I Know Nothing About Product Naming (But That Doesn’t Stop Me from Doing It!)

By April Dunford
August 01, 2009

As a marketer for a new product, naming is something you may have to do even though you know nothing about it. There isn't a magic formula for creating a good product name, but a well-considered, rational process for picking the least awful name out of all of the possible awful names out there is better than anyone's gut feel - and, frankly, the best you can do.


I’ve spent most of my career working with startups or on Version 1 products, so I have done my share of product naming. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about naming products, it’s that very few people actually know anything about how to do it well.

The few who do know naming are so rare that they can quite comfortably charge an hourly rate somewhere in the neighborhood of your entire marketing budget. As long as you keep working on Version 1 products, the likelihood you will get the budget to use their services is right up there with how likely you are to get budget to have U2 play at your launch event.

As a marketer for a new product, naming is something you may have to do even though you know nothing about it.

So, as they say in all those 12-step programs, the first step is admitting you have a problem. In my experience, the absolute worst names come from people like me, who know nothing about product naming, yet—unlike me—have managed to convince themselves they have some inherent sixth sense for choosing product names. By simply responding to the aura-like energy emanating from the names themselves, they can “feel” which one is right. “I can’t tell you why exactly,” they’ll say with that maniac glow in their eyes, “but SchmoozePhone just feels right to me.”

Don’t be that person! Repeat to yourself: “I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know what I’m doing.” There isn’t a magic formula for creating a good product name, but a well-considered, rational process for picking the least awful name out of all of the possible awful names out there is better than anyone’s gut feel—and, frankly, the best you can do.

Before you get started

Before starting the process of product naming, there are a few things you need to consider in order to make the process a bit smoother.

Nail down your positioning

I always put off naming a product until the basic product positioning is worked out. Having a name that specifically calls to mind one of your product’s strengths is one way to name a product. But even if the name doesn’t have anything to do with how the product is positioned, you need to be careful it doesn’t resonate with something that is opposite the product’s positioning. For example, say you are launching a new accounting package, and someone wants to call it Books2Go. Snappy. Catchy. Too bad your software doesn’t run on a smart phone, because everyone will expect that it will.

Decide which international markets really matter

Picking a name that works in every language around the world is something that keeps marketing folks up at night. We have all heard the stories about products whose names translated into “canary droppings” or “brothel bed sheets” in another language.

Decide up front which international markets matter to you and which don’t. Be honest with yourself—do you have a sales channel to reach into Bulgaria or Turkey? Is your product going to support Korean or Japanese? If not, save yourself the stress, and don’t worry about those languages.

Think about your brand

This is a tricky one. For startups, there is often a discussion around whether the primary “brand” is the company name or the product name. This topic could be an entire article in itself, but the reason I am bringing it up here is because it helps to think about this before you get into the product naming process. For example, if your startup is launching one product and will probably only sell one product for the foreseeable future, it might make sense to have just one name for both the product and the company.

Consider Facebook, which is both the company and the flagship product. Oracle abandoned its company name, Relational Software, Inc., for Oracle Corporation in the early 1980s to better align with its flagship product. In later years, the product name became Oracle Database to differentiate it from Oracle Applications and other products in the Oracle family.

It takes time, effort, and money to build brand recognition in the minds of customers. If you can get away with branding just one name, consider yourself lucky.

If you are working on a V1 product inside a larger company, you also need to consider what your primary brand should be. I worked inside IBM’s Software Group for years; and there are several major brands there, including DB2, Lotus, and WebSphere. I worked on a couple of different products where we made the decision to go forward simply with the IBM brand (using a descriptive product name with it), because aligning product with either DB2 or WebSphere would have been confusing for customers.

Branding decisions are difficult ones to make and often need to be made before a meaningful conversation about product naming can occur, so you might as well get these issues out on the table as early as possible.

List competitors’ names and product names

Ideally your product name is going to be memorable for customers, so you want to make sure it isn’t too similar to other products out there.

I also have a personal pet peeve with names containing over-used elements such as “soft,” “info,” “net,” “inter,” and “sys”—you get the idea. These elements have approached full-blown cliché status and make your name instantly forgettable.

Understand your corporate naming standards

If you work at a large company, chances are you have a corporate naming standard with which you are supposed to comply. Those standards are there for a reason, and it generally has to do with how difficult it would be for customers to find your products out of the hundreds of other products your company offers, if those products were all named things like “banana” or “seesaw.”

That said, as with most rules at big companies, there are always situations where rules should be, and are, broken. If you plan to try and get around your corporate naming standards, you will need to mount a case to do so, and that will involve understanding exactly which rules you are breaking.

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About the Authors

  • April Dunford has been doing Product Marketing for longer than most people have been alive. She has held senior leadership roles at IBM, Siebel, and Nortel, as well as a handful of startups. She has launched three billion-dollar products and one total dud. She blogs on Product Marketing for Startups at www.rocketwatcher.com, Twitters at www.twitter.com/aprildunford, and can be contacted at aprildunford@gmail.com.

Categories:  Go-to-Market Positioning

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