How a professional business “namer” comes up with ideas

My name is Ben, and people pay me to name things for them.

As a matter of fact, I named the cafe I am currently writing this article in. I’ve also named finance products, beers, coffee companies, an absinthe, apps, agtech platforms and entertainment franchises. I was even asked to rename a band for a US record company once. Oh and I’ve named pets, and my three children.

There are a few tricks to naming which I am happy to share. Mainly because when I am assigned the task of naming something for someone, especially a business owner, I’m not coming back to them with a single magical solution. I’m leading them through a process of thinking about what that name COULD be. Through that process the client often lands the final name themselves, and that’s a great thing, especially when it’s their business or product.

I can imagine that’s where you are sitting. This new business or idea is going to be your baby, so it makes sense that this name should come from you.

Lesson one: Relax, you have permission to name your thing whatever you want

I used to think that a name makes or breaks a business. But that simply isn’t true. Your business brand, your products, your service levels, your reputation – these are all things that will make you a success.

Your name, over time, will be the “container” of that value. But when you are in this early stage, you should just trust your gut and what feels right to you.

Yes it makes sense to have a name that’s relevant, memorable, and ownable, especially in those early stages when you want to make a splash. But you could call your business INFLATABLE WALRUS, and once they know you they’ll stop picturing big toothed creature balloons, and be thinking about how good you were at that thing you do.

“You should go with the folks at INFLATABLE WALRUS,” they’ll say to others. “They’re the best!”

Lesson two: If you are a crafts person or consultant, strongly consider naming the business after yourself

If you are someone who has honed skills over a career and you are now offering them as a sole proprietor, that “container” of value I mentioned above is actually you. So to take away unnecessary steps, you should just name the business after your full name or your surname. Your reputation and what you do is known by your colleagues and clients and that’s your unique point of difference. Your network is your marketing in this connected age.

So don’t feel like you are showboating yourself, just do it. Freelancing is the future and your brand is you.

Lesson three: If you are local, be local

If you are a bricks-and-mortar business or servicing a specific geographic area, it’s never a bad idea to ensure your name reflects this.

The aforementioned cafe I’m typing this in is called Bicycle Thieves. Why you might ask? Because that’s the name of an old classic Italian film, and the cafe is located on the border of Thornbury and Northcote, gentrified neighbourhoods who both have a rich history of Italian culture and businesses. It’s a nod to that. It’s also got a bit of a story to the name and rewards those who know their film history a little, which are the people going to cafes in a hip neighbourhood like this. The locals and staff now just call the place “Thieves.” It nicknamed really well, which is what you’d want a local place to do.

The other name on the table we were strongly considering? Northbury, a combination of Northcote and Thornbury. A local name for a local place.

Lesson four: A creative name is either rational, emotional, or a balance of both

Ok, we are not naming it after you or where you are. Where do we go next?

We need to delve into the realm of the relevant, ownable, and memorable to come up with a creative name that works.

I call my little process for naming “doing a name drop,” as it’s a bit like dropping a pebble in a pond. You jump in rational and then ripple into more creative areas and see where that takes you.

This is a creative process, so shut off that part of you that wants to solve things right away. Your job here isn’t to find the perfect name, it’s to find a lot of names and territories that could all work because the key to coming up with good names is to come up with lots of names.

We are going to get into a bit of brand strategy here. Not too much, but just enough for you to measure whether a name is working. Without some strategy or criteria for what you want this name to do, you are really just coming up with random things and no means to judge the merits of these names.

Lesson five: A brainstorming process that starts with what’s relevant

This is the starting point, a mixture of what you do and what the prime benefit of your business or product is. This is known in the marketing world as your ‘Unique Selling Proposition’.

There’s an old advertising saying. “People don’t buy quarter-inch drill bits, they buy quarter-inch holes.” So what is the benefit of what you are doing? If you are not sure, ask whether your business saves customers time, money or face.

Time
You are quicker than the competition, your product is speed, your benefit is convenience.

Money
You are cheaper, you save them money, you undercut the competition. Your benefit is value.

Face
This is the notion that you’ll make people look good, or not look foolish by using your goods and services. This is the benefit of being a premium service for those who only want the best. You are slow and expensive, but what you make is rare so it’s of value to a discerning customer.

There’s your rational starting point.

From here you can start brainstorming ideas. Start with the rational and slowly drift towards the emotion. Drop the pebble in the pond.

So how on earth does this work? Let me show you the process.

I’m going to take you back to how I went about naming a financial product many, many years ago. It was a fund with the working title ‘Assurance’ which pointed to the fact that the fund had a failsafe that froze its value if the market dropped. That name, a very clear and practical one, was unfortunately taken. Hence they gave the naming job to the ad agency I worked for and it landed on my desk to solve.

The rational starting point was that the financial product was there to “save your money”, or more accurately “keep your money safe”.

So I started dropping rational names, synonyms that meant ‘Assurance’. I used thesaurus.com to bounce around synonyms until I had every common useful word that had the same literal meaning.

Basis, Steadfast, Fortitude, Homebase, Foundation, Progress, Anchor, Mainstay, Keepsake, Fountain, Progress, Progression, Knox, Meridian, Affluential, Capitol, Sought, Surety

That was my first splash in the pond. Now I slowly started pushing away from that literal space, and looked at the inverse of that meaning, because saving money is growing money. So I went down the growth route.

Volume, Multiplicity, Collate, Procure, Amass, Plethora, Arithmetic, Oodles, Infinity, Increment, Accrue Abundance, Advantage, Quantify

Looking at those names, I started to think about the fact that funds quantify over time when they do their job, so there’s a whole other way of framing this product and what it does. That led me to explore some more active names.

March, Thrive, Momentum, Motion, Escalate, Escalation, Surge, Stride, Advance, Propel, Propeller, Propulsion, Accelerate, Pathway, Focus

Now there was another trait they had in common – they are all positive names. So I used positivity as my brief and allowed those names to get a little more abstract and life-affirming.

Rhapsody, Entropy, Concerto, Symphony, Headway, Forge, Succession, Evolution, Evolve, Luminesce, Karma, Outspan, Magnify, Onward, Sun, Activate, Engage, Rise, Voyager, Carpe diem, Eternity, Successor, Serenity, Venture, Enrichment, Enhancement

You can see these positive names are moving into a much more emotional and metaphorical space. So my next step was to go in that direction. I grabbed out some metaphors, loose links to some of the ideas above. I was no longer using the thesaurus, I was now thinking in terms of stories, symbols, things that convey meaning.

You’ll see that this leads to much more creative territories, but names that are still connected in some way to our benefit and product features. Hence I added little rationales just in case the meaning, and more accurately, the story of these metaphors was not clear.

Tortoise – Tortoise and the hare, slow and steady wins the race

Gibraltar – Rock of Gibraltar

Emu – An emu cannot walk backwards

Eight – Eight on its side symbolises infinity

Zeitgeist – Spirit of the time

Halcyon – Halcyon days always keeping the good times

Equinox – The even day and night, stability

Grand scale – Keeping the big picture protected

Pilot – A fund that is steered to be always on track

Renaissance – Rebirth/Revival

Adelphi – Mythological area

Apollo – The god of prophecy, music, medicine, and poetry, sometimes identified with the sun

Excelsior – Implies grandeur

Andromeda – Galaxy in the milky way

Orion – Warrior god

North – Top of the compass, top of the world, opposite of headed south

You’ll see that those names are now doing a lot more lifting, telling stories and evoking emotion.

We shortlisted ten or so, they were checked for availability, and the client came back with their favourite.

AXA North – the top of the compass, and the opposite of your funds going South.

It went on to be a very successful product with a clear, simple, one-word name that pointed to the benefit.

This little win had colleagues and peers from other agencies asking me about my naming process and it’s been something I’ve been doing regularly ever since.

Lesson Six: Find a name you can own part one – check ownability

So if you’ve completed this brainstorming process, you now have a lot of names and you need to work out if you can call them your own.

There are two ways to look at the notion of owning a name.

The first is the idea that you want to stake out your own territory in the face of your competition. Simply put, do an assessment of the businesses you are competing with. If they are all naming themselves in a certain way, look to name yourself in a way that helps you stand out.

The second part of being ownable is finding a name that simply isn’t already taken. The internet and social media has ensured that pretty much every variation of language has been registered as a .com or a social handle.

There’s a reason why startups typically have these oddly made-up words for their companies. All those names are owned.

That’s why you need a process to produce not just one name you like, but several. Because once you’ve checked the ASIC Business Names Register, trademarks, and domain registrars, you’ll find many of your ideas may be fully taken.

In Australia, unless you trade under your own name or fall within an exemption, you must register your business name. The ASIC website can guide you through this.

Lesson Seven: Find a name you can own part two – use portmanteaus, prefixes and suffixes

Any word or phrase or metaphor you fall in love with will never be completely yours to own. But don’t fret, you can still use it as long as you get creative.

So here are extra creative tips to take that name you love, and tweak it enough to make it yours.

In the case of North, we stuck the company name in front of it, it became AXA North.

Can you do the same?

Adding prefixes and suffixes is a great way to find an ownable variation. Try putting a word at the head or the end of the name you love.

It could be adjectives like Big North, Tiny North or Bright North.

It could be a prefix that makes it North Path, North Point or North Sun.

It could be a colour, turning it into NorthBlue, or BlueNorth. 

It could be a pronoun like MyNorth, OurNorth or even WeAreNorth.

If you are feeling really adventurous, try portmanteaus, which are the slamming together of existing words to make a new word.

We do this all the time. For instance, chocoholic, chillax, infomercial, motel, bromance…

Can you make a new word out of the ones you’ve discovered? Like Northfund or Northvest?

Maybe come full circle and try mashing together one of your brainstormed names with your surname or business location.

Lesson Eight: Maybe Inflatable Walrus is a pretty good name after all

By now, you should have some pretty good name options, and since this is a creative and subjective decision, go with your gut. Or if this is a group decision, rank your names on a scale of one to ten using these two criteria.

1. What is the emotional value of the name? How well does it strike you and give you energy? How much do you love it?

2. What is the practicality of the name? Does it link? Is it fit for purpose? Is it ownable?

This breaks down the emotional and rational parts of your name so you can see what matters to you.

Good luck!

And if you get stuck, there’s always INFLATABLE WALRUS.

Ben Keenan

Director | The Thought Police

Ben Keenan is an award-winning multidisciplinary creative director, copywriter and technologist who makes things out of culture and technology as The Thought Police.

He has led the digital and social creative offering at Clemenger BBDO and M&C Saatchi, been head of the prestigious AWARD School and presented at SXSW in 2017 & 2018. See left, where he hung out with Tim Feriss at SXSW.

He's now an independent projecteer and passionate teacher who makes documentaries, writes and thinks about the future in his spare time.

You can keep up with Ben on Instagram.