonemes in your name.
The final category is gender. Is your product perceived to be feminine vs. masculine?
I summarized the research into this table:
In this past section, you may have noticed something peculiar.
Did you notice that the same vowels and consonants consistently appeared together? For any given meaning, you’ll usually be using one of these two groups.
And that’s very important to understand.
Don’t perceive these meanings to be concrete labels. Even if a particular adjective doesn’t appear in that diagram, oftentimes you can still choose the side that would be most appropriate.
Beer is a great example. Imagine two different beers, One is “cold, clean, and crisp.” The other is “smooth, mellow, and rich.”
Those adjectives don’t appear in the previous groups. However, guess which group would be most appropriate for each beer.
Do you have your guess? Turns out…
“…words with front vowel sounds [Group 1] would be preferred as brand names for a beer described as “cold, clean, and crisp,” but words with back vowel sounds [Group 2] would be preferred when the beer was described as “smooth, mellow, and rich.” (Lowrey & Shrum, 2007, pp. 409)
Sure, you could argue that those adjectives correspond to the luminosity of the beer (i.e., light beer vs. dark beer). But hopefully you can see the fuzzy abstract nature of those groups.
Even if you don’t see any meanings specifically tied to your product, oftentimes you can still make an intuitive choice — based on the existing meanings in that diagram.
What Are the Meanings of Phonaesthemes?
This article has focused on phonemes. But we should also consider the meanings of phonaesthemes.
Let’s try two exercises.
Exercise 1: What’s the meaning of glon? It’s a nonword, so give it a definition.
Got it? Great.
Magnus (2000) asked people the same question. Turns out, over 25% of people gave definitions related to light or vision.
I’ll explain why in a second. But let’s try another exercise.
Exercise 2: This time, you’ll create a nonword based on a definition. Here’s the definition: to scrape the black stuff off overdone toast. So invent a word to match the definition.
Magnus (2000) asked people that question too. Turns out, 27% of people created a word that started with sk-.
So now the main question: why is there so much consistency?
Well, in those examples, sk- and gl- are phonaesthemes.
PHONAESTHEME – A pair of phonemes that (1) occur frequently in language and (2) contain meaning.
Phonaesthemes are distinct from suffixes and prefixes (e.g., -ing, -ly, -ed). Phonaesthemes can’t be added to (or subtracted from) words.
For example, the most commonly cited phonaesthemes — gl- and sn- —both contain meaning (see Bergen, 2001). But you can’t add or subtract them.
The true definition is more complex (see Bergen, 2004). But that’s the nutshell.
How do phonaesthemes acquire meaning?
Well, remember blending? Many phonaesthemes emerge from blending (see Smith, 2014).
When we blend two words (e.g., bat + mash = bash), some phonemes remain in the new word. And if those phonemes consistently remain across new blends, then those sounds get attributed to an increasingly larger number of related words.
“According to such “snowballing effect” theory, a group of phonemes in related words (for example, by common etymology) becomes over time associated with the meaning of these words and given the right conditions starts to attract other words with the same phoneme into a cluster…” (Abramova, Fernandez, & Sangati, 2013 pp. 1696)
Researchers are still trying to identify the semantic meanings of phonaesthemes (see Abramova et al., 2013). However, an analysis of 260 million words indicates that semantic connections do exist (Otis & Sagi, 2008).
I dug through different studies on phonaesthemes, and I pieced together the following table summarizing the potential semantic meanings.
No need to memorize it. Just use this table as a reference guide.
- Otis and Sagi (2008)
- Abramova, Fernandez, and Sangati (2013)
- Feinson (2004)
- Kwon (2015)
- Smith (2014)
What Are the Meanings of Letters?
In addition to phonemes and phonaesthemes, individual letters might also contain meaning.
The research on this topic is less clear. So I recommend sticking with the previous information. But I needed to include this section — otherwise my quest for comprehension would be incomplete. And that’d be a shame.
In one study, Feinson (2004) found that people whose names begin with ‘J’ are 3x more likely to become millionaires than people whose names that begin with ‘N.’
Side Note: Thanks, Mom.
Feinson describes his study in The Secret Universe of Names.
First, he analyzed the initial letters of 63 million names in the U.S. Census. Then he compared those frequencies to the names of successful people in different fields:
“By cross-referencing the initial letters of the sixty-three million individuals with the first letters in the names of eighteen thousand successful people in business, arts, medicine, politics, and professional sports, I undertook to establish whether or not patterns of success or failure could be determined based solely on names.” (pp. xxxiv)
He found a number of fascinating — yet conceptually plausible — findings. For example…
“…people whose first names begin with the strongly pronounced letters (B, T, J, C, K, D, etc.) proved to be highly successful in professional sports, whereas those with names containing gently pronounced initials (H, S, M, N, V, W, and L) consistently failed to make their mark in athletics.” (pp. xxxiv)
Below is a summary of his findings. If your industry matches one of these fields, then consider using the corresponding letters in your name.
STEP 3: Compose a List of Potential Names
At this point, you’ve accomplished these steps:
- Chose the ideal type of name (Step 1)
- Identified meaningful phonemes (Step 2)
This step will teach you how to compose names based on those factors.
However, this process largely depends on the type of name that you’ve chosen. So you’ll need to choose one of these paths:
This section explains a step-by-step process for each path.
However, even if you know the ideal path, you should still read all four processes. Each path contains information that will apply to any name choice.
Let’s start with the first path…
Path A: Neologistic Naming Process
To compose a neologistic name, follow these steps:
- A1: Begin With a Meaningful Prefix
- A2: Arrange Consonants From Front to Back
- A3: End With a Relevant Gender Phoneme
- A4: Choose the Appropriate Stress
A1) Begin With a Meaningful Prefix
The beginning of your name is crucial. Think of it like an anchoring mechanism.
Consider charm prices — prices that end in 9, 99, or 95 (e.g., $2.99). Thanks to anchoring, people perceive those prices to be lower than standard prices (Thomas & Morwitz, 2005). When people encounter a charm price, their brain encodes the magnitude of that price before reaching the end of it:
“…while evaluating “2.99,” the magnitude encoding process starts as soon as our eyes encounter the digit “2.” Consequently, the encoded magnitude of $2.99 gets anchored on the leftmost digit (i.e., $2) and becomes significantly lower than the encoded magnitude of $3.00” (Thomas & Morwitz, 2005, pp. 55)
Names work the same way. When people read your name, their brain will start encoding the name before reaching the end of it. So those initial phonemes prime certain meanings — which influence the perception of the remaining name.
When people reach the end of your name —milliseconds later — they’ve already developed beliefs and opinions about your product. That’s why the beginning is so crucial.
When constructing your name, search for a relevant meaning in the list of phonaesthemes (see this section).
If you find one, then huzzah! Position it toward the beginning of your name.
If you can’t find one, then scan this list of Latin prefixes.
And if you still can’t find anything, then consider using a plosive consonant:
“Plosives are consonants such as b, c, d, g, k, p, and t, which, when pronounced, produce an explosive, popping sound. Brand names beginning with plosives were found to produce significantly better recall and recognition.” (Robertson, 1989, pp. 63)
A2) Arrange Consonants From Front to Back
Naming is an art and science. You might assume that we’ve reached the “art” portion of naming. But not quite. We can still use science in this process.
Here’s a pop quiz.
In the table below, each row contains a pair of names. Both names contain the same letters — except in a different order.
Topolinski et al. (2014) asked participants to evaluate those names. Can you guess which column consistently outperformed the other?
Got your answer?
If you guessed the first column…you’re correct. Congrats. Your prize is in the mail.
And I’d wager that most of you chose the first column. Those names simply feel right, don’t they?
But now a follow up question…what makes the first column different from the second column? Why do those names feel right? Can you spot the underlying factor?
The answer involves the direction of articulation. In the first column…
- The beginning letters contain sounds that you construct with the front of the mouth (e.g., B, F, M, P).
- The ending letters contain sounds that you construct with back of the mouth (e.g., K, G).
The second column is the opposite:
Hmm. That triggers another question. Why does that matter?
Well, the researchers conducted a few studies to pinpoint the answer. In the end, they attributed the reason to an approach vs. avoidance mechanism.
Based on evolution (and our digestive system), we associate meaning with spitting and swallowing. We ingest beneficial stimuli. We throw up harmful stimuli. And that association plays a role in articulation:
“…the mere articulation of inward words (featuring consonantal stricture spots wandering from the front to the rear of the mouth) would induce an affective and motivational state associated with deglutition [i.e., swallowing], namely a positive state of approach. In contrast, the articulation of outward words (featuring consonantal stricture spots wandering from the rear to the front of the mouth) would induce an affective and motivational state associated with expectoration [i.e., spitting], namely a negative state of avoidance.” (Topolinsk et al, 2014, pp. 6-7)
In other words…
It sounds absurd, I know. But additional research shows that inward brand names generate a higher willingness-to-pay, among many other benefits (Topolisnki, Zurn, & Schneider, 2015).
Still not convinced? I hear ya. I was also uncertain about it. The explanation just didn’t feel right.
So I kept digging, and I eventually found a dissertation by a student of those researchers. And the student’s explanation sounded more plausible.
Bakhtiari (2015) analyzed English and German words. The researcher found that both languages contain a higher proportion of “inward” words. Outward words are simply less common.
That means people develop higher “pronunciation fluency” for inward words. We can pronounce those words more easily because we’ve had more practice.
Thus, with an easier pronunciation, those words sound more pleasant. Bakhtiari (2015) found direct support in 10 of 11 experiments. Pretty convincing.
So I recommend following that insight. Once you’ve chosen the ideal group of phonemes — Group 1 or Group 2 — extract certain sounds from that group. Then arrange the consonants from front to back. Use the spectrum below as a reference guide.
A3) End With a Relevant Gender Phoneme
Cassidy et al. (1999) analyzed 490 common names in English. They found that gender-specific names share common properties
- Among the names that ended in consonants, 80% belonged to males (e.g., Bob, Ted)
- Among the names that ended in vowels, 72% belonged to females (e.g., Sue, Mary)
In fact, you knew this already. Don’t believe me? Consider the name Chris. It’s usually a male name. But we can transform it into a female name by adding vowel phonemes at the end:
- Chris → Chrissy
- Chris → Krista
- Chris → Christie
And it’s not some fluke. We do it often — with many names:
- Nick → Nicki
- James → Jamie
- Eric → Erica
- Carl → Carla
- Pat → Patti
- Vic → Vicki
And the list goes on…
More importantly, researchers found that those cues influence the perception of brand names:
“…the evolution of names in this century was affected by how male or female they sounded and that knowledge of phonological cues to gender influences the perception and structure of brand names.” (Cassidy et al., 1990, pp. 362)
In their experiment, those researchers presented people with different words. If the word ended in a consonant, people classified it toward males 70% of the time. Even 4-year-olds made the same classification 66% of the time.
Use that insight in your product name…
- If your product is targeting males, end your name with a consonant
- If your product is targeting females, end your name with a vowel
Alternatively, you could also end with a relevant Latin suffix (see this list).
Either way, repeat the previous steps to compile a sizable list of names.
A4) Choose the Appropriate Stress
Before you choose the final name, you need to consider the stress. With nonwords, you control the pronunciation.
Consider the name, Buleka. You could pronounce that name in different ways:
Those options stress the second syllable (i.e., the “e” in the name). But perhaps you want to stress the first syllable:
And there are other options too. But how do know which pronunciation to choose?
I’d recommend choosing the name that “feels right.” If it sounds right to you, it probably sounds right to your customers.
That said, you could base your decision on science. Specifically, you could consider the intended part of speech. Is your name a noun or a verb?
Linguists have found a unique insight in our language (see Bergen, 2001):
- Nouns usually stress the first syllable
- Verbs usually stress the second syllable
Consider these words: record, permit, and compound. Those words can be nouns and verbs — depending on the stress.
More importantly, that concept applies to nonwords. If a nonword stresses the initial syllable, people are more likely to classify it as a noun (Kelly, 1988). And people identify the word more quickly (Bergen, 2001).
So follow that insight…
- If you want your name to be a noun, stress the initial syllable
- If you want your name to be a verb, stress the final syllable
If you’re unsure, you could also consider gender. When Cassidy et al. (1999) analyzed 490 names, they found another insight:
- Male names tend to stress the first syllable (e.g., Richard, Arthur)
- Female names tend to tress the second syllable (e.g., Irene, Michelle)
At this point, you’ve compiled a sizable list of names. Now you would proceed to Step 5 so that you can choose the final name. But we’ll get there soon.
Suppose that I invented an upscale and elegant calculator. We’ll use this calculator example throughout each naming process.
Here are the steps for a neologistic name:
1) Begin With a Meaningful Prefix
I searched for a relevant meaning among the phonaesthemes and Latin prefixes.
I found these:
- BR: Bright (breezy, brisk, brilliant)
- PR: Prized (present, praise, prince)
- UTILIS: Useful (utility, utilitarian)
They’re not super relevant. So I might change them. We’ll see.
2) Arrange Consonants From Front to Back
Earlier, I would have chosen Group 1 phonemes (because of the associations with fast and sophisticated).
Using that group, I highlighted phonemes in our consonant spectrum. The blue phonemes belong to Group 1.
Don’t feel constricted, though. You could still use other phonemes. The blue phonemes simply have the strongest association with my product.
At this point, I’ll use the front vowels (also from Group 1) to generate possible names along that spectrum. But first…
3) End With a Relevant Gender Phoneme
My product seems more masculine. So I’ll end it with a consonant plosive.
In the consonant spectrum, the “K” is highlighted in the last row. So I’ll use that phoneme.
Based on the previous steps, I generated these names:
Keep in mind…neologistic names are irrelevant to a product. The main benefit is the scalability of those names.
In other words, avoid using a neologistic name for one specific product (e.g., one calculator). Use neologistic names for a large business producing multiple products (e.g., a product line of different calculators).
4) Choose the Appropriate Stress
I want my name to be a noun. So those names will stress the first syllable (except the trisyllabic names — those names sound better when you stress the second syllable).
Path B: Associative Naming Process
Some websites offer automatic name generators. Most of them are pretty frivolous. And they’re unhelpful for a serious name choice.
However, Ozbal and Strapparava (2012) describe a useful one. Their automated process is more sophisticated because it incorporates semantic relationships into the name. So if you’re familiar with programming, you should check out their paper.
Otherwise, you can follow these steps:
- B1: Create a Semantic Map of the Product
- B2: Compile Synonyms of Your Primary Benefit
- B3: Use a Naming Technique to Generate an Output
By definition, associative names require some relevance. In this process, the first two steps will create the relevance. And the final step will morph that relevance into a nonword that “feels right” for your product.
B1) Create a Semantic Map of the Product
In order to generate a relevant name, you need a list of words that are semantically related to your product.
Let’s stick with our calculator example. To generate semantically related words, I’ll create a semantic map surrounding the core product (i.e., calculator).
Don’t write adjectives. You’re only interested in concrete semantic relationships. So focus on nouns.
Also, don’t stray far from the central bubble. All words should have some association with a calculator.
B2) Generate Synonyms of the Primary Benefit
Those semantic words are the most important step in this process. Your eventual name will sound more fitting because of them.
However, you could also incorporate a benefit in your name. People evaluate names more favorably when they contain a positive attribute (Kohli, Harich, & Leuthesser, 2005).
So determine the primary benefit of your product. Why should people buy your product over the competition?
The answer will usually involve price or quality. Here are some common benefits:
Choose one or two benefits that most accurately portray your product. With our calculator, I’ll choose elegant and intelligent.
In the previous step, we created a semantic map. In this step, however, we need words that match the core meaning of our benefits. We need synonyms.
So enter your primary benefits into a thesaurus.
I entered “elegant” and “intelligent” into this thesaurus, and I updated our input with the most relevant synonyms:
If you want to increase that list, you could (a) expand your semantic map or (b) enter new related words into a thesaurus. But we’ll stick with our input.
B3) Use a Naming Technique to Generate an Output
Ah, the fun part.
At this point, we generated our input. Now we’ll transform that input into potential names.
After studying brand names (and linguistics), I compiled the following techniques. You just enter portions of your input to generate an output.
For most techniques, you should rely more heavily on the semantic input (because that’s where the “relevance” will emerge). But you can choose whatever input you want.
You’ll get the idea once you see examples. I included some real business names, as well as potential names for our calculator.
Let me know if you think I’m missing a technique.
Tip: This technique is the most powerful. By choosing a semantic term and benefit, you create a new word that captures the core essence of your product — the main goal of any name.
Tip: Don’t forget to look for a relevant Latin prefix.
Tip: Don’t forget to look for a relevant Latin suffix. Also, these suffixes seem popular and trendy: -able, -ero, -eto, -ies -ify, -io, -ism, -ium, -ly, -ora, -ous, -sy, -tek
Tip: Refer to the meanings of phonemes (Step 3) to determine which sounds would be beneficial for your product.
Tip: Yep…doesn’t seem conducive for a calculator. But it could work for your product.
Tip: I found those translations by pasting my semantic terms into Google Translate. Then I checked different languages so that I could look for a catchy name.
Keep using all of those techniques until you’ve compiled a sizable list of potential names. Then proceed to the final step.
If you need more ideas, you can check out this list of company etymologies.
To summarize, here are the names that we compiled for our calculator:
I like some of those names. But what if none of the names sound fitting?
In that case, you might have chosen the wrong type of name. Reassess your branding and business goals (Step 1) to see if you should choose a different type of name.
Path C: Descriptive Naming Process
Rarely choose a purely descriptive name. If you do, you leave no room for inference or interpretation — which is needed for persuasion (as I explained earlier).
Thus, descriptive names should incorporate elements from the other types (i.e., neologistic, associative, and deviant). And, according to the scatterplot, deviant and associative names are the most similar.
However, deviant names — by definition — require irrelevance. So those names defeat the purpose of descriptive names. Descriptive names are beneficial because they provide relevance.
So that leaves associative names. Thus, the descriptive naming process is similar to the associative naming process:
- C1: Create a Semantic Map of the Product
- C2: Generate Synonyms of the Primary Benefits
- C3: Use a Relevant Naming Technique
C1) Create a Semantic Map of the Product
This step is the same. Identify the primary term for your product (e.g., calculator), and then create a semantic map surrounding that term.
C2) Generate Synonyms of the Primary Benefit
At this point, you will have generated the same input from the associative naming process.
C3) Use a Relevant Naming Technique
I compiled a list of descriptive naming techniques. Simply enter portions of your input into these techniques to generate potential names.
Note: The Geography Technique can sometimes limit expansion. But it can be effective if the location has a strong reputation for your product. Sadly, it doesn’t work for calculators.
A descriptive name doesn’t “sound right” for a calculator. So let’s quickly summarize a product where a descriptive name could work.
Consider the name of my online training course, The Blog Boost. Here was my thought process for the name.
Step 1: Choose the Ideal Type of Name
Since the product was informational, I viewed relevance to be very important. So I chose a descriptive name.
Step 2: Identify Meaningful Phonemes
This step doesn’t play a role with descriptive names. Since you’re choosing words that already possess semantic meaning, you don’t need to adjust phonemes.
Step 3: Compile a List of Potential Names
In the course, I explain how I used content marketing to grow my email list to 5,000 subscribers. So I chose the primary terms of “blog” and “audience.” And I generated synonyms for the primary benefits of “enhance” and “increase.”
Pure descriptive names are bland. Nobody wants to enroll in a course called “Increase Blog Traffic.” It’s not distinctive. It’s not memorable. It’s not persuasive.
So I wanted to use a phonetic technique (e.g., alliteration, rhyming). Research shows that phonetic devices have powerful effects on memory, emotion, and general preference (e.g., Boers & Lindstromberg, 2005).
I compared the semantic terms with the benefits to see if I could create a name with alliteration or rhyming. Lo and behold, I could…
…The Blog Boost was born.
Path D: Deviant Naming Process
Deviant names work best for emotional products. With a metaphor, you can capture the essence of multiple emotions. Think of the Dove example from earlier.
To find the right deviant name, follow these steps:
- D1: Identify the Primary Emotions of Your Product
- D2: Transform Those Emotions into Visual Labels
- D3: Create Semantic Maps Surrounding Those Labels
- D4: Keep Concrete Nouns that Spark Your Interest
D1) Identify the Primary Emotions of Your Product
Deviant names should capture the emotion of your product. When that happens, customers will remember your name more easily. Consider state-dependent memory:
“…one is more likely to recall happy thoughts when in a happy mood, romantic memories when in a romantic mood, and so on. Therefore, when a customer is thinking about an emotional product category such as cologne, it should be easier to recall matching emotional brand names, such as Kiss or Love.” (Robertson, 1989, pp. 65)
So what type of emotions would customers experience with a calculator? Well, it depends on the positioning, right?
Suppose that you position your calculator to be very robust. It has tons of features and accessories.
One relevant emotion could be an overwhelmed feeling. We usually associate that emotion with negativity. But it can be good if customers feel overwhelmed by the potential uses and benefits of your calculator.
In fact, you might have experienced that emotion with this article. You might have felt overwhelmed by the obnoxious size (yet simultaneously excited to dig through it).
And that reminds me…
If you’re reading this sentence — and you’ve read the entire article so far — I want to personally thank you. I spent more than 200 hours researching, writing, and sculpting the narrative of this article.
So thank you for being a loyal reader. And thank you for valuing my effort. It genuinely means a lot. If you want to stay up-to-date on the next gigantic article, you can subscribe to my blog.
Main takeaway: an overwhelming feeling can be good. So let’s use “overwhelmed” as our primary emotion.
D2) Transform Those Emotions into Visual Labels
Next, you need to make the emotion tangible.
When I visualize feeling overwhelmed, I think of some gigantic monster overlooking me. So I’m going to choose “giant” as the visual label.
If our output doesn’t accurately represent our product, we can always return to create a new label.
D3) Create Semantic Maps Surrounding Those Labels
Below is a semantic map that I created for our “giant” label:
Don’t be afraid to add words that seem irrelevant. But don’t stray too far from the central label.
D4) Keep Concrete Nouns that Spark Your Interest
Once you create the semantic map, eliminate everything except concrete nouns.
Why keep nouns? Because your name will be more memorable…
“Concrete nouns, with tangible, visual referents (e.g., “dog”) more easily elicit these mental images than abstract nouns (e.g., “justice”). Therefore, concrete brand names such as Dove, Mustang, Rabbit, and Apple should inherently be more easily learned and/or retrieved from memory than abstract names such as Pledge, Tempo, Ban or Bold.” (Robertson, 1989, pp. 65)
Plus, nouns can be triggered (see Berger, 2013). Whenever people encounter the original meaning of your name (e.g., an apple), they’ll be triggered to think of your company (e.g., Apple). That process occurs subconsciously.
At this point, compile the nouns that sound promising. I liked these names:
Also, don’t be afraid to transform those deviant names. Although you might relinquish some of the inherent emotion — which is the main benefit of a deviant name — you could play around with the associative naming techniques:
- Homophone Technique: Behemoth → Behemath
- Blend Technique: Behemoth + Genius = Behemius
- Suffix Technique: Titan + -icus = Titanicus
Step 4: Choose the Best Name in the List
In the previous step, we generated these names for our hypothetical calculator:
In this current step, I’ll teach you how to pinpoint the best name by using various factors. I organized these factors in the most logical sequence. So think of them as a funnel:
In this step, you’ll pour in the names that you composed. Then you’ll eliminate names at each factor. When you reach the bottom of the funnel, you’ll be left with the ideal name for your product.
Some factors may seem obvious. And I’ll breeze over those factors.
But you should read this entire section because some explanations are unexpected.
Factor 1: Which Names Match the Ideal Length?
Let’s do another exercise. Invent a name for each polygon:
I’ll get to your answers in a second.
Most naming “gurus” recommend that you choose a short name. And it’s usually a good option. But it’s not always the case.
Consider the evolution of language. Over time, words have become longer and more complex:
“We can often deduce at what point a particular word entered our language purely by evaluating the word’s simplicity. Think about domain names on the Internet. When we see a website called Books.com, Buy.com, or Frames.com, we know those sites must have been reserved fairly early in the creation of the Internet in comparison to sites like Buybookshere.com…words associated with fundamental survival needs tend to be short and simple (cow, dog, head, face, ear, eye, nose, toe, stone)…This concept also affects the way people perceive our names. Names that are short, abrupt, and simple tend to signify no-nonsense, down-to-earth, active individuals, while longer multi-syllable names evoke complex and imaginative personalities.” (Feinson, 2004)
Generally, longer words convey ideas that are more complex.
Topolinski et al. (2014) tested that claim by analyzing a random group of English words. Turns out, they found a significant correlation between syllabic length and visual complexity. Objects that are more complex generally have more syllables in their name.
Consider the names that you invented for the polygons above.
Those researchers conducted another study where they gave people that same task. And the results were consistent. People invented longer words for the more complex polygon. Did you?
Those findings also stem from processing fluency (see Alter & Oppenheimer, 2009 for a review). We infer characteristics about a stimulus (e.g., brand name), based on characteristics that are irrelevant to its intrinsic quality (e.g., the length of the name).
Remember the pricing example? People perceive prices to be smaller in magnitude if those prices are displayed in a smaller font size (Coulter & Coulter, 2005).
The physical size is irrelevant to the magnitude. And we know that. But our brain has trouble distinguishing those two concepts.
The same applies to language. Even if you weren’t familiar with fluency, you still follow it. When you communicate, you adjust auditory and visual cues to align with fluency.
Consider the intonation in these two sentences:
- The pie was huge.
- The pie was huuuuuuuge.
To convey a greater perceived size, you extend the length of “huge.” Perhaps you also gesture by spreading your hands — enlarging your body — to reinforce the sheer size of the pie.
The phonetic length of “huge” is arbitrary. But you associate it with physical size. Based on our communication style, we seem to have a preconceived and intuitive understanding of fluency. Go, humans.
But here’s the takeaway.
Your customers will judge your product based on the physical length of your name:
- If your name is short, you convey attributes that people associate with directness and smallness.
- If your name is long, you convey attributes that people associate with complexity and largeness.
And the ideal choice will depend on the positioning of your product.
- Do you position your product to be a simple or elegant solution? Then a short name will reinforce the essence of that simplicity.
- Do you position your product toward experts because it contains a ton of features? Then a long name could reinforce the large size and complexity of your offering.
That advice might seem unorthodox. Again, most “gurus” recommend a short name. However, researchers emphasize the importance of name fit. A name that “sounds right” is usually better than a name that “sounds good” (Robertson, 1989).
Factor 2: Which Names Match the Ideal Complexity?
The same concept applies to complexity.
For most products, you’ll want to choose a simple name. Simple names increase fluency — which increases the perceived familiarity of your product.
Usually, you want to increase familiarity. Familiarity is good…most of the time.
Here are three types of products where you should choose a slightly more complex name so that you reduce familiarity.
1. Special Occasion Products
If customers purchase your product for a special occasion, you should reduce the fluency of your name:
“In the context of everyday products, increased fluency is a positive cue that the product is familiar and safe which leads to higher evaluation of products…However, in the context of special occasion high-end products, higher fluency serves as a negative cue that indicates abundance and familiarity of products that translates into lower value… Thus, difficulty (and not ease) of processing of such products will make them feel more special…” (Pocheptsova, Labroo & Dhar, 2010)
Those researchers exposed people to different fonts for a gourmet cheese. People were more likely to buy the cheese when the font was difficult to read.
Even though the study involved font, the underlying factor was disfluency. So you’ll achieve the same outcome by using a slightly more complex name.
2. Adventurous Products
Familiarity has a connotation with safe and boring — which is bad for adventurous products.
Song and Schwarz (2009) exposed people to different roller coasters:
- Some names were easy to pronounce (e.g., Chunta, Ohanzee, Tihkoosue)
- Some names were difficult to pronounce (e.g., Vaiveahtoishi, Tsiischili, Heammawihio)
Participants viewed rides to be more exciting when the names were difficult to pronounce.
3. Advanced Products
If you position your product to be technologically advanced, you don’t want people to experience familiarity.
Thus, a complex name can reinforce the complexity of your product:
“…depending on how the fluency feeling is interpreted in the context of initial judgment task (e.g. advancedness vs. risk), disfluent drug names can positively influence a patient’s perception of the drug, reversing the typical fluency effect.” (Cho, 2014)
Now, all that said, be careful if you choose a complex name. Oftentimes, fluency will involve perceptions of familiarity. But it could trigger other interpretations.
Think of drug names. People could interpret disfluency in two ways:
- The drug is more advanced (good)
- The drug is more hazardous (bad)
What determines that interpretation? There’s no definitive answer. But it probably stems from a preconceived opinion about your product. So you should pay close attention to your branding and positioning.
In the end, never choose a very complex name. When in doubt, choose a short and simple name.
Factor 3: Is the Name Enticing to Say?
Assuming that you chose a simple name, you’ll want a name with an easy pronunciation.
But here’s a fun fact. Do you know why customers prefer names that are easy to pronounce? The answer involves fluency. But there’s more to the story.
Whenever you see a written word, you engage in subvocal pronunciation. You mutter that word to yourself. Oftentimes without realizing it.
More importantly, subvocalization reinforces fluency. When you encounter the name again, you’ll subvocalize it more quickly — which feels good. And then you misattribute that pleasantness to the product.
However, here’s the interesting tidbit. If someone’s mouth is occupied (e.g., chewing gum), they can’t subvocalize. So they don’t experience that pleasantness (and they don’t make that misattribution).
It sounds weird, but multiple studies show that people are more resilient to ads when their mouths are occupied, such as chewing gum (Topolinski, Lidner, & Freudenberg, 2014).
Thus, to increase fluency, you need a name that’s fun or enticing to say — a name that encourages subvocalication.
Earlier I explained the importance of arranging consonants from front to back (see Topolinski et al., 2014). Although it enhances pronunciation, those names aren’t necessarily enticing to say.
To create an enticing name, consider adding phonetic repetition:
“The presence of such repetitive sounds is usually pleasing to the ear and helps to generate a general pleasant feeling which contributes to the connotative meaning established for the name.” (Robertson, 1989, pp. 67)
Two potential techniques include The Alliteration Technique (e.g., Best Buy) or The Rhyme Technique (e.g., FitBit).
Those repetitive sounds make your name more tantalizing. You’ll encourage people to subvocalize — which enhances their perception of your product (Argo, Popa, & Smith, 2010).
Factor 4: How Many Spelling Variations Exist?
Ziegler et al. (1997) analyzed 2,694 monosyllabic words. Turns out, over 72% of syllables in English can be spelled more than one way.
Chances are good: your names can be spelled more than one way. And that can be problematic when customers hear your name.
But you have two solutions…
Solution A: Choose a Name With Fewer Spelling Variations
Consider the detergent, Purex:
“…upon hearing an ad for the laundry detergent Purex a literate English speaker would know to spell it as p-u-r-e-x….the letters p-u-r-e-x are the only letters that would produce such a sound in English” (Luna, Carnevale, & Lerman, 2013, pp. 37)
You won’t be as lucky with other names.
Solution B: Prime the Correct Spelling of the Name
Oftentimes you’ll still be drawn toward a name — even though it could have multiple spellings.
In that case, you could encourage the correct spelling by including a similarly spelled word near your name:
“…the spelling of a nonword may be enhanced by the spelling of a word heard immediately before that contains the same spelling pattern as the target nonword. For example, in lexical priming a real word that sounds and is spelled like the nonword is presented before the nonword (e.g., “rose” before Bose)” (Luna, Carnevale, & Lerman, 2013, pp. 38)
Factor 5: What Are Potential Abbreviations?
If your name is more than one word, it’s inevitable. When people talk about your brand online, they WILL abbreviate it — whether you like it or not.
So if your name is the Amazing New Ultimate Store. Well…guess what? You got a problem, ANUS.
You need to choose a name that — when abbreviated — is still brandable.
Ideally, the abbreviation should also be easy-to-pronounce. Consistent with fluency, Alter and Oppenheimer (2006) found that stocks with easy-to-pronounce ticker symbols (e.g., COF) outperform stocks with difficult-to-pronounce ticker symbols (e.g., XRI).
Factor 6: What Are the Translations in Popular Languages?
Barf Detergent isn’t the only translation blunder.
The Honda Fitta sounds great, doesn’t it?
It’s cool. It’s young. It’s hip.
Well, too bad it’s Swedish for female genitalia. Yep…Honda wasn’t too happy.
(though I wonder if they changed their slogan: small on the outside, big on the inside)
Anyway, here are some other blunders:
- Mazda renamed their Laputa minivan because “puta” means “prostitute” in Spanish.
- Clairol renamed their Mist Stick because “mist” means manure in German.
- Mitsubishi renamed their Pajero because “pajero” meanings “wanker” in Spanish.
- Reebok renamed their Incubus sneaker because, in medieval folklore, an “incubus” was a demon who ravished women in their sleep.
- When Exxon spent $100 million to name their company, they tested names in 54 languages. They discovered that one name — Enco — referred to a stalled engine in Japanese.
Don’t make the same mistake. Once you narrow down potential names, check the translations in popular languages.
Factor 7: Does the Name Exist Elsewhere?
Search the names in Google. What results shows up?
Factor 8: Is the .com Domain Available?
The .com domain will become less important over time. But it’s still important today. So don’t forget to check the availability.
Factor 9: Is the Name Available on Popular Social Platforms?
This factor isn’t make or break. But it’s something to consider.
Factor 10: Should You Add a Version or Number?
Many products incorporate numbers. You’ll find examples everywhere…
- Boeing 767
- Xbox 360
- Canon T5i
Those “alphanumeric brands” use different formats — small numbers, large numbers, letters, numerals. For example, here are some real calculator names:
- Casio fx-115ES
- Avalon A-25X
- Sharp EL-501XBWH
Pavia and Costa (1993) found that alphanumeric names work best for two types of products:
- Technical (e.g., electronic, computers, calculators)
- Chemically Formulated (e.g., drugs, fuels, vitamin-rich food)
But why do they work?
Well, the researchers found that people use those numbers to infer characteristics about the product. For example, people estimated a higher seat capacity in an aircraft:
“…we asked participants to estimate the number of seats in two aircrafts of equivalent capacity (i.e., Airbus A330 vs. Boeing B767)… Consistent with our premise, 25 of the 61 participants (i.e., 41%) thought that “767” stands for the number of passengers, capacity, number of seats, etc” (Yan & Duclos, 2013, pp. 180-181)
Seat capacity is an explicit association. But most associations occur subconsciously.
So how can you choose the ideal version or number? Here are some factors to consider:
How simple or complex should it be? The answer depends on the complexity of your original name (see Factor 2).
Suppose that you wanted a simple name for your calculator. So you chose Titan because it was short and distinct.
If you then create Titan BH-X25GHL…well…that defeats the purpose, doesn’t it? To maintain simplicity, you need a simple number (e.g., Titan 200).
Now, a complex version could work. If you position your calculator to be very advanced, a disfluent name could be effective. People could attribute that disfluency to the advancedness of your product (see Cho, 2014). But it depends on your positioning.
Which computer do you prefer?
All else equal, consumers prefer the X-200 (the higher magnitude).
The reason stems from a “higher is better” heuristic. Consumers perceive those products to be more advanced:
“…consumers with low need for cognition use simple brand name heuristics and make their decisions based on the assumption that alphanumeric brands with higher numeric portions correspond to more advanced products.” (Gunasti & Ross, 2010, pp. 678)
If your product is the first in your product line, then check the competition. What versions or numbers are they using? Consider using a higher magnitude.
You’ll also trigger an anchoring effect. Yan and Duclos (2013) found that customers perceived a $500 MP3 player to be a better value when it was called M-600 (rather than M-500). You can refer to my book, Methods of Persuasion, for a detailed explanation.
Based on numerical cognition, we process certain numbers more easily (which influences our preference for those numbers).
Here are some tips.
Tip 1: Use a Rounded Number
Kettle and Haubel (2009) conducted a few experiments on roundedness. They found that people prefer round numbers because of higher fluency:
“…people prefer numbers that are products of 25 and 10 (e.g., 50%, $125). People rate risky prospects comprised of those numbers as more attractive, and choose those prospects over similar prospects comprised of nonfluent numbers.” (pp. 150)
Tip 2: Use a Composite Number
If you don’t use a round number, then at least use a composite number (a number that isn’t prime).
Janiszewski and King (2011) exposed people to different alphanumeric names. People consistently preferred names with composite numbers:
- Cars: Volvo S12 was better than Volvo S29
- Body Spray: Axe 16 was better than Axe 17
- Contact Lenses: Solus 36 was better than Solus 37
Tip 3: Incorporate Divisors Near Your Name
Even if you choose a composite number, you can further increase fluency.
In the previous study, Janiszewski and King (2011) created ads for each product. In each ad, they incorporated divisors of the composite number:
- Volvo S12: They displayed a 62 in the license plate (6 x 2 = 12)
- Axe 16: They displayed a 4 on a hotel door.
- Solus 36: They emphasized “6 colors. 6 fits.”
In each case, those divisors increased fluency (and people evaluated those names more favorably).
That tactic also works with prices. People were more likely to buy a $24 pizza deal when they read an ad containing divisors (e.g., “4 small pizzas up to 6 toppings”). Refer to Tactic 33 in my pricing article.
We’ve looked at magnitude, complexity, and numerical fluency. But you should also consider potential associations with the number.
Certain numbers (e.g., 7) are associated with certain concepts (e.g., luck). And those associations can influence the perception of your name (see Ang, 1997).
Thanks to perceptual fluency, people will infer qualities about your product using the visual characteristics of your numerals.
Consider the numbers, 1 and 8:
- 1 is straight
- 8 is round
If the physical shape of your product is meaningful, then you might want to choose a corresponding numeral (i.e., 1 for straight products, 8 for round products).
But you should also consider the metaphorical associations with those characteristics.
For example, people usually associate straightness with symbolic concepts — like straightforwardness, directness, or honesty. If those adjectives describe your product, then you might want to choose a visually straight numeral.
If you’re not familiar with fluency, those claims might sound strange. But a lot of research supports it (see Alter & Oppenheimer, 2009).
Earlier I chose Titan 200 as an example. And I didn’t choose it arbitrarily. I chose it because of the alliteration.
We usually categorize alliteration under orthography (i.e. the spelling of words). But don’t make that mistake. Even if your name uses a numeral (e.g., 200), always consider the phonetics of that number (e.g., “two hundred”).
When possible, strongly consider an alliterative number (e.g., Titan 200).
Davis, Bagchi, and Block (2012) examined alliteration with quantities, names, and prices. They exposed people to two different sequences:
- 10 Teven for $10
- 10 Teven for $9.70
Not surprisingly, the alliterative presentation was more effective:
“Participants found the fully alliterative presentation (10 Teven for $10) to be a more attractive offer, more attention grabbing, had higher purchase intentions for the product, were happier with the deal, and thought the deal was a better value, than the alternate presentation” (pp. 600)
I know that experiment is different from our current needs (not to mention, the amount of alliteration was amazingly excessive). But the core takeaway still stands: alliteration can be powerful in a brand name.
Also, don’t forget the phoneme meanings that I explained in Step 3. Choose a numeral with meaningful phonemes.
Factor 11: What Do Your Target Customers Think?
Here’s the final — and most important — factor in this list.
You’ve removed the weaker names. Now you’re left with the top contenders. All of these names are viable names for your product or business. Now you just need to pinpoint the ideal name.
So let’s ask the people that matter. What do customers think of the names that you compiled?
Don’t ask if they “like” the name. Instead, pinpoint the meanings that they associate with those names. Choose the name that most accurately portrays your product.
In 1970, Exxon spent $100 million to create their name (Kotler et al., 2013).
One Name = $100 Million
Hopefully this article will help you reach an equally effective name — for much less.
I spent 200 hours analyzing the research. And I can safely say….this article is the most comprehensive and concrete resource on naming a product or business.
(Length: 93 pgs)
This topic seems fluffy on the outside. But it’s extremely complex. I spent a ton of time trying to fit the pieces together in a logical sequence. So if you see an error or omission, please let me know.
Finally, don’t treat this article as a formula. Sure, I explained the science. But don’t forget…naming is also an art. Every product is different. You can adapt the steps to suit your needs.
And if you want to stay updated on my next gigantic article in marketing, you can subscribe to my blog.