Imagine – the advertising agency develops 20 names for your client’s blockbuster product, but half of them don’t make it through trademark clearance, one name insults French speakers and the remaining nine muster no enthusiasm from the executive team. Meanwhile, several stakeholders are clamoring for focus groups to help them make a decision. Does this sound familiar?

When I first became interested in linguistics and marketing research, I started observing “how things are done” in my industry. I’ve observed focus groups where name research consists of circling names you don’t like (red pen) and those you do (green pen). This type of marketing research, although commonplace, is virtually worthless. Why? Before talking about how not to test a brand name, it is important to understand the purpose of one:

  1. Differentiate
  2. Elevate the brand
  3. Maintain its elasticity

Name research should not be used to identify a “winning” name or to ask consumers which names they like best. Instead, we must understand the strengths and weaknesses of a name and how that name’s attributes align with the company’s brand strategy.

For example, one brand name may convey quality, but say nothing about value. Another may convey quality, value and innovation while also earning the most votes from consumers, but that doesn’t necessarily make it better. Instead, companies must understand how well each name performs and how different messaging and positioning strategies can be used both to amplify strengths and to downplay shortcomings.

Far more meaningful are these questions: Does the name differentiate your brand? Does it have stopping power and is it memorable? Does it elevate your brand by building equity and telling your brand story? Also, will it prompt consideration? Finally, is the name elastic? Can it accommodate different price tiers and product line extensions or does it have a limited shelf life? By employing research that is fact-based, rather than opinion-based, companies can determine which names clearly differentiate their products while elevating consumers’ perceptions of their product and corporate brand.

Why “likeability” and “fit” don’t matter

Asking respondents whether they like a name can be dangerously misleading. Dozens of studies have shown that people have an instinctual aversion to things that are surprising, unusual or unpredictable because they contradict our preconceived views of the world. That means that innovative, bold names like Yahoo! (search engine), Urban Decay (cosmetics) or Orange (telecommunications) consistently rank at the bottom in naming research. If you do what most companies do and test brand names based on likeability, you’ll end up with a bland, inoffensive name that no one hates...but that no one really loves, either. And, most importantly, these predictable and reassuring names completely fail to differentiate your brand. Instead of likeability, the focus should be on whether the name creates value. Does the name make your brand stand out in the marketplace? Does it reflect the desired brand attributes? Does it echo your corporate ideals?

Asking respondents whether they like a name can be dangerously misleading. Dozens of studies have shown that people have an instinctual aversion to things that are surprising, unusual or unpredictable

Often people confuse value with fit. Testing whether a name “fits” is a common misstep in marketing research. When marketers talk about fit, they mean fit-to-category. For example, if you are naming a sports car, you want it to convey specific category attributes – such as speed, precision and beauty. Does the name sound like a high performance car or does it miss the mark because it sounds like a family sedan? The problem with fit-to-category is that “fitting” is the opposite of standing out – which is exactly what you want your brand to do. So while a sports car should sound fast, you don’t want it to sound like all of the other fast cars you’re competing with.

The problem with fit-to-category is that “fitting” is the opposite of standing out—which is exactly what you want your brand to do

The importance of pronunciation and sound

Another important consideration is how the name reads. If you can’t spell the name (much less pronounce it), how can you remember the product during the purchase decision? How the name reads does not guarantee the success of a brand, but it is one factor that I pay attention to. Equally important is what the name sounds like and what that implies about the product. Basically, marketers want the sound of the word to reflect the brand attributes they’re trying to convey. This trait is what I call auditory resonance. Consider the power of particular letters and letter combinations. A long ‘O’ (as in Omega) and a short ‘A’ (as in America) convey size. The reason has to do with human physiology. When pronouncing those sounds, the mouth and voice box are at their widest positions. Therefore, letter combinations that include those sounds imply something that is large, an association that remains unconscious for most people.

Context is everything

A brand name must be evaluated within a specific context. What does the word convey, at face value? Once it is introduced within the context of a particular product category, what does the name say about the product? What does it say about the company that makes it? What does it say about the people who buy and use that product? To answer these questions, you must consider the potential equity of the new product name, the existing equity of the corporate brand, and how these change once the two are paired together. Layering, or what I call a “phased reveal,” provides an answer to these questions.

My first objective is to understand the thoughts, feelings and experiences that people associate with a word. The product category and corporate brand are not even mentioned at this point. Some people may be reminded of childhood experiences while others will think about concrete associations such as colors or sounds. Although these associations are interesting, the quantity and diversity of associations are far more revealing. I call this dimensionality. Greater dimensionality is an early indicator of a brand name’s ability to differentiate, to be memorable and to engage consumers at an emotional level.

As an example, take the word Juju. When I tested this name years ago, the associations consumers had with the word were wide-ranging and rich in meaning: groovy, hip, taboo, mysterious, exotic, witchcraft, magic, confidence, luck, sex appeal, illicit, powerful and medicine, to name a few. Juju had more dimensionality (range and diversity of associations) than another name I tested – Canopy. This word elicited very literal and limited associations such as picnic, tent, outdoors and parachute. Dimensionality is also useful because it is a measure of the flexibility or extensibility of a brand name. Imagine being a brand manager responsible for a product’s advertising, package design and messaging. Knowing the associations people have with Juju, that name gives the manager far more creative latitude than a name like Canopy. Also, the more flexible the brand name is, the easier it is to adapt to different product price tiers and line extensions.

the more flexible the brand name is, the easier it is to adapt to different product price tiers and line extensions

After exploring the associations people have with a name, you must understand how those associations change once the product category is introduced. This is a two-step process: first, testing the name within a “red herring” category, then testing it within the actual category. The red herring category is not introduced to confuse consumers, but to instead eliminate category bias. For instance, if a company developed a new type of gasoline called Eco-First, I would not introduce it to consumers as gasoline because many would have preconceived notions surrounding the petroleum industry. So to properly evaluate Eco-First, I might ask them whether the name reinforces brand attributes that they would logically expect in a different category. For example, how strongly does Eco-First convey cleanliness, purity or gentleness if it were a healthy skin care product?

After exploring how the product category affects brand name perceptions, it is time to introduce the corporate brand. This is important in order to determine credibility. A segment of the population might be attracted to a product like Eco-First based on the implied benefit (a gasoline that is more eco-friendly and better for the planet). But what happens when you introduce the parent brand, as in, “Eco-First, brought to you by British Petroleum”? Suddenly, consumers dislike the name because the company’s damaging oil spill undermines the credibility of this claim. So what the new name says about the product is important...but just as important is who is saying it.

Time and money well spent

While it requires an investment of time and money, name research can mediate the even costlier internal debates that can thwart a product launch. But before name research begins, it is critical to understand what it can – and cannot – achieve. The intention is not to pick a winning name or determine how likeable it is. If done well, name research can provide insight into the minds of consumers, showing how they respond to particular words and what impact this can have on their relationship to your product and your corporate brand.