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Motto® Guide to Brand Naming

By Ashleigh Hansberger
Posted on 07/07/23
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In business, few things are as constant and far-reaching as a brand’s name. A great name is a powerful asset—a core part of a company’s identity. Unlike other business investments, a brand name is used daily in nearly every interaction and communication.

Selecting the right brand name is both an art and a science, requiring a blend of planning, strategic thinking, and creativity. From the initial spark of idea generation to the meticulous process of trademark screening, each step is vital in crafting a name that resonates with your audience and represents your brand.

Motto® has decades of experience naming brands. We seamlessly drive this process from idea generation to trademark checks.

So, when is the right time to start naming?

AFTER brand strategy and positioning are clearly defined.

This is not a mere procedural step; it’s a foundational one. Why? Because you need to understand what the name needs to represent. It’s not just about finding a catchy name; it’s about finding a name that enhances the brand’s ability to connect, engage, and be remembered. Naming without a clear strategy is like setting sail without a compass. You might land somewhere, but you won’t necessarily be in the best spot.

In this article, we’ll walk you through the critical steps and considerations in the naming process to ensure that your name is a strategic asset, not an afterthought.

Qualities of a great name:

  • Evocative: Hints at the brand’s essence
  • Memorable: Easy to remember; feels familiar
  • Visual: Enhances memory with vivid imagery
  • Adaptable: Able to grow and remain relevant as the business evolves
  • Emotive: Promotes a feel-good connection

Name dealbreakers:

  • Similarity: Too similar to competitors’ names
  • Tongue twister: Hard to pronounce, could be mistaken for a typo/error
  • Complicated: Leads to unnecessary confusion and frustration
  • Uninspired: Appears dull, overly descriptive, or timid
  • Jargony: Only makes sense to industry insiders
  • Prohibitive: Hinders future growth
“Your brand name is your biggest business asset, used more than any other investment.”
Ashleigh Hansberger, Chief of Strategy

The Naming Process

Step 1: Develop the Naming Objectives

After the brand strategy is approved, we begin the naming process by creating a formal naming brief. The brief outlines the objectives and parameters for developing the brand name. The purpose of the brief is to involve decision-makers in the thinking process, clarify what we’re naming, and align from the start on what the name should convey, what style and kinds of names to consider, and what’s in and out of consideration. Naming is naturally a highly subjective exercise, so the brief is a strategic jumping-off point and becomes a useful tool later in the process to help people make more objective decisions and remind decision-makers of the approved naming strategy, criteria, and goals.

Components of a Naming Brief:

  • A clear description of what’s being named
  • Ideas to convey through the name (conceptual territories)
  • Name criteria
  • Name tonality (the feeling the name should evoke)
  • Themes/ideas/words/paths to explore
  • Themes/ideas/words/paths to avoid
  • A description of the target audience(s) for the brand
  • Competitor/peer names
  • Name likes and dislikes and why
  • Domain name requirements
  • Trademark screening criteria
  • Linguistic/cultural disaster check criteria
  • Additional materials/links to review for background information

Step 2: Generate Name Ideas

With an approved naming brief, we develop hundreds of ideas that meet the brief’s objectives in various ways. We invite different types of talent to contribute ideas, including senior-level namers (naming is all they do), strategists, word wizards, and creatives. Clients usually also have ideas to put into the mix, which we welcome! We create a huge spreadsheet list of names (even the “bad” ideas!), organized by the various conceptual pathways in alphabetical order to make it easy to sort. Some ideas are more on the nose and descriptive, some are cleverly symbolic, and others are wild cards. Each has a strategic rationale. We don’t edit ourselves during this step; sometimes, a mediocre idea can leapfrog into a good one. This process usually yields 300+ name ideas. We exhaust the brain. Volume is key.

Ideas come from everywhere and are generated through an interplay of cognitive processes, experiences, and techniques such as free association, wordplay, mind mapping, borrowing from other languages, combining words, and exploring metaphors or abstract concepts. We scour dictionaries, thesauruses, glossaries, history, mythology, geography, science, literature, pop culture, music, arts, and other tools and resources to inspire and illuminate ideas.

Step 3: Present Names

We work super collaboratively with our clients, which means we also work transparently (i.e., the client sees everything we develop). Most branding or naming companies gatekeep their name generation and present just a handful of pre-vetted, shortlisted names. We do the opposite. Time and time again—we find that pulling back the curtain creates trust in the process, puts us on the same team, and can unlock other ideas. Not only can you appreciate the work that’s gone into the process, but it can also be a great gut check. The more you see, the clearer you become on what’s working and not working. While we allow clients to view the huge list, we highlight and direct our attention on a few dozen of the most interesting and promising ideas that meet the brief (which we re-review together) and present those to your team with strategic rationales to shape meaning along with simple visual mockups to aid in visualization. The highlighted names have been run through a cursory web search to knock out obvious candidates, but they are not fully prescreened by an attorney at this stage.

Step 4: Shortlist for Legal Consideration

The last thing anyone wants is to fall in love with a name idea and realize you can’t own it. This is why we shortlist names for prescreening together. This is a collaborative activity between our two teams where we evaluate the ideas against the criteria in the brief, focus on what the team finds most interesting and promising, and decide together what to put through to prescreen.

Step 5: Conduct Preliminary Trademark Screening

We recommend putting as many names through preliminary prescreening as possible, at least a dozen. This process will inevitably result in a much shorter list by knocking out names that pose a heightened risk of litigation and rejection by the Trademark Office and leaving candidates that appear to have a lower or medium risk. We introduce you to our highly experienced trademark attorney—who has 20 years of experience in global trademark screening and trademark protection—and orchestrate the process transparently. Prescreen results are typically delivered within two business days. Each name is marked Out (High Risk), Maybe (Medium Risk), or In (Low Risk). We review, discuss, and decide on the next steps together.

Step 6: Conduct Deep Dive Trademark Clearance

Names in the Low Risk and Medium Risk categories are up for debate and deep-dive consideration. The trademark office is taking upwards of 10 months to review new applications. It would be devastating to start using a name and find out nearly a year later that your application has been refused. For that reason, we highly recommend the full search before filing. This process takes about two weeks and provides a full legal “Registrability Opinion” regarding the availability of the name for registration with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”). The legal opinion overviews the relevant trademark law against which this opinion was formed, forms an in-depth analysis of the mark and issues surrounding it, and provides suggestions to reduce such risks. We recommend filtering 1-3 names through a deep-dive clearance.

Step 6: Decide the Name

We’ve done the work. We’ve seen the results. Now it’s time to decide. Most names will come with some level of risk. At this point, it becomes a conversation about risk tolerance. More conversations with legal may be needed to understand the risk and weigh it fully. Once a name is decided, you’ll proceed as advised by legal counsel with application filing, and we can proceed with visual identity at this stage.

Step 8: File Intent To Use Application

We recommend filing an Intent To Use Application to begin registering the name. The Intent to Use trademark application references your bona fide good faith intention to use the trademark you filed in the manner in which you seek trademark protection and puts you “in line” at the trademark office for your In Use Application.

Step 9. File In-Use Application

Once the visual identity is finished and the logo is in use, we recommend filing an In Use Application, strengthened with “Trade Dress,” a specific type of trademark that can immediately invoke brand recognition with consumers.

“We exhaust the brain. Volume is key.”
Ashleigh Hansberger, Chief of Strategy

A few common naming myths:

Myth: You’ll know it when you see it.

Reality: A great name might not initially evoke an instant connection or “feel.” Names grow on you over time, revealing their strength and alignment with your brand as they become more familiar and integrated into your brand’s story and identity.

Naming Myth: Shorter is always better.

Reality: Many great brand names are five syllables or longer: Habitat for Humanity, Banana Republic, and Victoria’s Secret. While brevity can be beneficial, longer names can establish a robust and memorable identity. It’s the impact, not the length, that counts.

Naming Myth: Popularity dictates effectiveness.

Reality: The most liked name ideas are often the safest options but not usually the most effective. For instance, “Apple” was initially met with skepticism but became iconic due to its distinctiveness. Breaking away from the norm is what makes a name stand out.

Naming Myth: Negative connotations are a no-go.

Reality: What seems like a negative connotation can be a potent branding tool. Slack, a term typically associated with idleness, has been transformed into a brand representing efficient communication. The irony works in the brand’s favor.

Naming Myth: The name must be “on the nose.”

Reality: Clarity is essential, but a name should not be literal. Red Bull doesn’t directly describe an energy drink, but it evokes strength and stamina. A great name helps create a brand around a feeling rather than telling the product or service.

Recent brands we’ve named:

  • Hopscotch (B2B payments without the BS)
  • Cloudhop Bakeshop (dream-themed cupcake and cookie brand)
  • Bandana (visionary worker-first job platform)
  • Humankind (digital-first good news content brand by USA Today)
  • Soundrise (an ever-growing alliance of purpose-driven podcasts brands)
  • Vayda (ag-tech company that facilitates conventional to regenerative farming)
  • Sabbatical (DTC watch brand)
  • VisionCamp® (visionary leadership masterclass by Motto®)
  • Biown (microbiome supplement innovation by Reckitt)
  • Green Mustache (plant-based smoothies and snacks for the picky eater)
  • Drift (mesmerizing kinetic sand tables by Homedics)
  • Looie (subscription fresh-cut grass potty pads for pets)
  • Orison (plug-and-play home energy storage system)
  • Hypervibe (promoters of CountryUSA and RockUSA festivals)
  • Avenir (Canada’s largest hearing center brand)
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By Ashleigh Hansberger