Best Practices

What’s in a Name? Not That Much Actually

Published Jun 4, 2018

I hate naming. I’ll start there. Actually, that’s not entirely fair. I find the process of deriving a product or feature name to be far, far more painful than it needs to be. The pain comes mostly from attempting to get a surprisingly broad array of stakeholders to agree. When it comes to naming, you suddenly find that everybody in your organization has a strong opinion about it (even folks who have nothing to do with product development or marketing).  

A few years ago at IBM, my team was launching a new messaging appliance. After multiple meetings with different VPs, General Managers, and even SVPs our “list of shame” had over 300 rejected naming options for the product. The reason it’s often so hard to reach consensus is that outside of a few important considerations there really isn’t a wrong answer. It’s all pretty subjective.

Descriptive vs. Creative Names

The most important decision when it comes to naming a product or feature is not what the actual name should be, but rather what type of name to use. There are two broad categories of naming to consider: descriptive names and creative, or “branded,” names. Descriptive names are, well, descriptive – the product or feature name says what the product is or does. So for example, calling the aforementioned product “IBM Messaging Appliance” would be a perfect descriptive name.

Creative names are pretty much the exact opposite. They might have some tangential relationship with what a product or feature does, but they are not explanatory by themselves. Think of Microsoft XBox, for example. Just by hearing the name you wouldn’t know that it is a video game console.

There are reasons to follow each naming approach. Descriptive names are readily understood and don’t require as much marketing investment to launch. To drive awareness, I just have to promote the new thing. I don’t have to educate potential customers about the name, the associated product function, and ensure that they retain that association upon recall.

Creative names obviously allow a lot more flexibility. They can be used to convey an attribute, differentiator, or even emotive response associated with a product. They can be the cornerstone of a brand or sub-brand you want to develop. Deciding first on whether you want to go the descriptive or creative route for the name – before evaluating potential names – can help speed the naming process, and eliminate some of the pain.

Good Descriptive Names Are…

Simple and self-evident. A product name can’t be a paragraph. It needs to convey the principal purpose or function of a product as simply and concisely as possible. The basic test is: If I share only this name with somebody in our target market, would they understand what the product does.

This isn’t always easy to do – especially with complex products. Sometimes it’s easier to think about use cases rather than product function. For example, Adobe Media Optimizer is a descriptive product name that describes what it’s used for rather than the specific functions of the product.

Good Creative Names Are…

Well, they can be just about anything. Good creative names aren’t trademarked by somebody else, and they don’t have any negative or off-brand associations in your target markets. Other than that, just about anything goes.

If you’re looking to associate the name with a particular value or emotion, you can test names to see if they elicit the responses you’re looking for. Sometimes, companies will look to make subtle allusions or brand tie-ins to particular names. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, but don’t assume that your customers will always make the same associations.

So Does Naming Matter?

Yes and no. Outside of these core considerations, specific names don’t matter all that much. Whoever heard of a computer company called “Apple”? If the product itself delivers value to customers, the name will come to be associated with that value (with the help of some good marketing of course). On the other hand, you want to be able to settle on a name that you and your team are happy with – it will hopefully be with you for a long time.

Next time you’re faced with the challenge of driving consensus around a product or feature name, remember to focus on the type of name that you want, and the attributes of a successful name rather than the individual names themselves. Then regularly remind every stakeholder in the process that the final name is actually one of the least important aspects of the product.