The disciplines of branding and corporate identity have long been personal passions of mine, and nothing within this genre holds a greater fascination for me than the practice of corporate naming. This post is the first in a three-post series and will discuss whether corporate naming should be handled as an internal initiative, or whether it should be outsourced to a professional naming firm.

Done well, corporate naming can be one of the most powerful assets in a company’s branding arsenal. A great company name can support, energize, and leverage your brand. The right name will also create strong competitive separation while at the same time establishing a bond of trust and loyalty with your target market(s).

Given the critical importance of selecting a great company name, I’m always amazed at the haphazard approach that many organizations use in their methodology (or lack thereof) when creating a name. There are basically two paths a company can travel when creating a name…they can create it internally, or they can collaborate with a service provider. Both options are assessed below:

1. The Do it Yourself Approach: In all but the rarest of circumstances companies that attempt to develop a name internally usually do themselves a disservice.  Names should not be developed in a vacuum. I have seen a pride of authorship create many a naming train wreck. Just because it is your idea doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good name.

Naming is a competency that spans mediums, cultures, and geographies. Naming is equal parts art, science, linguistics, strategy, competitive positioning, research, business intelligence, marketing, branding, creativity, intellectual property, and above all else talent and experience. If you can’t honestly say that your company possesses all the aforementioned capabilities then you should not organically pursue naming.

Even if your organization possesses the aforementioned abilities you may still want to think twice when you consider the fact that companies like Disney, Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Time Warner, ABC, MTV, Apple, and many others outsource naming to experts. There is something to be said for third party objectivity.

What about the cost you say? If you think you can’t afford a professional naming firm think about all the money you’ll spend down the road trying to breathe life into a bad name, the future cost of a rebranding initiative, the legal fees you’ll spend defending an intellectual property infringement claim when it turns out that you’re using someone else’s name, or the fact that you can’t do business in the foreign market because the name you’ve chosen happens to be an expletive. It just pays to get it right the first time. Following are just a few examples of naming initiatives gone wrong:

  • When the second-largest tourist office in Japan began to penetrate English-speaking markets, it was mortified at the high volumes of inquiries for unusual sex tours. The principals of KINKI Nippon Tourist quickly rebranded.
  • Another big mistake was made by a major food company which named its giant burrito a BURRATA. The common meaning of that word is “big mistake.”
  • Reebok, a major sports apparel company blew a launch of a running shoe for women named the INCUBUS. The dictionary refers to an incubus as “an evil spirit believed to descend upon and have sex with women while they sleep.”
  • When GM launched the Chevrolet BERETTA without getting permission from the Italian firearms manufacturer, it cost GM a half-million dollars to settle the lawsuit.
  • European shoemaker Umbro was hammered in the media as being “appallingly insensitive” for naming a running shoe ZYKLON, which happens to be the same name as the lethal gas used in Nazi concentration camps.
  • Mitsubishi’s SUV named the PAJERO was ridiculed by Spanish-speaking consumers. In Spanish, Pajero means “one who masturbates.”

2. Select a Third Party Naming Expert: Your second option is to outsource naming. For all the reasons noted above the undisputed best practices approach to naming is to hire a third-party expert. The tricky part associated with this method is determining what it is that actually constitutes an expert. For if you select the wrong firm all the negative aspects of the do it yourself approach referenced above will also apply here.

Let’s start by defining who does not qualify as a naming expert. While there are clear exceptions to any rule of thumb, generally speaking, graphic designers, printers, PR firms, logo shops, and yes even many advertising agencies don’t qualify as naming experts. They may dabble in the practice, but you’ll find that it is rarely a competency.

Complicating matters even further is that many firms who profess a competency in naming are simply not very good at it just for kicks and giggles let’s put some naming companies under the magnifying glass and see what they’ve done for themselves

The Avant-garde firms: Avant-garde is defined as a way out or ahead of its time. Firms that fall into this category tend to confuse off the wall and ridiculous with being creative Trust me when I tell you there is a big difference. The point in case: The first thing that comes to mind when I see “A Hundred Monkeys” is what were these guys smoking when they came up with that name? A Hundred Monkeys is a naming firm that created the name “Alfalfa” for a tax and financial planning firm; Go figure Firms that try so hard to be cool at the expense of all the other critical factors that go into creating great names should be avoided.

The Completely Predictable and Boring Firms: Firms such as “The Naming Firm” clearly understand the relevant association, but there is a certain lack of creativity in this name, don’t you think? Firms that have no sense of flair should be eliminated from the search as well. There is no need to make sacrifices when it comes to selecting the right name. It is possible to be relevant, associative, creative, memorable, and distinctive.

The trick to selecting a great naming firm is to avoid the extremes represented by the firms mentioned above. There are two main factors to focus on when selecting a naming firm. The first is to find a firm that has a portfolio that is really good. Their work should reflect a variety of styles that demonstrate relevancy to the industry they were created for. This type of diversity of work history will give you a better chance of ending up with a style that is compatible with what you are trying to accomplish. The second is to find a firm that is very collaborative. They should spend time getting to know your company, your industry, your competitive value propositions, and your vision. Great naming firms achieve success based upon their ability to align their talent with the client’s vision.

Now that you are armed with what to look for in a naming firm, Part 2 of this series distributed in tomorrow’s post will discuss the elements contained in great names.