Names matter more than most people think

A rose by any other name would release the same chemical odorants, but if a rose was called “pukeweed” you probably wouldn’t buy one for your sweetheart.

Names are important. Product people often underestimate how important they are. And since naming a product or brand can be really hard, it’s easy to say we’re spending too much time on this. It’s not that important. Let’s just pick one and move on.

But names matter. A lot. If you’re trying to name your product and you haven’t found a name that feels right, you probably shouldn’t put the search to rest until you do.

Here’s why names matter.

Nearly every time a person encounters your product they encounter your name. That name creates a snap emotional judgment. This judgment occurs before declarative thoughts and conscious intentions. It’s a feeling that precedes conscious awareness (in the Blink sense), and it creates the context in which the brain goes about forming declarative opinions about the object. After that first instant, the thing already has established its emotional valence. All that’s left now is for the brain to find reasons to explain why the thing is so good or so bad.

That initial movement will start a feedback loop. You hear the name. You feel good. You look for reasons the thing is good. You find them. You declare them. Now, noticing those, and getting your ego wrapped up in it, you feel even more good feelings about the thing. And so on. Once that process starts, the ball will tend to keep rolling down the same side of the hill.

If the initial feelings are negative, the relationship between the person and product is likely to end right there. If the initial feelings are positive, the product has a foot in the door. The person is interested. Their brain is already at work generating reasons why this thing is cool or valuable. There can be further interaction. A relationship might blossom.

By this process the seemingly tiny factor of the first emotional, aesthetic response to the product’s name has an enormous effect on the final outcome of the relationship between the person and the product. I’m reminded of the cheesily awesome explanation of chaos theory delivered by Ian Malcolm to Ellie Sattler in the Jeep on Jurassic Park.

Consider virality. If I have a negative feeling about a product, it’s unlikely that I’m going to tell my friends about it. If when I say the name I feel a negative shadow, a twinge of embarrassment, an urge to defend or convince you that no, this thing is not what you think, it’s actually cool, hear me out — then I’m probably not going to talk about it. And the product won’t spread. But if I feel good about it, and am excited about it, I might be happy to talk about it.

That’s virality at the micro level. Now consider the macro level. For your product to be successful, it’ll need millions of people to hear about it, check it out, and develop a relationship with it.

How to test if a name is good

For me, there are two steps to a name. When you have a candidate for a name, here’s how to evaluate it.

First: Say it to someone. Describe your product, and use the name as if it’s already been decided upon. Choose a person whose judgment you trust, and who isn’t predisposed to like everything you say. Not your mother. Coworkers and critical friends are good. And when you say the name, pay very close attention to how you feel. Did it feel good? Did you enjoy saying the name? Did you feel embarrassed? Was it a bit of a strain? Your answer there is all you need to know, because as Don Draper says, “You are the product. You, feeling something. That’s what sells.”

Second: If your name passed step one, great. But it now it has to pass another step: the sanity check. Someone recently pointed out to me that “chlamydia” is actually a pretty word, if you separate it from its meaning. But yeah. That meaning. I won’t be naming my daughter Chlamydia. If the name is trademarked by your competitor, or if it refers to a venereal disease, keep looking.

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