Seven Steps to Nailing Your Brand Name (or Product) With Crowdsourcing

I often get the question: “how do you build a solid brand name?” Or, its cousin:”how do you build a good product name?”

My three-word answer is: it is tricky. Anyone can do it (it seems so easy!), but few do it well. There are few guidelines, fewer rules, and tons of pitfalls.

If you want to avoid the process entirely, you can pay someone else to do it. It’s easy to spend (many) thousands of dollars on some consultants who drop terrible names in your lap, only to find that you get the best idea ever two days later while pondering the acoustics of shower flatulence.

In other words, you’ve got to try, but if you try too hard you will only get in your way.

So how do you go about it? Here’s my take.

Before you even sit down to start brainstorming, know that your current idea is probably already trademarked (this happens 99% of the time). Your next 20 options probably are, too. Get used to it, expect it, but don’t worry about it. Just take my advice below.

1. Get  Help

You don’t necessarily have to hire ouside help. Set up a team brainstorm session with team members, but before you do—prepare. Collect inspirational items that your team can play with at the brainstorming table. And make sure to go outside your category. If you work for the auto industry, bring in some sports memorabilia. If you work for a clothing brand, bring in cooking items. Use beverages, colors, animals, fonts, plants (whatever you like) to pull your team out of their usual work mode so they can more easily switch their thinking gears.

2. Get Help From the Right People

The process of arriving at a name is like painting: anyone can do it, but few can actually do it well (and I should know, my brother is brilliant artist and I can barely draw a stick figure). If you don’t have a team (or even if you do), crowdsourcing can make a big difference. Ask folks you trust to help you in your process. Who among your friends are marketing  savvy? Category experts? Wordsmiths?

If you do have a team, know this: you don’t have to invite everyone on the team to participate, and you don’t need to take everyone’s feedback either. Naming is more art than science, and including someone who’s not a good fit can derail the whole process and shut everyone else down. Be mindful of who’s at the table.

3. Ban Critiques Until the Brainstorming is Done

This is very important: quantity creates quality when it comes to naming. Don’t let anyone critique anything until AFTER you have completely exhausted the “storming” phase—and enforce this rule religiously. People need each other’s positive energy to generate names, and critiquing isn’t just a diversion, it kills creative momentum and leads to self-censorsing to avoid criticism.

4. Write down every name that gets suggested

Every. Single. Name. You’ll need the record anyway, and it reinforces the fact that you’re serious about saving critiques for later. Create categories to group all the suggestions (this could also generate more ideas), and when the creative momentum for one category of inspiration dies, move to another inspiration. Do this until everyone is completely tapped out, their eyes are bleeding, or they can no longer speak. Take a break.

5. Refine Your Options

After your break, come back to the table (ideally with caffeine of some form). You’ll see that some names will be clear losers, but some will move past the first round of testing. Don’t look for the perfect name—it usually doesn’t exist. Your name will be a mix of trade-offs, and if you really need numbers to help you decide, do a weighted-average-of-what-matters scorecard. It’s admittedly subjective, but don’t bother looking for numbers to save you. Participants don’t always know enough about what matters.

The best guide for considering names is a really simple “Smile and Scratch Test” from Alexandra Watkins at Eat My Words. I hired Alexandra on a project once and haven’t seen a simpler catch-all test since. You can find it here.
SMILE if your name has these 5 winning qualities: 

Suggestive – suggests something about the brand
Meaningful – your customers “get it”
Imagery – visually evocative to aid in memory
Legs – lends itself to a theme for extended mileage
Emotional – resonates with your audience

SCRATCH it if it has any of these 7 deal breakers: 
Spelling-challenged – looks like a typo
Copycat – similar to competitor’s names
Random – disconnected from the brand
Annoying – hidden meaning, forced
Tame – flat, descriptive, uninspired
Curse of Knowledge – only insiders get it
Hard-to-pronounce – not obvious, unapproachable

The Smile and Scratch test is not a panacea, and there are exceptions. But it is a very helpful framework to gauge what you’ve got so far.

In my process, I usually run my list of “finalists” by a tiny group of folks I trust via a survey. I build a scorecard to help me organize feedback, but I don’t look for certainty. And if you do, you won’t find it. Surveys can help a little, but don’t put much trust in them. Consumers miss many dimensions that you have to consider, like cultural issues, translation, trademarks, etc.
6. Trademark it

It’s actually easy to do your own trademark searches. Go to do a quick ™ search. If the name you chose is in the clear, hire a lawyer, but make sure you have a list of runners-up, just in case. It’s not uncommon miss out on securing your preferred name. Unless you have deep pockets, your lawyer will tell you to “get more creative.” But that’s OK, because you already have a list of possible names, right?

See? Quantity matters!

7. Stick with it

Expect exceptions. Many names don’t ring like a bell upfront, and even terrible names can grow on you once there’s an image and frame of reference. (Remember “Korn” anyone?) Once your name becomes “a noun” (especially if it didn’t start out as one) it will take on a life of it’s own. The important thing is to stick with it.

Coming up with a new company or product name isn’t easy, and never will be, unless you have a special lifeline to the Muses. But if you commit to the brainstorming process, generate a robust list of options, and listen to people you trust, you will end up with some very good possibilities—on the other side of all the work you’ve done. So don’t be afraid to roll up your sleeves. The Muses are awaiting you.

Up next, learn to be media savy and get the attention your campaign needs. Check out our top 5 crowdfunding press release fails


Image courtesy of Justin Dolske.