Why Naming a Brand is So Hard

Nameberry.com is a website totally devoted to the art of naming babies. There’s an entire active forum where parents who can’t decide on a name can interact with “Nameberries” who will help you brainstorm potential names for your newborn.

The Nameberries are awesome and seem to be very helpful. The names they pitch are sometimes a bit too unique for the people who are asking (Atlas, Story and Anthem are all great names but can seem a little mythic for a newborn), but they’re almost always interesting and help folks to narrow down what they really like and what they really want.

The whole process reminds me of naming a product. Babies are much more important than products, of course, but you’re still confronted with similar dilemmas.

  • You want a name that you love.
  • You want a name that’s unique.
  • You want a name that truly fits what you’re naming.

The problem with all of these problems is that they’re impossible to solve, at least right away.

You want a name you love.

The latent desire when naming a baby, a sports car, a potato chip or an imaginary friend is that you’re going to be totally bowled over when you hear the right name. It’s the same desire we all have to fall in love at first sight, hear a beautiful piece of music or get a really good piece of advice – we want to be certain.

However, this very rarely ever happens. There is no perfect name out there for you to discover just like there’s probably no perfect love (sorry), no perfect art (sorry) or perfect solution for any problem (sorry, sorry).

You want a name that’s unique.

Everybody wants something that feels unique, new and fresh, which leads to the kind of fetishization of uniqueness that produces names like “Odin” and “Moon Unit” for little boys in Iowa.

If all anyone needed to do was think of a name that was so crazy that no one else had used it yet, though, we wouldn’t have this dilemma. We would probably have an arms race where people ended up naming their babies “!?!?,” but that’s beside the point.

The problem here is that when most people say they want a name that’s “unique,” they also want a name that instantly feels familiar and understandable. They want people to be struck by the novelty of the name they chose, but they also want to make sure they aren’t confused with how to interpret it.

You want a name that truly fits what you’re naming.

Imagine a baby named Oona. Imagine, I don’t know, a brand of clothing named “Kylo Ren.”

For each of these examples, you probably had some sort of reaction. You might have gotten the flash of a mental image of what Oona would look in a onesie designed by Mr. Ren himself (something dark, brooding and angsty, I imagine).

That’s the problem: you’re going to have some kind of reaction, some kind of preconceived notion of almost any name you come up with, even if it’s totally ridiculous (sorry, Oona).

When you’re trying to name a new product, though, or a new person, you’re trying to name something that doesn’t exist yet. You don’t know what form it will take, how it will look, how people will interact with it, what its identity will be. There’s automatically a disconnect between the name you devise and the big question mark that is the future, which makes almost any name not feel perfect.

In all, these problems stem from the desire we have for our reaction to a name to be instant and certain. Unfortunately, that’s not how names work.

Names are usually an empty-ish signifier that we then fill up with meaning. Band names are a good example. The only reason anyone thinks the name “The Doors” is cool, for instance, is because Jim Morrison took a black and white picture with his shirt off in the 1960s and now college students around the world put his poster up in their dorm rooms. “The Doors,” on its face, is actually a pretty dumb name for a rock band – who cares about doors?

(Yes, I know that it’s a reference to “The Doors of Perception.”)

Product names and baby names are the same way. It’s near impossible to choose a name because it’s near impossible to know immediately if it’s any good. We want to love it, we want it to be unique, we want it to fit, we want to be totally bowled over, but that almost never happens.

The solution is three-fold.

First, be uncritical. Come up with a huge list of potential names for your baby or your product. Let your mind go and don’t stop yourself from writing down ideas that, on their face, seem totally ridiculous.

Then: be patient. Eliminate the ones that you know you don’t like, but let the others ferment for a while. That way, you’ll put some distance between yourself and your first impression of each name.

Finally: be critical. Make some educated guesses as to where you think each name could lead you. In the case of the product, you’re the one who is going to be giving this name meaning, not only to yourself but to your customers. Which direction feels best to you? Which fits with your objectives? Which could you say to a customer without cringing?

For a baby, go to Nameberry.com, I guess. I’m not qualified at this point to give actual advice on naming your newborn, just to use it as an example (though if you end up picking Oona, definitely shoot me an email and let me know).