Business for Geeks 301: Product Naming

Over the past couple months, I've hit some hard and serious issues for small business. This week, I'm slowing things down a bit and hitting an important but much lighter topic…

How do you name a product?

But first, there are three main reasons to name a product.

First, it provides a simple shorthand both internally and externally. Do you think Drupal would have caught on if it was called a "Community-based Content Management System"? No, lazy developers like myself would have immediately looked for an abbreviation and come up with something like CCMS or ComConSys or something else ridiculous and other equally lazy developers – who wouldn't make their own suggestions – would mock them.

Next, a name means something. For a new product, it's not a big deal, but for existing organizations, a name becomes part of your identity and the associations that come along with it can make or break a product's success.

Finally, you need to be findable. We're way past the days of PEO – phonebook engine optimization – where every towing, plumber, or garbage collection company is aaaSomething. Ideally, you want the name to be unique and easy to spell. For example, de.lici.ous or d.e.l.i.c.i.o.u.s or whatever it's called is a great tool, but it's a pain to spell.

Now onto the important bits…

There are numerous schools of thought on coming up with a name. Some prefer the joining of two words. Some prefer completely made up words. And still others have this odd obsession with throwing together random letters or syllables. Regardless, here is my process:

First, I identify what the product does. If it toasts bread, your options are limited but if its a piece of software for tracking your organization's costs and budget, you have a great deal of flexibility. Once I have a few sentences or a list of keywords…

I hit a theasaurus and dictionary. It may sound silly but having other (alternative, different, substitute) words (content, prose, exposition) to explain (define, clarify, describe) the product can give a completely different perspective to both you and your customers.

Next, I take what I've gathered so far and brainstorm based on mythology, literature, and history. There are certain names in this category – like Ford and Oracle – that you'll have to throw out, but there are literally tens of thousands of others that might work and be a subtle nod for particularly knowledgable customers. For example, years ago I worked on a RFP response and tracking system used by the Business Development Manager and her staff. After a simple search, I came up with Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt.

Next, I search on the top few names. While finding another product with the same name isn't necessarily a deal breaker, it does become more difficult to be unique. You might be allowed to name your software "Excel" but you're starting far behind and unlikely to ever catch up… and if you do catch up, you're likely to get an unfriendly letter from a lawyer.

Finally, I share them with a friend or three. I want their initial reaction and hear their feedback. If it's hard to pronounce or difficult to spell, their perspective will help. If the name is just terrible, they'll say so… and usually with less mocking than the general public.

Overall it's a simple process and there's no reason to do it only once. Sometimes you'll discover a better name long after the product is underway, so if you want to have an internal/external name, there's nothing wrong with that. Alternatively, once the name has been out there for a while, if you change your name, you'll lose your history. In some cases, this is a good thing… did you know that AirTran used to be the problem-prone ValuJet AIrlines?