How to name a product
Updated: Feb 24, 2021
5 Steps to effective product naming
Coming up with a name for a product is harder than it looks.
Anyone can give an opinion on what a product should be named but few people understand what makes for an effective name.
So, as a marketer, where do you start?
1) Don’t start by giving your product a name
One of the most important things you can do to set yourself up for success at the outset of a product naming process, is to not prematurely name your product. Huh, isn’t that the entire point?
But when you haven’t kicked-off a formal naming process, one that is comprehensive and thoughtful, the worst thing you can do is give your product an official sounding name.
Official sounding names stick. For better or worse.
For example, imagine you work at a software company building a product to help people automatically manage their contact list. The impulse is to temporarily call this product something like “auto-contact.” It’s short. Easy to understand. And gives you an effective shorthand to use with your team while you build your product. What could be the harm in using this name?
Anchoring bias and stunting the product development process
Giving your product a temporary name before initiating a formal naming process creates two problems: First, setting aside the quality of an early name option, introducing a name too early creates an anchoring effect that will lead to bias. People who start to hear the temporary product name repeated will associate the product with this name and it’ll be hard to change the association, when you have the actual name. Repeat something enough times and it’ll stick. This is basic psychology and so temporary product names invariably become the real product name.
Second, using a temporary name creates unnecessary confusion. A lot of the time, as you’re iterating on a nascent product, it’ll evolve into something you hadn’t quite accounted for and having a name too early on will become an unnecessary albatross.
Use a project name
To avoid anchoring bias and unnecessary confusion, give your product a project name. This name should be abstract or unrelated to your product. Doing so will ensure that no one working with you to build your product will confuse the project name for a real product name–buying you (or your product development team) time to develop your product with no expectations. Only after you reach the first viable version of your product, should you consider initiating a naming process.
2) Understanding the naming process
Naming a product involves two phases. The first is qualitative. The second is quantitative. Both phases are critical to coming up with a name that works for your product.
Before I jump into the qualitative and quantitative phases, a quick aside on what makes for a good name is in order.
So, what’s in a good name?
The criteria for naming a product is dynamic with many key considerations such as your product’s benefit, what you’re hoping to communicate to its users, what you’re able to use legally, and other factors.
A great resource to use when developing your naming criteria is Marty Neumeier’s, “7 Criteria for a Good Name” from his book Brand Gap. Neumeier’s naming criteria provides strong guardrails and critical questions to ask yourself to help inform potential naming options. In addition to Neumeier’s list, I’ve added three criteria from personal experience to make: 10 Criteria for a Good Name.
Exhibit 1. Ten Criteria for a Good Name
These naming criteria are in rough order of importance so feel free to flex into some criteria more than others based on the needs of your product and the types of names that resonate with you.
There are two types of names: descriptive and non-descriptive.
I. Descriptive Names
Descriptive names are straightforward, easy to understand and use. They call things what they are. And are often commonplace vernacular so don’t get you in any legal trouble. Most of the time you should use a descriptive name for your product.
II. Non-Descriptive Names
A non-descriptive name is often made-up, abstract, or even a branded term. These names need to be cleared with a legal team to make sure they’re not infringing on trademarks. You’ll want to use non-descriptive names less frequently.
Exhibit 2. Name Types
Only once you understand and outline your product naming criteria are you ready to start naming.
Now, back to the two-phases of the naming process.
3) The qualitative phase
To start the naming process, create a doc with all of the research available about what your product is, what problem it’s solving, who the target demographic is, and what associations you’re trying to build with a name. Some people call this document a “literature review.”
If you don’t have much research, then I would hold off on naming until you do. You don’t want to name something before you fully understand what it is.
Gather the right people
Once you have your literature review done, you’ll want to gather a cross-functional (XFNs) set of people who can give you a holistic picture of all of the considerations needed to make an informed decision. Think about including people from product, research, design, policy, ops, legal, and comms.
Facilitating a naming workshop
Then, hold a workshop with your cross-functional partners where you review the product and demo the product or prototype, if there is one. Use this as an opportunity to create a shared understanding between the team of what the product is and your go-to-market goals.
Structured and unstructured brainstorms
After that, launch into an unstructured brainstorm where you give your XFN partners an opportunity to invent names for your product. The key here is to create psychological safety so that people feel empowered to share off-the-wall names. One way to do this as the moderator is to share your wacky name ideas first so that people feel comfortable sharing theirs.
Aside: Use whiteboards, sticky notes, or virtual software like Jamboard to guide brainstorms.
Using the input from the unstructured brainstorm, facilitate a discussion around the names people like the most. This is critical to teasing out which names are viable and which are not.
After the discussion, put a pin in all of these unstructured ideas and dive into a structured brainstorm where you outline your criteria for a good product name and pre-seed 7-10 descriptive (or non-descriptive) name options that you’d like feedback one.
For each viable name option, discuss whether the name checks the box on the various criteria you’ve already established. Is it own-able? Is it believable? Are there competitive concerns? Etcetera.
After each short discussion try to have a directional idea, based on the tenor of the conversation, of whether the name option is viable. If a name seems viable, note that down. If it’s not viable, move on to other name options quickly.
And if there is no consensus on a name option, come back to the name at the end of discussion and see if there’s more clarity then.
Once you do this for the 7-10 non-descriptive names you pre-seeded, go back to the unbiased structured list of names people came up with in the initial brainstorm and ask the group if there are any that necessitate further consideration.
If there are, have a conversation about them against the outlined criteria, but if not you’re ready to move on to your shortlist.
Tally the votes
To close out your workshop, circle back to the most viable name candidates and the ones that you put a pin in where there was no consensus and judge them relative to one another. This process is best done privately so that social bias doesn’t creep in. You want people’s real opinions, not ones mediated by the other people in the workshop. A google form or a blind vote can be helpful here.
Tally up the votes on the viable names and graduate the 3-5 best options, as judged by the group, to the quantitative phase of the naming process.
4) The quantitative phase
Using the naming options from your qualitative work during the workshop, create a survey you can send to people who are in the target demographic for your product.
Here’s how to create and run the quantitative survey process.
Run your naming options by legal
The first step is to take the names from your qualitative work and run them by your legal team. If you don’t have a legal team, avoid any non-descriptive name options surfaced in your workshop and only move forward with the descriptive names. Along with a product description, the name options you decide on will be what your target audience is reacting to in your survey. (This content your target demographic is reacting to in the survey is known as the “stimulus”)
Write a product description
A product description helps provide context for the survey-takers. A name without context is useless so the product description needs to give people an understanding of what the product does and who it is for. Some things to include in the description are the key benefits are and who benefits, the why behind the product, and anything else you think gives critical context.
Show your product
A product or prototype mock is worth a thousand words so make sure to include visuals in your survey, if you are able to share them. When you share visuals, make sure you have legal approvals to do so–the last thing you’d want is for a leak of your product to happen before you’re ready to launch.
Outline your target audience
Your survey results are going to be very noisy if you are unable to reach the right audience for targeted feedback. A good place to start when figuring out what audience is best is to use personas, if you have them. You can also use Total Addressable Market (TAM) analysis research from product feasibility work to nail the target audience down. Or your research partner/vendor can help you. If all else fails, use a close proxy for the audience you’re trying to reach.
Choose a handful of relevant geographies
Names mean different things in different regions so the last step is to think about the suitability of the name and its global applicability. Descriptive names are easily translated so are always recommended. These names also are not trademark-able so you want have to cross reference the names globally to ensure you’re not running amok of trademarks rules.
Ultimately, your survey is going to be most useful early on if you focus on the most critical-to-win geographies you’re launching your product in. The beauty of descriptive names is that in the future, when you expand your product to other regions your names will still work.
So the key here is to not overturn and try to capture everything but rather think 80/20 rule and just focus on a handful of key geographies you want to get feedback from.
These ingredients collectively will help you craft an effective survey that’ll give you great feedback on questions like:
Is this name suitable?
Does it create the right connotations?
Is it a believable name? Does it overpromise?
Are we too internally focused and missing some important market context?
Is this motivating?
5) Securing leadership buy-in
The final step of the naming process turns the qualitative and quantitative results into a recommendation. One straight-forward way to structure a recommendation is by presenting a Challenge, an Executive Summary, your Methodology (i.e. the two phases of the naming process), and three recommended names.
When presenting your recommendation, kick things off by getting everyone on the same page around what the issue is that you’re solving for–specifically, what you’re trying to accomplish by naming this product. After you establish The Challenge, get straight to the point and move into the heart of your work.
Since you’re usually seeking approval from executives, who are time-strapped by definition, you’ll want to put the bottom-line upfront (BLUF).
Aside: If you do have some time with your audience you can spend more time setting up the context in The Challenge and drill further down into how you arrived at your recommended names.
The methodology is where you can build trust. Show your leadership how thoughtful you and your team were in picking a name to instill confidence in the process. If your methodology is not air-tight it will make you less credible in your recommendations that follow. It’s okay to spend some time on the methodology section, even if it’s not the most exciting part of your presentation.
Recommendation #1, #2, #3
Always give three recommendations and always have a favorite. You will almost always be asked what your preference is at some point in the presentation. So have an opinion. And having three recommendations gives you a hedge in case your #1 is not an executives #1.
You can order your recommendations from your least favorite-to-your favorite to build drama or your favorite first so that the others look less compelling. I prefer using the latter approach because if for any reason you run out of time in the meeting your leadership will have at least have listened to you talk about your favorite name option.
If the recommended name options are not being received as well as you hope, this is a good time to do a check-in and ask if there are names you missed that could be compelling. Only ask this, however, if you’re willing to open up the naming process again to testing new options.
As you can see naming is a long, hard, and complicated process, but it’s worth it. Effective product naming can help you stand out. Get more customers. And create long-lasting positive associations for your business. Few company assets are as valuable as a name.
And while you can always rebrand a product if all else fails rebranding can be an especially fraught process so why go through it if you can avoid it?
Don’t start by giving your product a name
Before you start your naming process, make sure you understand what makes for a good name and the various naming types
The qualitative phase of naming entails working with cross-functional partners to brainstorm viable naming options
The quantitative phase of naming allows you to get market feedback on name options using surveys
The final step in the naming process is to socialize your recommended product names to gain executive buy-in
Sometimes, especially if you’re creating a generic or white label feature or product, you don’t even need to come up with a name. People will just just call it what it is.
A word of caution. If there is a product name that gains traction early in the product development process, do not go against the grain if you don’t like the name. Naming can be political and once a name sticks there is rarely anything you can do. Rather than fighting about the suitability of the name, work to validate it.