Naming a business is by far the hardest task for start ups when it comes to branding. It’s permanent, or at least feels that way. Somehow renaming a company seems like a much bigger deal than a logo redesign, although neither should be undertaken lightly.
Naming a company is also high stakes. A name is the primary calling card of a business, and shows up places that even a logo doesn’t. In casual conversation, for instance. It's also highly emotional. Think about people’s gut reactions to baby names. Everyone has a different association or interpretation (“That name picked its nose in third grade!”). And don’t even get me started on finding an available URL without resorting to some wacky misspelling.
When it comes to brainstorming company names, often quantity matters more than quality — at least at the start of the process. Here are a few guidelines for generating a whole lot of quantity. Once you have at least a handful of solid contenders, you can decide on the quality.
Gather the right people and materials.
Get a good group in the room — five to eight is about the right number. It’s helpful to have a mix of team members and outsiders. Invite copywriters or even just friends who are really good with language. You should have some way to display all the names being generated in real time. For example, go old school with huge pieces of paper stuck to the wall and magic markers. You will also need blank pieces of paper and pens for everyone involved.
Start with a few word-association exercises to get everyone’s minds working and generate stimuli for the next step. Typically, we’ll choose two to three topics related to the business idea. So let’s say you’re launching a business that facilitates mobile payment. You might do one word association around the idea of “payment,” and one around the idea of “on the go.”
Everyone in the room is encouraged to shout out any words that come to mind from these concepts. So, for payment you’d get answers like: bank, money, dollar, exchange, change, cash register, merchant and others. Someone should be capturing these words in a way that’s visible to everyone, and you continue until you’ve filled a large page, and then move on to the next. Ideally at the end of this exercise, you’ll have a few large sheets filled with words on the wall.
With a blank piece of paper in front of them, everyone now has to individually come up with 10 names in 10 minutes. This is an incredibly short amount of time to come up with 10 names, and that’s on purpose. It’s so people can’t get bogged down trying to come up with the perfect name, and instead just start getting names on paper. No one has time to overthink or be self-conscious. (There are no bad ideas.) If it’s helpful, they can use the words from the first exercise as inspiration.
Generate some more.
Next, everyone passes their sheet of paper to the person to the left, and each person has to come up with five more names in seven minutes that build upon the names in front of them. This provides each person with concrete stimuli for inspiration and allows them to expand creatively on the thinking of their neighbor.
Share and build.
Papers get passed one more time to the left. Now each person, with 15 new names in front of them, circles their five favorites and shares with the group. As everyone is sharing, names should get visibly captured and people should be encouraged to build upon these names as they’re read aloud.
At this point, you will have tons of names on the wall, and even more written down on sheets of paper. Many will be terrible, though often gems do emerge. But this doesn’t mean you’re done. It's helpful to have everyone vote for their top three favorites, and then end the meeting.
In the next few weeks, sort through every name (including those that weren't read out loud). Type your favorites on individual sheets of paper. (It can be hard to evaluate names on an Excel spreadsheet of hundreds.) Check whether the URL is available, even though this process can be excruciating.
At that point, sift through the names again. Set short deadlines — perhaps one per day — for team members to generate five more names each and add them to the list.
Then make a short list. Sit with it. Remember that there’s no such thing as the “perfect” name that tells your entire story and that everyone will fall in love with on first sight, especially in the absence of a brand experience. You just need a good, solid name that is own-able, pronounce-able, spell-able, and doesn’t have any obvious negative connotations. Branding can take care of the rest.