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A tech brand by any other name would not smell as sweet

An article on the science of naming

a guide to brand naming

If you’ve ever tried to name something – a brand, a product, a pet, a body part – you’ll know it’s not an easy thing to do. Stamping a permanent label on something is a big ask. Your chosen name becomes a perennial first impression for that thing’s eternity. Not such a big deal if you’re naming a goldfish (RIP Swim Shady), but for a baby or brand your name has the potential to set a course for life.

That’s because names have the power to imply meaning, bias opinion, curry favour, create injustice, influence prospects and even shift desirability. And coming up with the right name isn’t just potluck – it’s an art. (Ok, it can also be potluck but shhh.)

From giving FinTech firms the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin treatment to christening ballsy brands with even ballsier labels, Fox Agency has been there, done that, and branded the t-shirt. Here’s a little glimpse of the thinking behind the greatest brands out there.

Naming is hard – and it’s getting harder

The first thing you should know is that it’s 2021. Ok, so you knew that already. But what that means in the world of brand and product names is that everything, including the Belfast sink, has been named and named again. It’s near impossible to get a single-word URL to yourself, and the copyright database is fuller than a Kardashian’s closet. Getting noticed (and trademarked) takes a little ingenuity these days. 

A name creates a powerful first impression

We’re living in an age where it’s perfectly acceptable to swipe left or right for potential partners based on extremely limited information – a few photos, a brief bio and a name. And you better believe that the name matters.  

For an experiment carried out on – a website that rates attractiveness – Cognitive Scientist, Amy Perfors posted duplicate pictures of people, but gave them different names, and found that certain names enhanced ratings. For males, vowel sounds made at the front of the mouth (Steve, Nick, Ryan, Will, Jack,) were rated more attractive than names made with back-of-the-mouth sounds (DougRuss, Paul, Shaun, Luke).  

Try it yourself. Say those names out loud and pay attention to your tongue position on the vowel sound of each. In terms of attractiveness, men like Doug and Russ, as lovely as they may be, are immediately hindered by the ‘ugh’ sound in their name. Ever wondered why there are so many negative words that contain the ‘ugh’ sound? Disgust, clumsy, muck, fuss, blunder, mud, slum.  

(There’s a theory that it’s to do with early humans who couldn’t quite speak, but could mimic the sound of vomit when things didn’t please them. Nice, eh?)  

So, can vowel sounds work the other way and add attractiveness? Indeed, they can.  

Did you know that people evaluate things more favourably when they hold a pencil horizontally in their mouth? That’s because it forces them to smile – and we can replicate this in language. People are more likely to help individuals whose names end with a hard ‘e’ sound – Harry, Emily, Chloe – because, like the pencil in the mouth, saying those names forces you to smile.  

Brands benefit from this phenomenon too. A 2014 study identified that a disproportionate number of successful brands include hard ‘e’ sounds in their name (Sony, LG, KFC, Wrigley, Pepsi, MTV, HP, Harley-Davidson, eBay, Barclays, Burberry and, of course, EE.) 

We’re thinking of changing our name to Foxy.  

Language mechanics can enhance meaning

As a B2B tech agency, we name brands on the reg, and we know that inspiration can come from anywhere. But there are times when we’ll need to dig a little deeper into our writing arsenal – vowel sounds, plosives, fricatives, phonesthemes, prefixes, suffixes and good old portmanteaus.  

We’d love to delve into them all in this article but we have a word count to stick to. So, let’s just discuss a few favourites.  

Portmanteaus (two words smashed together) are a nifty way to create something memorable and ownable. People like saying them, which is why they show up time and again in the English language (think: motel, cockapoo, bromance, manscaping). It gives brands the opportunity to present two things that tell a stronger story when told together. Here’s one we diced and spliced earlier – TruNarrative 

Of course, you could go one step further and make something up entirely from scratch. But believe it or not, even that takes strategy. When you’re working with non-words (neologisms) it’s about playing with literal and lateral meaning. Facebook and Häagen-Dazs are both made up brand names, but one brings a lot more literal meaning than the other. (Häagen-Dazsis a Brooklyn-born brand with a founder that wanted his ice-cream to sound Scandinavian. Mission accomplished.) 

Looking back and inadvertent benefits

Back in the day (whenever that was), it was much easier to be as straight as a die with your brand name – General MotorsIBMBritish TelecomNorthern Rail. But now, more functional names are rarely brought to market, mainly because of the trademark thing, but also because consumers are drawn to names that spark intrigue. 

Nike and Apple are arguably the coolest brands in history and, whilst their names aren’t completely made up, they have little to do with the literal. Nike is the Greek goddess of victory, so by making her the brand’s namesake, it’s very much a case of cool by association. Maybe ‘Blue Ribbon Sports’ didn’t have quite the same ring to it. 

Pronounceability (which is ironically hard to pronounce) is obviously important, but that’s not to say a tongue twister can’t work in your favour. Lululemon, the rapidly-growing yoga and activewear brand was deliberately given such an L-heavy name to entice Japanese customers. Why? Because the letter ‘L’ doesn’t exist in Japanese phonetics, so it was thought the brand would ‘seem’ unquestionably North American, and therefore desirable. It worked.  

Incidentally, lululemon may also have inadvertently benefited in the western world where ‘L’ is useful when trying to convey sexiness and wantonness. Pay attention to your tongue when you say loose, lush, lecherous, libido, lustful, and lickerish  

So, what’s the take-out?

The main thing to remember about naming is that no matter how objective your approach, judging a name will always be incredibly subjective. Language carries a colossal amount of inherent, and often subconscious, meaning. What means one thing to one person, may not always mean the same to another. When you scratch the surface, there will almost always be more to names than meets the eye. Intentionally, or otherwise.    

There’s plenty of science to support your naming process but, as of yet, no perfect formula.  

In conclusion, it’s complicated. So maybe get someone who knows naming to do it for you.  

We’ll be waiting.