After 40+ years in the marketing communications and creative services industry, I can confidently say that creating a good brand name for a new product, service or company is one of the most difficult challenges there is. (I’m talking mainly about brands that will compete on a national or even international level, although much of the following will also apply to local brand creation.) On the surface, creating a new brand name seems like it should be easier than it is, but the deeper you get into the process, the more challenging it becomes.
Let’s do some math. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics there are 10.75 million businesses in the United States. The names of millions of them could present a challenge when creating a new brand name — even if that’s for a product or service and not for a business — because new brands often need websites and obtaining a domain name comes into play. And according to Inc., Nielsen Media Research lists more than 500,000 brands in more than 2,000 product categories.
Next, based on the trend line in this graph from Statista, in 2021 there will be about one million trademarks that have been registered by U.S. companies. Those that are in competitive categories must be avoided when creating a new brand.
How does all that add up? If you want a brand that uses standard English words you have a big challenge because most of those words have been used in every combination imaginable for those one million trademarks, 500,000+ product brands, or 10.75 million business names. That’s why so many new brands names are made-up words (e.g., Statista). And there are dangers with that approach. But more on that later also — first the basics.
The ideal brand name should, in my opinion, satisfy this short list criteria:
To get to a brand name that satisfies the above criteria, in my experience you’ll need to start with brainstorming until you have several hundred options (various combinations of standard English words as well as made-up words). To get there, use proven brainstorming techniques. Try several online name generators. The vast majority of what you initially come up with will be junk, but that’s the brainstorming process. You have to exhaust all the junk to start getting to the good stuff. Of the several hundred names you generate, cut the list to 5-10, filtering them based on criteria detailed below.
This means short and easy to communicate. Try for one word or two words, three syllables maximum all together. Try for standard English words that people know and understand. You will inevitably be forced to combine two words to get to your brand (brand names — and especially domain names — that are single English words are all taken). When combining words, avoid long complicated words in favor of short ones. Think Facebook, YouTube or Dropbox. Purple Cow (a nod to Seth Goden’s book) is better than Mauve Bovinae.
This means easy to recognize, say and spell. If the average person can’t pronounce it or spell it, it’s probably not a good brand name. This is where confusing, made-up words with no recognizable meaning can be problematic. If you’re going to make up a word, be sure there is some recognizable meaning in it and that it’s easy to pronounce and spell. Avoid misspellings of common words. Google got away with misspelling googol because almost no one had ever heard of the word googol so there was no confusion in misspelling it.
Consider a hypothetical made-up word like “Splorator.” It may be a brand name that meets some of the other criteria listed, but it’s not clear or easy to spell or understand. Nor is it memorable — another concern about made-up words. Here’s a test: try telling your brand name to a few people and then, without prompting them to write it down or make any effort to remember it, ask them the next day if they remember the name you mentioned to them. Purple Cow will win over Splorator.
Does the name describe — or at least hint at — the nature of your business, product or service? This can be either overt or indirect, but it’s helpful if there’s some connection. Think of some modern brands and how overtly or subtly they connect to what the business does (e.g., Amazon — world’s largest river, world’s largest retailer; Twitter — a lot of chirping, like all those tweets via the app). In this regard, be careful not to box yourself in. If your brand name expresses the nature of your company, product or service too literally, it may not work in the future if the nature of the brand evolves and changes. (Amazon started as an online bookstore. A brand name with “books” in it wouldn’t work so well now). Meaningful also applies on philosophical and emotional levels. It means appropriate and in sync with the company’s ethos. Is it playful and fun or serious and scholarly? What’s the right reflection of the brand’s personality?
On the plus side, the name should produce positive emotional sentiments in the minds of the intended audience. Flipping that around, it shouldn’t be a turn-off to any important audience segments. You might be tempted to be a little irreverent for the sake of memorability, but your name shouldn’t be offensive or politically incorrect to the extent that it turns off whole demographic groups. And, of course, the business owner needs to like it. A brand is personal, it should be appealing and feel right to you (or whoever owns the business, product or service).
This means it’s unique and doesn’t infringe on a trademark used by another company, product or service in the same business category. (Non-competitive categories may be ok if there’s no confusion. For example, I once trademarked the word “Yes!” for a client in the retail discount store category at the same time as the word “Yes” was being used as a trademark by a global soft drink brand.) Ownable means obtaining a trademark (or service mark) as well as a number of domain names. I say domain names plural because you’ll need not only a TLD (top-level domain like .com, .net, .org or one of the new TLDs like .biz, .io, .tv, etc.) but also domains for all desired social media channels (at minimum Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, but depending on your business type also LinkedIn (B2B), TikTok, Pinterest…the list goes on.
Then, get ready to have your hopes dashed.
Imagine you’ve gone through a long process to decide on the perfect brand for your new internet video service and you decide to call it NeatFlicks. (To be clear, almost everything is wrong with that name, but I’m using it to illustrate how difficult the “ownable” criterion is.) Now that you have settled on NeatFlicks, it’s time to see if you can obtain both a trademark and the domains for your website and social media channels.
Start with the trademark. You do a search on the USPTO trademark database and find that there are no registered trademarks with the name NeatFlicks — yay!! However, to actually obtain a trademark registration for NeatFlicks, after you file an application, examiners at the trademark office will look not only at exact matches, but they will also research whether a reasonable person may confuse your proposed trademark with any currently registered trademarks in the same business category. Clearly, NeatFlicks will be rejected because it is proposed for use in the same category as Netflix. If for some unforeseen reason the USPTO examiner doesn’t consider NeatFlicks a conflict with Netflix and grants the trademark, you can bet that Netflix will challenge you (during the USPTO public review period or later after actual use) and will issue a cease-and-desist order. I’m guessing they have deeper pockets for their legal efforts than you do.
Let’s say that you blunder ahead based on the fact that your search of the USPTO database turned up no conflicts and you try to obtain the desired domain names. Namech_k (a really bad brand name by the way) is a handy tool to check available domains across most TLDs and social channels all at once. You search and find that the .com is not available. You visit http://neatflicks.com and see that it’s parked by GoDaddy and when you click the “get this domain” button you learn you can pay a broker $120 to negotiate on your behalf to try to obtain it for you. Trust me, this is a deep rabbit hole you probably don’t want to go down. Any really good domain that is owned by a squatter (such as a single English “word.com” or even “TwoWords.com”) may cost at least five figures to purchase, maybe six.
In my opinion a commercial brand should try for the .com and avoid the “new” TLDs if possible. (A non-profit may want to use .org.) Keep it short. Be sure the domain matches the brand name exactly if possible. Don’t misspell words. Don’t use hyphens. Don’t add words if the domain name isn’t available to match your new brand name. (For example, if your brand name is NeatFlicks and someone else owns NeatFlicks.com, don’t use NeatFlicksOnline.com because web traffic will likely go NeatFlicks.com instead of to your site.)
Let say that you ignore all that advice and decide to buy NeatFlicks.tv instead of .com.
Then, you scroll down a little on the Namech_k site and see that NeatFlicks is not available on Facebook or Twitter! You curse to yourself.
Then you resort to the mistake made by many new brands at this point, and you try a misspelling. NeetFlicks.com is available and so are many of the corresponding social channel names (well, not Twitter, but you’ll figure that out later, right?).
NeetFlicks it is!
Now you know why there are so many really poor brand names out there. Can’t spell it, can’t remember it, and reminds people of your competition who also will likely bring a lawsuit against you. What could be better? Oh wait, on second thought those may be problems. Ugh! Let’s go with YouVid, what do you think?
Last but not least
Once you have a brand name you love, it’s time to stop playing do-it-yourself lawyer and hire a competent trademark attorney to wrap things up. First, IP attorneys will do formal research to validate your informal research and hopefully come to the same conclusion you did that the mark is available for your use. Then, they will file trademark applications on your behalf, not just with the USPTO but also with all 50 state attorneys general (and with international trademark authorities, should your new brand be intended for use beyond the United States). All that will cost you several thousand dollars. If your new brand is not intended to compete on a national or international level, you may choose to use Legal Zoom or a similar service to save on attorney fees.
So, there you have it. Now you know why it’s so hard to create a new brand name.