5 common naming mistakes (& how to avoid them)

Coming up with your next great company or product name can be hard. Especially when you embark on the journey with a group of colleagues who care deeply about it.

That’s because the naming process is only partly about naming—it’s also about conflicting opinions, gut reactions and plenty of doubt. This is what happens when people try to agree on the perfect 1-3 words that represent their business.

Unchecked, these things will ruin your naming efforts right off the bat. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Here are the top five mistakes people make naming, and how to avoid them.

Mistake 1: Trying to sound like other players in your industry

Look at the names of competitors in your industry. I bet many of them sound the same. And when you’re setting out on the daunting task of renaming your business, it feels like a safe bet to sound like them. Especially when you want customers to know you’re a player in that industry.

Before you go down that path, consider the zebra. Do you know why they have stripes? So that predators can’t single out any one zebra in the herd. Their stripes help them disappear into each other from a distance. They become one big striped blob on the Serengeti.

That’s what really happens when your name sounds like everyone else in your market. It’s great for zebras, bad for you.

In a herd of zebras, a different name could make you more like a lion. Bold, powerful and happy to eat any old zebra.

Here’s how. Do a roundup of competitors in your market. Put all their logos and names together on one big piece of paper. Make a note of all the conventions and clichés. Then brainstorm ways you could be different. Think like the lion.

For example, if your industry is full of formal, conservative names think about a simple and friendly one. There was IBM and then came Apple.

Mistake 2: Forcing your name to include what you sell

Ever noticed how many professional service businesses have “solutions” in their name? Just because they offer solutions to clients, they think it needs to be part of their name (or else people won’t understand what they do.)

This belief is so widespread that the meaning of “solutions” has turned to dust. Put it in your name, and you’re no different from the other solution providers in multiple industries.

There is no rule that says you have to describe what you sell in your company name. Your product name doesn’t have to include its features, either. Because a name isn’t an island. It always appears with words, visual and content—those are the things that explain your services.

Your name’s job is to signal something different in a sea of sameness.

That’s why I recommend an abstract name that doesn’t immediately say what you do. Instead, they may hint at your philosophy, your mission or your brand’s attitude. Here are examples:

  • Amazon – speaks to the widest, most diverse ecosystem of products
  • Hulu – Mandarin word that describes a “holder of precious things”
  • Virgin – When 20 year-old Branson started his first business, he felt like a virgin
Mistake 3: Making “yes” or “no” the only options

A great name is a multitasker. It doesn’t just look and sound good, it has meaning and sticks in your mind. For example, “Apple” is different, memorable and friendly. Here are the meanings behind other famous tech names.

The strength of a name isn’t black or white. A simple yes or no doesn’t allow for true assessment of your names’ strengths and weaknesses. It’s also completely subjective. And once you agree on a name with the most yeses, how do you get buy-in from the rest of the business?

It pays to get a little scientific with your ratings. At the end of your brainstorm, get a shortlist of at least 10 names. For each, create a scoring card with desired strengths. For example:

  • Intriguing
  • Descriptive
  • Attention-grabbing
  • How it sounds
  • How it looks
  • Memorable

Give a rating from 1 to 5 for each category. Do it for all your names, add up the numbers, and voila—you’ll have a list from strongest to weakest. And you may be surprised by which names come out on top.

The scores don’t have to be the deciding factor. It’s just a good way to get subjectivity out of the process, and understand more clearly what you want out of your name.

Mistake 4: Letting name baggage get the best of you

Get any group of people together to brainstorm names, and you’ll start hearing reactions like:

“My old best friend’s dog that bit me once had that name.”

“That reminds me of this smelly roller rink in my hometown.”

“I’ve just always hated that word.”

I call this name baggage—the negative personal associations we have with words that drag down our naming efforts. These lighthearted anecdotes always pop up during group brainstorms. They may be funny, but they can sway the rooms’ opinion for no good reason. The association attaches itself to the name like Velcro and it’s the beginning of the end.

Don’t give that power to some dog who bit you once. Your next great name has nothing to do with your past, and everything to do with your business’ future.

Here’s how you defuse name baggage’s power. Tell everyone about name baggage at the beginning of your brainstorm session. Then stick a big piece of paper on the wall with “baggage” written on top.

When baggage comes up, write down the association (not the name – we want to separate association from name). Soon, your list will grow:

“Smelly roller rink; mean dog; underwear…”

In isolation, the negative associations look as silly and insignificant as they are. And you can move on.

(Note: this applies to personal associations. If there is a widespread negative association to your name, this should absolutely be considered.)

Mistake 5: Losing sight of your brand’s personality

Your name is your brand’s first impression (hey, no pressure!). A good name is an open door that welcomes people inside. A bad one is a hurdle before the race has even begun.

For example: a trampoline center called “Jump Solutions” doesn’t sound all that fun. And you’d think twice taking financial advice from a firm called “Investorama.”

The key is making your name jive with your brand personality—a set of traits that describe your brand, much like you would a person. For example, a financial advisor’s brand personality might be: sophisticated, smart and traditional; a trampoline center might be: fun, energetic and youthful.

If you don’t have an outlined brand personality, take a stab with three adjectives that add up to how you’d like to be perceived.

Get those words up on the wall and let them guide and inspire you. Check in with them throughout the process to make sure.

If you want to be simple, you should cross off any overcomplicated names. And if you want to be fresh and fun, don’t you dare put “solutions” in there!

Always stay true to your vision

Naming your company is a big deal. But don’t let that psych you out.

Instead of focusing on what isn’t working with your names, spend time thinking about what you do want in your name. How will it make people feel? What will it sound like? How will it be different from competitors?

Answering these questions will make your vision clear. And that will make the naming process so much easier.

What experiences have helped or hurt your past naming efforts?

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