The following is an excerpt from the second edition of Hello, My Name Is Awesome, available here.
Think of five brand names that made you smile the first time you heard them. My fab five:
Chubby Hubby (ice cream flavor)
Scrub Daddy (sponge)
Nerdwax (eyeglass adhesive)
Bed Head (hair care products)
Super Evil Megacorp (video games)
We appreciate it when names surprise us, entertain us, and give us a happy little jolt of dopamine. Names that make us smile are infectious. They are the ones we talk about, tweet, and repeat. Why? We enjoy making others smile too.
SMILE: The 5 Qualities of a Super-Sticky Name
So how do you come up with a great name? You can actually think of SMILE as an acronym, standing for these 5 qualities of a super-sticky name: Suggestive. Memorable. Imagery. Legs. Emotional.
Ideally, your name should have all these attributes. Let’s take a look at each.
- ‘Suggestive’ Evokes Something about Your Brand
A name can’t be expected to say everything, but it can suggest something about your brand. Not in an overly obvious way but in a way that activates the imagination. Have you heard of the Impossible Burger? Fans swear the plant-based Frankenmeat, made in a lab, tastes like the real thing. As my friend Tim heard a waitress exclaim at the Atlanta airport, “Vegetarians be trippin’!” The company name, Impossible Foods, is far more appetizing than say, Meat Lab.
One of my favorite suggestive names is that of a California cannabis confections company that creates products for sophisticated women of a certain age. I named it Garden Society.
[Related: More ways to come up with business names]
A terrific way to use “the power of suggestion” is with a symbolic word or metaphor that implies comparison. One master of the metaphor was Frank Zamboni, inventor of the renowned ice-resurfacing machine of the same name. Two of the metaphorical names he created were Grasshopper, a machine to roll up artificial turf, and the Black Widow, a machine to fill in dirt on top of cemetery vaults.
Car companies have nailed metaphoric names. SUV names are great examples. Explorer, Expedition, Yukon, Denali, and Wrangler all suggest rugged outdoor adventure. Fragrance companies are also masters of metaphorical names. Desire, Euphoria, Passion, Rapture, and Escape all evoke experiences women find desirable. (Coincidentally, Escape is the name of an SUV, too. Imagine cars designed by Calvin Klein. I’m not as excited about the thought of Ford manufacturing cologne.)
Want a name that conveys that your business is well established? Try words that symbolize strength, power, or longevity. For instance, companies named Oaktree, Life Force, and Ironwood sound rock solid. This technique also works for conveying trust. But having the word trust in your name can sound suspect or disingenuous. (Would you buy a used car from Trusty Sid?)
- ‘Memorable’ Makes an Association with the Familiar
According to the latest research in cognitive psychology, we remember things that can easily be merged into our existing knowledge base. One of the basic mechanisms of memory is association. The stickiest names are associated with words and concepts that are already familiar to us.
Consider the company LeapFrog. Most of us played the childhood game of leapfrog. Because we have a connection to it, the name LeapFrog is easy to remember. Case in point: at a networking event if you meet “Lucinda from LeapFrog,” you may forget her name three seconds after she introduces herself. You have a far better chance of remembering the name LeapFrog because you have an existing association with the name. If you don’t have an immediate connection to the name Lucinda, it’s easily forgotten. During your conversation with “Whatshername,” she tells you LeapFrog makes educational toys. She doesn’t have to explain that they help children leap ahead. You get it.
When we can associate a name with a word, phrase or song we already know, it’s much easier for us to recall it later from our brain’s dusty filing cabinet. But when we try to remember a new name without anything familiar as a reference point, it’s much more difficult for us to connect it and therefore remember it.
To note, this applies to your personal name. Your first and last name say absolutely nothing about your business, expertise, or brand personality. Plus, your name may be hard to spell, pronounce, or remember. Why would you want to have a business name with the same difficulties?
One service professional who got it right is Tejal Topiwala, a part-time interior designer. For many people, her name is intimidating to pronounce. She had the foresight to know that the name might be a barrier for people who may not want to pick up the phone and call if they’re unsure how to pronounce her name. We branded her company Paprika, with the tagline “Spice up your space.” This new identity makes a nod to her flair for color, lends itself to wordplay, has beautiful imagery, and is a fantastic conversation starter. And, most of all, it lets prospective clients know that she’s creative.
[Related: Listen to our podcast on the Healing Power of Creativity]
If your first or last name lends itself to wordplay, you may be able to create a clever brand name out of it. NFL Hall of Famer Steve Young creatively used his last name when he formed his Forever Young Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping children. Professional debt slayer and retirement specialist Katie Hyer is ingeniously branding her business 401Katie. And Nir Eyal, author of the New York Times bestseller Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, shares fascinating research in his blog, Nir & Far.
Other memorable names:
Yummy Tummy (shapewear)
Tropical MBA (entrepreneurship podcast)
Yelp (customer reviews)
- ‘Imagery’ Aids Memory through Evocative Visuals
Names that are associated with images make a strong impression and are hard to forget. Think of someone you’ve met in your lifetime who has a memorable first name. I met Daisy, Forrest and Chopper (a helicopter pilot) backpacking in New Zealand in 2003. I never saw them again, yet I never forgot their names. I knew Wilma, a masseuse, for all of 55 minutes. When I asked her if anyone ever forgot her name, she looked puzzled. Clearly no one ever had. (I refrained from asking if she had a daughter named Pebbles.) Names like these are easy for us to recall because they have such strong associations with things we can visualize. These associations help cement them into our brains.
To further illustrate this concept, try this fun test inspired by a memory exercise from my favorite business bestseller, Made to Stick—Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Dan and Chip Heath.
Spend 15 seconds studying the seven sets of letters below. Then, look away from the page and jot them down from memory.