Lessons from product naming

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[Updated July 2023] When will we run out of names? Although I originally got involved in product naming as an add-on feature to the business of copywriting, it really does call on very particular skills. It’s often thought of as the ultimate in creative writing, as so much is condensed into just one word. There have also been a tidal wave of nonsensical trendy names that sound creative over the past few years. They only add to the perception of it being some sort of dark art (although I think they probably have more to do with the difficulty of getting one-word domain names).

When faced with the need for a name, the possibilities are almost limitless – from functional descriptive names such as Northwest Airlines, to evocative names such as Virgin and Twitter (now called X – see below) to acronyms (a special mention goes to FCUK) and family names such as Cadbury’s.

Product naming: where do you see the brand in 3 years?

Somewhere within all those choices there is a best option for the product and market you are entering. Getting to it certainly requires some creative thinking on the part of the writers, but also -crucially – the full involvement of the marketing and product developers. How do they see the product now, three years from now and what is the end game? What makes it stand out and if the answer is nothing, how will it survive in the market? And how can we find a consensus amongst the dozens of suggestions that can arise?

In the most recent project we worked on, the option was simply to change one letter in the spelling of a common word to create the extra character needed to brand the product. We got to it using a fairly precise methodology that helped us focus on and then filter suggestions at every level. That one letter actually says a lot in this case. It makes the name unique enough to stand out, while clearly announcing the product’s one key feature.

Ultimately, we will only run out of brand names when we are faced with a completely commoditised way of producing and marketing goods and services. I’m pretty sure that won’t be any time soon.

Twitter vs X

I’m writing this two days after Twitter was re-named (but not yet re-branded) as X. It’s too early to say how it will pan out, but the naming process was unusual to say the least. It happened over a weekend and was not preceded by any announcements.

As is often the case with brand name changes, the first reactions were negative. I share some of the concerns about the naming for a number of reasons:

  • Twitter was a friendly name that people totally adopted, inventing usages such as tweets, tweeting, tweeple, Cweepps (Cannes tweeple), etc. This is always a good sign.
  • The bird logo was embedded both in people’s mind and – significantly – in hundreds of thousands of websites worldwide. Undoing and adapting these to the new logo has both an emotive and monetary cost.
  • The X name is vacuous. The letter X is widely used to designate other elements, notably in maths. It’s a stand-in for something else. But in this case, for what? I’d go so far to say that it is even ominous, many people have picked up on the sci-fi connotations.
  • Any logo that will result from this will by definition be edgy, as we are talking about two pointy lines. Elon Musk’s reasoning is that the name and logo are changing to allow for new services, notably financial. Is the frigid representation of something as generic as an X any more reassuring than an established worldwide brand such as Twitter? I’d argue not.

Given all that, I ask myself why did Musk and/or his team choose X? One thought that strikes me is that perhaps this quasi-mathematical aspect might actually be easier for Musk to deal with than names such as Virgin, Apple or Capitol that might have connotations he just does not feel. Although we try and make it as logical as possible, a large degree of intuition and personal choice is inherent in the process of naming. The fewer the number of people involved in the choosing, the greater the possibility of distinctive or even risky choices.

As I have said on other occasions, there is more to branding than either a name or a logo – it’s also about what a company does and how it acts. It will be interesting to see how this naming project develops over time.

Michael Leahy writes as The Write Stuff. You can reach him on +32/496/62 68 43.

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