The following is an excerpt from the second edition of Hello, My Name Is Awesome, available here.
Think of five brand names that made you smile the first time you heard them. My fab five:
- Chubby Hubby (ice cream flavor)
- Scrub Daddy (sponge)
- Nerdwax (eyeglass adhesive)
- Bed Head (hair care products)
- Super Evil Megacorp (video games)
We appreciate it when names surprise us, entertain us, and give us a happy little jolt of dopamine. Names that make us smile are infectious. They are the ones we talk about, tweet, and repeat. Why? We enjoy making others smile too.
SMILE: The 5 Qualities of a Super-Sticky Name
So how do you come up with a great name? You can actually think of SMILE as an acronym, standing for these 5 qualities of a super-sticky name: Suggestive. Memorable. Imagery. Legs. Emotional.
Ideally, your name should have all these attributes. Let’s take a look at each.
1. ‘Suggestive’ Evokes Something about Your Brand
A name can’t be expected to say everything, but it can suggest something about your brand. Not in an overly obvious way but in a way that activates the imagination. Have you heard of the Impossible Burger? Fans swear the plant-based Frankenmeat, made in a lab, tastes like the real thing. As my friend Tim heard a waitress exclaim at the Atlanta airport, “Vegetarians be trippin’!” The company name, Impossible Foods, is far more appetizing than say, Meat Lab.
One of my favorite suggestive names is that of a California cannabis confections company that creates products for sophisticated women of a certain age. I named it Garden Society.
[Related: More ways to come up with business names]
A terrific way to use “the power of suggestion” is with a symbolic word or metaphor that implies comparison. One master of the metaphor was Frank Zamboni, inventor of the renowned ice-resurfacing machine of the same name. Two of the metaphorical names he created were Grasshopper, a machine to roll up artificial turf, and the Black Widow, a machine to fill in dirt on top of cemetery vaults.
Car companies have nailed metaphoric names. SUV names are great examples. Explorer, Expedition, Yukon, Denali, and Wrangler all suggest rugged outdoor adventure. Fragrance companies are also masters of metaphorical names. Desire, Euphoria, Passion, Rapture, and Escape all evoke experiences women find desirable. (Coincidentally, Escape is the name of an SUV, too. Imagine cars designed by Calvin Klein. I’m not as excited about the thought of Ford manufacturing cologne.)
Want a name that conveys that your business is well established? Try words that symbolize strength, power, or longevity. For instance, companies named Oaktree, Life Force, and Ironwood sound rock solid. This technique also works for conveying trust. But having the word trust in your name can sound suspect or disingenuous. (Would you buy a used car from Trusty Sid?)
2. ‘Memorable’ Makes an Association with the Familiar
According to the latest research in cognitive psychology, we remember things that can easily be merged into our existing knowledge base. One of the basic mechanisms of memory is association. The stickiest names are associated with words and concepts that are already familiar to us.
Consider the company LeapFrog. Most of us played the childhood game of leapfrog. Because we have a connection to it, the name LeapFrog is easy to remember. Case in point: at a networking event if you meet “Lucinda from LeapFrog,” you may forget her name three seconds after she introduces herself. You have a far better chance of remembering the name LeapFrog because you have an existing association with the name. If you don’t have an immediate connection to the name Lucinda, it’s easily forgotten. During your conversation with “Whatshername,” she tells you LeapFrog makes educational toys. She doesn’t have to explain that they help children leap ahead. You get it.
When we can associate a name with a word, phrase or song we already know, it’s much easier for us to recall it later from our brain’s dusty filing cabinet. But when we try to remember a new name without anything familiar as a reference point, it’s much more difficult for us to connect it and therefore remember it.
To note, this applies to your personal name. Your first and last name say absolutely nothing about your business, expertise, or brand personality. Plus, your name may be hard to spell, pronounce, or remember. Why would you want to have a business name with the same difficulties?
One service professional who got it right is Tejal Topiwala, a part-time interior designer. For many people, her name is intimidating to pronounce. She had the foresight to know that the name might be a barrier for people who may not want to pick up the phone and call if they’re unsure how to pronounce her name. We branded her company Paprika, with the tagline “Spice up your space.” This new identity makes a nod to her flair for color, lends itself to wordplay, has beautiful imagery, and is a fantastic conversation starter. And, most of all, it lets prospective clients know that she’s creative.
[Related: Listen to our podcast on the Healing Power of Creativity]
If your first or last name lends itself to wordplay, you may be able to create a clever brand name out of it. NFL Hall of Famer Steve Young creatively used his last name when he formed his Forever Young Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping children. Professional debt slayer and retirement specialist Katie Hyer is ingeniously branding her business 401Katie. And Nir Eyal, author of the New York Times bestseller Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, shares fascinating research in his blog, Nir & Far.
Other memorable names:
- Yummy Tummy (shapewear)
- Crunch (gyms)
- Tropical MBA (entrepreneurship podcast)
- Yelp (customer reviews)
- Kickstarter (crowdfunding)
3. ‘Imagery’ Aids Memory through Evocative Visuals
Names that are associated with images make a strong impression and are hard to forget. Think of someone you’ve met in your lifetime who has a memorable first name. I met Daisy, Forrest and Chopper (a helicopter pilot) backpacking in New Zealand in 2003. I never saw them again, yet I never forgot their names. I knew Wilma, a masseuse, for all of 55 minutes. When I asked her if anyone ever forgot her name, she looked puzzled. Clearly no one ever had. (I refrained from asking if she had a daughter named Pebbles.) Names like these are easy for us to recall because they have such strong associations with things we can visualize. These associations help cement them into our brains.
To further illustrate this concept, try this fun test inspired by a memory exercise from my favorite business bestseller, Made to Stick—Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Dan and Chip Heath.
Spend 15 seconds studying the seven sets of letters below. Then, look away from the page and jot them down from memory.
W SJBL TDM VFD RNY CNH LDOJ
How many did you remember? Most people can remember just a few. Now try it again.
I haven’t changed the letters or the order in which they appear. All I’ve done is change the way the letters in the seven sets are grouped. Once again, study them for 15 seconds, and then see how many you remember.
WSJ BLT DMV FDR NYC NHL DOJ
I’m not a betting woman, but I suspect your memory greatly improved the second time around. You have obviously figured out why. The first time you were trying to remember random letters with no apparent visual cues. The second time was much easier because the letters were associated with familiar things you could picture: the Wall Street Journal, a bacon-lettuce-tomato sandwich, the Department of Motor Vehicles, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, New York City, the National Hockey League, the Department of Justice.
Other names with imagery:
- Timberland (outdoor gear)
- BlackRock (private equity)
- Lionsgate (motion pictures)
- Leaf (electric car)
- Hard Candy (cosmetics)
4. ‘Legs’ Lends Itself to a Theme for Extended Mileage
To get the most out of your name, give it legs. A name with a theme will lend itself to wordplay, letting you get more mileage out of it. Names with legs provide endless “verbal branding” opportunities. And a strong theme can be extended to many elements of a brand, such as taglines, hashtags or domain names.
You don’t have to be a Jimmy Buffett fan to appreciate Latitude Margaritaville, the 55-plus retirement communities inspired by the music and lifestyle of the legendary singer. Who wouldn’t want to retire on Castaway Court or have return-address labels from Tiki Terrace? The vacation vibe is pervasive and persuasive. Other street names include Flip Flop Court, Attitude Avenue, and Landshark Blvd. I bet neighbors don’t hesitate to borrow a cup of salt when they live on Lost Shaker Way. Other names carrying the Margaritaville theme are the Barkaritaville Pet Resort and the Coconut Telegraph, a local business center.
[Related: What To Do When The Media Misspells Your Name]
Any business can have a name with legs. Public relations pro Lynette Hoy is a fiery woman who isn’t afraid to pick up the phone and pitch the press. When I met her, she was using her personal name as her business name: Lynette Hoy PR. But the name didn’t evoke anything about her high-energy personality. We rebranded her with a name and tagline that said it all: Firetalker PR, with the tagline “Hot on the press.”
Lynette took it from there, creating a firestorm of branding ideas. Her official title is Fire Chief. She works in The Firehouse. And her packages include Fire Starter, Fan the Flame of Success, and Ignite Your Visibility. She lightly peppers her marketing materials with her theme, keeping it fresh and fun but not cutesy, corny, or over the top. The ringtone on her phone is the classic R&B funk song “Fire,” by the Ohio Players, which she cranks up during her speaking engagements to “fire up” the audience.
Find a theme that can be stretched like carnival taffy. In addition to fire, lucrative themes with endless wordplay include magic, music, travel, nature, romance, and art. The theme of food is also highly extendable, as we’ve discovered at Eat My Words. Here’s just a “taste”: Our service packages include Key Ingredients, Supermarket Special, and The Whole Enchilada. Our blog is called The Kitchen Sink. And our general-information email address is [email protected]
5. ‘Emotional’ Moves People
I once spent a queen’s ransom on a piece of bling because the name made me feel like a million bucks: the Boss Lady Ring. I deserved it.
According to Forrester Research, 50 percent of every buying decision is driven by emotion. Not only do we buy things that make us feel good, but we are also inclined to buy things with names that make us feel good.
What about when products have little, if anything, to differentiate them other than the name? Will someone spend more if a product has a name that makes a strong emotional connection? Absolutely! It happened to me one sticky summer.
For three sleepless-in-San Francisco nights, I was under attack by a relentless mosquito. I was fighting a losing battle and desperately needed to put one of us out of our misery. Searching for relief on Amazon at 2 a.m., I discovered the perfect weapon: an electric mosquito zapper shaped like a squash racquet. (Squash! How ironic.) Amazon gave me a choice of four similar products: BugKwikZap, The Executioner, Zurgon, and Elucto. Which of these names do you think makes the strongest emotional connection with those suffering from a blood-sucking mosquito feeding frenzy? (Hint: it’s sounds like a total badass.) Yep, The Executioner. Ding! Ding! Ding!
The Executioner conjures up an empowering brand experience: “You’ve eaten your last meal, little f*cker! I’m going to incinerate you into oblivion.” BugKwikZap, Zurgon, and Elucto don’t electrify our emotions like The Executioner. (Tip: if you have a strong product, don’t give it a weak name.) Even though The Executioner was the priciest of the four, its name was irresistible. It spoke volumes and conjured up exciting imagery. A killer product with a killer name. Bam!
You may not ever need an electric bug zapper, but I bet you’ve bought a bottle of wine. Think of how many times you’ve picked up a bottle just because the name was appealing. If you shop by the label, as the majority of wine buyers do, it’s hard to resist a love-at-first-sight name like Fat Bastard, 7 Deadly Zins, Layer Cake, Educated Guess, Little Black Dress, and Cat’s Pee on a Gooseberry Bush.
The hip Hotel Vitale on San Francisco’s Embarcadero waterfront experienced a 25 percent jump in wedding business when we changed the ho-hum names of their wedding services to ones that were, pardon the pun, emotionally engaging. So the “Rehearsal Dinner” became “Meet the Parents.” The “Post Reception Bar Rental” became “Last Call for Alcohol.” The names make instant emotional connections because they’re fun, meaningful, and loaded with imagery.
While I’d like to share more sales figures with you, name metrics cannot be quantified unless a name is changed, and even then, with refreshed branding and new advertising, the name cannot take all the credit. Hotel Vitale can attribute the increase to the name changes because they were simply words listed in a guide. Nothing else changed. Restaurants can try this by changing the name of a dish on the menu. Something as simple as changing Chicken Soup to the more emotionally driven Grandma’s Chicken Soup will boost sales (although not if the restaurant is the Slutty Vegan).
Other emotional names:
- Shazam (music app)
- Ticklebelly (cake pops)
- Lush (soap and cosmetics)
- Snuggle (fabric softener)
- Caesars Palace (casino)
Alexandra Watkins literally wrote the book on brand names: “Hello, My Name is Awesome: How To Create Brand Names That Stick.” She is the founder of Eat My Words, a premiere branding firm that creates love-at-first-sight names for clients including Amazon, Google, and Coca-Cola. To learn more, visit www.eatmywords.com.
This article, originally published on Oct. 11, 2019, has been updated.