12 powerful techniques for generating business or product names

Here are 12 great techniques for naming your business or product:

1.  Invent a new word: You can try to invent a new word, either by trying to combining or scrambling letters from scratch (like Xerox), or by starting with a base stem and adapting it with prefixes, postfixes, or spelling changes. For example, Oldsmobile coined the word Futuramic in the 1950s, and the name Google was adapted from the mathematical word googol (meaning the number 1 followed by 100 zeroes). Expedia, Instagram, and Kleenex could also be seen as names invented in this fashion.

2. Apply intentional misspellings:  Applying intentional misspellings or abbreviations to an existing word has been a popular technique for web companies. Flickr is the most famous example. The misspelled name is more likely to be available for domain and trademark registration, and can often convey an edgy “coolness” factor.

3. Abbreviate to create an invented word:  For example, Telstra was derived by condensing the words Telecom Australia, and Japanese mobile phone operator NTT Docomo‘s name officially stands for “DO COmmunications over the MObile network” (but also sounds like “dokomo”, meaning “everywhere”, in Japanese).

4. Form compound names by mixing-and-matching words and word parts: The most reliable naming technique is to randomly mix-and-match combinations of stem words with adjectives, prefixes, and suffixes. Countless names like PowerPoint, WordPress, Thinkpad, and WestJet were formed this way.

When I was trying to find a name for the word processing software product I was developing, I generated list of words and word parts like the following:

  • Words related to writing and publishing:  book, draft, pen, pencil, ink, lit, liter-, libro-, author, write, opus, novel, scribe, chapter, word, page, think, edit
  • Things and places: studio, lab, office, workbench, toolbox, station, launchpad, shop, garage, jet, rocket, stream, thunder, lightning
  • Animals and mascots: tiger, shark, lion, cat, dog, eagle, dragon
  • People/job-oriented nouns:  master, man, captain, commander, hero
  • Adjectives: fast, rapid, easy, quick, quality, ultra, agile, swift, magic, super, pro
  • Postfixes: -ly, -ify, -ific, -ica, -matic, -matica, -tron, -tronic

Then, I simply tried to form combinations of pairs of words from these lists to make combinations, aiming for results that were descriptive, short, and easy to say. A rhyming pair was my ideal goal. I generated dozens of combinations, some of which were promising, and some which were less so:

  • TextJet
  • TigerWriter
  • Draftomatic
  • WriteLab
  • Textbench
  • LightningWriter
  • Novelstream
  • Brightwriter
  • ScribeStation
  • DraftDragon

Eventually I decided on ChapterLab, which has a nice ring to it.

5. Make your Internet domain name your business or product name:

  • You could just try to take a descriptive word and add a top-level domain like .com. Sites like cars.com and hotels.com have instant credibility and are essentially name brands in their own right. Such sites will also rank highly in search engine results for “cars” and “hotels”. Needless to say, however, all of the good names are already taken, and acquiring domain name rights from existing owners could be prohibitively expensive in many cases.
  • Or, you could aim for a less-common top-level domain, such as a country-code domain like .es, .it, .ly, or .me, and try to work it into the name itself, as in bit.ly, blo.gs, or del.icio.us. These are sometimes known as “domain hacks”. These names do have the disadvantage that they are difficult to explain audibly — you’d have to spell it out every time, with a high risk of misunderstanding.

6. Use an adjective:  Consider using a descriptive adjective to emphasize your product’s differentiating advantage. QuickBooks and Jiffy Lube, for example, emphasize speed and ease. Many of these kinds of names sound quite banal and forgettable — Quality Cleaners, for instance — but also may be quite sufficient for less-glamorous local businesses.

7. Use a place name:  For businesses with a local presence, a place name can work well: Island Interiors, Portland Coffee Co., Charleston Tax Services. Be aware that a place-based name can often limit your ability to expand to other geographical areas. Canadian Tire’s attempt to break into the US market was unsuccessful, for instance. On the other hand, famous place names that are glamorous or prestigious — Malibu, L.A., New York, Paris, Aspen, etc. — might work anywhere.

8. Use founders’ names:  For professional services firms like law firms, accountancies, and consultancies, it is common to name the business after the founders or partners of the firm. For names that are not easily pronounceable or spellable, however, you may want to think again. But there’s also no reason why you can’t use a fictional or altered name. One of the “big three” software companies in the 1980s was founded by Hal Lashlee and George Tate. They decided that “Lashlee-Tate” sounded weak, and so they invented the name Ashton-Tate instead. Likewise, Ralph Lifshitz changed his name to Ralph Lauren to project a more desirable image for his Polo clothing line.

Also, you don’t always have to use a last name, as Craigslist demonstrates.

9. Get inspiration from historical connections:  Consider researching the names of pioneering inventors, explorers, scientists, leaders, or scholars who have some relationship to your field. For example, Tesla Motors’ name pays tribute to visionary inventor and scientist Nikola Tesla.

10. Use a general word as your brand:  Sometimes you can aim to use a very general word, like Square or Box, as your brand. Because of their simplicity and abstractness, these names are often not very descriptive, but can be incredibly powerful if your company really does hit it big. For these very common words, you’ll want to make sure you can secure trademark rights and domain registrations.

11. Form an acronym:  Acronyms were popular in past decades and were virtually synonymous with giant corporations. While many companies still have these names, they are no longer considered fashionable in the Internet age. Famous examples are IBM (International Business Machines) and NCR (National Cash Register).

12. Borrow foreign words:  Consider browsing foreign language dictionaries and borrowing a word from another language. Some languages, like Spanish and Italian for instance, may have mellifluous words that are related to your business or product. Be aware that stereotypes could positively or negatively affect your branding: in some contexts, a German-sounding name could lend an air of quality engineering and craftsmanship, and in other contexts, such a name could arouse anti-German sentiments. This approach can be hazardous unless you are fluent in the foreign language and understand all of the connotations of the word you’ve chosen. You also want to make sure that your customers can pronounce and spell your name.

Criteria for a good product or business name

When deciding upon a name for your product, service, or business, here are some guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Upon seeing and reading the name, the name should be easy to pronounce. If people are constantly asking, “how do you say that?”, it’s a bad sign.
  • Upon hearing the name, the word or words should be understandable and comprehensible.  “Huh? what?” reactions are not good.
  • The name should be easy to spell. Ideally, there would only be one obviously right way to spell the name. “McDonald’s” is one of the world’s leading brands, but its name is constantly being misspelled as McDonalds (no apostrophe), MacDonalds, Macdonalds, Mcdonalds, etc.
  • The name should be available for registration as a trademark, domain name, etc.

There is a trend for startups to throw up their hands that “all the good domains are taken”. They then choose a blandly generic product name like “Circle” and, since the .com and other desirable domains are already taken, then register a lame domain like “getcircleapp.io”. The thinking here is that people are more likely to simply search for the product name rather than type in the actual domain. Whether this is a suitable approach for your business is up to you, but I personally shed a tear at the lack of creativity whenever I see a “get-” or “.io” domain.

  • The name should not have any negative connotations in foreign languages or cultures. For example, the iPhone feature “Siri” sounds like the Japanese word for “buttocks”, and “Mist” breath mints sold poorly in Germany as that word is German for “manure”.
  • A descriptive or suggestive name is desirable over a more abstract name that doesn’t tell anything about the product. A good name can suggest what the product is about, reducing the need for explanation, or it can suggest or imply positive attributes of the product or service. The name “QuickBooks”, for instance, lets you know immediately that the product deals with accounting (the “books” in bookkeeping), and the “quick” adjective suggests that the program will help you do your accounting tasks quickly.
  • Ideally, the name would lend itself to a good logo or mascot for branding (something more specific than a generic “swoosh”). Names like “SurveyMonkey”, “SoundCloud”, “Kindle”, “GrooveShark”, and the like lend themselves to various interesting logo ideas, for instance.
  • The name should not be an obvious copy-cat rip-off of a similar name. Clever, punny, “joke” names (such as WhatsApp) can be amusing in the short term, and might be suitable for some products and audiences, but are generally not a good idea for “professional” businesses.

Once you’ve selected your name, be consistent with the styling and presentation of the name. Is it always to be written in lower-case, such as “germanwings”? For multi-part names, is there supposed to be a space between the words, or are the words to be written together, and is each word supposed to be capitalized? (For example, consulting firm Cap Gemini rebranded itself to “Capgemini”.) The worst offender here is Walmart, which has at different times used the stylings Wal-Mart, WAL*MART, and Walmart.

How to differentiate your product or service offering

A great way of coming up with innovative business ideas is to take an existing product or service concept, and to change it or improve it in some way. You can then emphasize that special feature, aspect, or quality in your marketing campaigns.

The unique selling point differentiates your offering from the competition and makes your offering stand out and better appeal to your target customers.

The following list offers a number of ideas and suggestions that you might find useful when brainstorming ways to differentiate your product or service:

  • Pricing
    • Lowest cost
    • Affordable
    • Best value for the money
    • High-price, premium, luxury
    • Attractive long-term cost of ownership
  • Quality
    • High quality
    • Craftsmanship
    • Design
    • Purity, best ingredients, etc.
    • Pedigree
    • No-frills or good-enough quality (to save costs)
  • Features
    • Special features that bring benefits that other competitors don’t offer
  • Specialization to satisfy the needs a particular niche market
  • Customization
    • Made-to-order (sandwiches, tailored suits, etc.)
    • “Have it your way”
  • Speed
    • Delivered in 30 minutes or less, “glasses in about an hour”, etc.
    • Fast food
    • While-you-wait
    • Drive it off the lot (rather than waiting weeks for delivery from the factory)
  • Service
    • “Service with a smile”: happier or more attentive staff (better than the competition)
    • Guaranteed response times for customer support inquiries
  • Ease of use
    • Easy to learn; don’t need training
    • “Set it and forget it”
  • Reliability
    • Durability; reputation for a long product life
    • “Unbreakable”
    • Uptime guarantees
    • Assurance that your business is stable and solvent and will remain in business for a long time
  • Guarantee
    • Warranty
    • Lifetime warranty
    • Replacement guarantee
    • Satisfaction guarantee, money-back refund
  • Brand name
    • Trusted name for quality, reliability, etc.
    • As a means of looking cool or showing off socially (e.g., look, I’m wearing Prada)
    • Prestige
  • Technology
    • Cutting-edge technology is usually only useful if it brings some benefit that wasn’t possible before, but some tech geeks may want something just because it uses a new technology, for the “coolness factor”
  • Design
    • Attractive, aesthetic design
    • Ergonomics
    • Current style or fashion
  • Risk-free / risk-transfer
    • Money-back guarantee
    • Generous return policy
    • Provider assumes the risk (e.g., provider pays the fees if a compliance issue is violated for a regulatory filing)
  • Green / environmentally-friendly
  • Social responsibility, ethics
    • Cruelty-free, not tested on animals
    • Fair trade
    • Not manufactured in a sweatshop
  • Details of manufacture
    • Hand-crafted
    • Precision manufacturing
    • Made in the USA, made in Germany, union-made, etc.
  • Healthy
    • Organic
    • Low-fat, low-carb, etc.
    • Added vitamins
    • Pure ingredients
  • Safety, security
  • Convenience
    • Open late or 24 hours
    • Web-based so you don’t have to go somewhere in person or wait on hold on the phone
    • Cloud-hosted, access from anywhere
    • Convenient location
    • No need to make an appointment, just drop in
    • Toll-free hotline
    • “We do all the work so you don’t have to worry”
    • Low-maintenance or easy maintenance
  • Pricing model or purchasing options
    • Financing; monthly instalments plan
    • Subscription plan (versus paying once up-front)
    • One-time purchase for lifetime ownership/access (versus recurring payments)
    • Access to subsidies, grants, etc.
    • Renting
    • Leasing
    • Rent-to-own
  • Location
    • Close to the customer
    • Made with local ingredients
    • Location-independent (e.g., service by web, phone, mail-order)
  • Size, quantity, form factor
    • The biggest…
    • The smallest…
    • The most comfortable…
    • Travel-size
    • Available in multiple sizes or custom sizes (versus one-size-fits-all)
    • Generous portions
    • Healthy-sized portions
    • All you can eat
  • Relationship
    • Non-commission salespeople
    • “Advice you can trust”
    • Buying the product lets the customer become a member of a formal or informal community (e.g., buying a Harley-Davidson motorcycle)
    • Likeable celebrity founder/CEO or spokesperson/representative
  • Choice, variety
    • Offering a wide range of styles, models, colors, etc.
    • Optional add-ons, plug-ins, after-market enhancements
  • Future-proofing
    • Expandability, upgradability
    • Guarantee that a software package will run on future operating system versions