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One of the most anticipated parts of owning a business is getting to choose a name for your brand and products. But there’s a little more to it than you think. Does your name easily resonate with your customers? Is it easy to pronounce? Will it stand the test of time for years to come?
There are many factors to consider when choosing business and brand names, and making sure you can secure the matching domain name is a pretty big one. Alexandra Watkins has a knack for creating brand and product names that stick, and she has created her own genius checklist that she applies to every company and product before settling on a name. But don’t worry, if you decide you want to take the leap and go for a name change, we can help with that, too.
Rich: Author of airport bookstore bestseller, Hello, My Name is Awesome: How to Create Brand Names That Stick, and Inc. Magazine Top 10 marketing book, Alexandra Watkins is a leading authority on brand names. As Founder and Chief Innovation Officer of the San Francisco naming firm Eat My Words, she’s a frequent guest lecturer on the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, University of San Francisco School of Management, and many entrepreneurship programs.
Eat My Words clients include Google, Disney, Frito Lay, TaylorMade Golf, MIT, and many burgeoning cannabis related businesses including a gourmet edibles company for ladies who lunch, which Alexandria named Garden Society. You know, maybe we need your help here in Maine, we just legalized pot.
Other favorite names to her credit include Neato robotic vacuum, Gringo Lingo Language School, Spoon Me frozen yogurt, Church of Cupcakes, and Mac n’ Cheetos, the latest frankenfood innovation from Burger King.
Alexandra was most recently the author in residence at the NASDAQ Entrepreneurial Center where she presented her entertaining and enlightening talk, How Not to Nayme Your Startup. Alexandra, welcome to the show.
Alexandra: Thank you.
Rich: Now you have this very cool job. I mean yours is the kind of job that I wish I had thought about and had any skills at. How did you get started in branding and creating brand names that stick?
Alexandra: Well that is a question I’m asked a lot because it is a dream job. For years I was an advertising copywriter and I worked at big agencies, and every once in a while I would get thrown a bone and get to name something. And I loved naming things, it was so much fun but I had no idea that naming was actually a profession. I just thought it was something I got to do once in a while.
Well when I found out that naming was actually a career I could have and the reason I never knew about it is advertising happens after a product is launched, naming happens before in branding. So branding and advertising are closely related but they rarely intersect. The reason why is no one wants to share a budget, so there’s the ad agency and the branding firm.
I knew lots of people in advertising but I knew no one in branding, so when I discovered I could actually do this for a living, I got out of advertising and I had to start over in branding and I didn’t know anyone. So I went on LinkedIn and started making connections and – pardon the pun – made a name for myself. But it took a while to break in, I didn’t have the traditional background in linguistics, but I did know how to create conceptual ideas because I had been in advertising as a copywriter. So I just told everyone I was a namer and they were like, “How can you do that? You can’t make a living doing that.” Look, I did and I wrote a bestselling book about it. So there.
Rich: So you said you didn’t have the typical linguistics background, which basically is somebody who’s studied languages. A lot of the names, though, that I saw of yours were not necessarily cramming together 2 or 3 different words into some new formulation. It was just about taking something that already exists and putting a clever or even edgy twist on it. I’m just looking at the Neato robotic vacuum, it’s just so perfect. But I don’t think that has anything to do with having a background in linguistics. Do you think that maybe not having that background has helped you?
Alexandra: Oh my gosh, yes. You’re the first person that’s actually recognized that and said it out loud. Absolutely. I don’t have the cursive knowledge of knowing all of word root meanings and everything and falling in love with something in that most people wouldn’t understand or appreciate it. So the names that we do make emotional connections with people – and they’re not amalgamations of a bunch of words jumbled together or mashed up – those are the laziest ways to create names. The best names are the ones that make people smile. And they don’t have to make you laugh, but they’re the names that people get.
Like you “get” Neato. It neatens your house and it’s a robotic dog, that’s pretty neat. Or a name like a GPS for dogs names Retriever. People get it and when you get it you smile. People just want to get it, they don’t want to look at a name and think, “What does that mean?” Nobody wants to feel dumb or out of the loop, people want to be welcomed. I always tell people your name should be like a welcome mat.
Rich: I think that’s absolutely true, and I wonder if part of the reason we’ve got so many bizarre names out there is because of the vanishing number of domains. And people are like, “All I care about is I want to make sure I get the dot com.”
Alexandra: Absolutely. And a lot of people think that every domain is taken and sometimes it does feel that way. But there are many ways around it. Actually Verisign has a new tool – if you go to verisign.com – I just discovered that you can type in your company name (let’s say Pappy’s Hot Sauce) and it will give you some other words around it, prefixes and suffixes. So it could be “Pappy’s Hot Sauce Company”, or “Co”, or “Inc.”.
There’s way better examples of that but I don’t want to give away any of my names right now. But that’s a way around it, just add a modifier, companies do it all the time. Facebook for years was, “The Facebook”, and Dropbox was “Get Dropbox”. Basecamp had thousands of users while they were still Basecamp HQ, so if you can’t get an exact match domain name, nobody expects you to anymore. Just add a word or two and get it. And if you absolutely insist on having the exact match domain name if your company is successful, you can pay your extortionist to buy the name that you want.
I think for 13 years Tesla was teslamotors.com, and it never stopped them from growing their company. So what happens is we type in a domain name and we don’t get to where we’re expecting to go, we just type in a word with it and our browser is a search engine and it takes up to what we’re looking for. So you’re right, the bad spellings are the result of the frustration of lack of domain names, but nobody cares.
Rich: I think my company name, flyte new media, breaks one of your important cardinal laws, at the same time our current domain name is takeflyte.com, which is fairly aspirational. We couldn’t get flyte.com so we got a similar domain that actually had a little bit of a story behind it.
Alexandra: Yeah, I like that. And takeflyte is spelled with a “y”?
Rich: Exactly. Because I might as well teach people how to spell my name.
Alexandra: Sure. Well when you were reading the name of my NASDAQ presentation, How Not to Nayme Your Startup, and you had to say that it was spelled “nayme”, and you have to spell flyte for people. I applaud you for “takeflyte”, I think that’s a great domain name and it’s a great example of how your domain name can make a strong emotional connection, because that is aspirational.
If anytime you have to spell your name for somebody, or explain what it means, or how to pronounce it, you are essentially apologizing for it and that devalues your brand. So that’s why we really recommend that people stay away from the misspellings and just try to go for the correct spelling and add a word to your domain.
Rich: Yeah, I went for the Shakespearean spelling but that was 15 years ago and times have changed. Alright, so I’m sure a lot of people you run into or that are listening to this show, they already have a company name. They might feel its good enough, or maybe they don’t and maybe they feel it’s time for a change. How do you know that it’s time to change your name, and what ae some of the steps you might take to handle a name change?
Alexandra: That’s a good question. So there’s a couple factors to it. One is, how long have you been in business and how much equity do you have in your name. People think they have way more equity in their name than they actually do.
Now let’s say you were a wedding planner, you don’t hopefully have repeat customers. You’re working with somebody once and maybe they recommend you, but for the most part that’s a one-time gig. So your future clients aren’t repeat clients so a lot of people are going to know you in the future that currently don’t know you now. So kind of look at where are you in the trajectory in the life of your business. How many people already know you by your name, are they repeat customers, or are you constantly getting new customers? And if people are constantly butchering your name and you know who they are – those of you who have those type of names – that are hard for people to spell or pronounce or they ask what it means. That’s when you probably would consider changing your name.
And here’s the good news; it’s really easy to change your name and not worry about your customers not finding you. Now 30 years ago that would have been a problem, but now not only is it easy for people to find you, it’s an opportunity. And I’ll tell you why. You have a list of your customer’s email addresses, you send them an email, you put it on social media, you have people’s phone numbers so you can all people, send out a newsletter. It gives you an excuse or a reason to get back in touch with your customers, tell them why the name change, what you’re up to that’s new, and that’s just a great touchpoint.
Now let’s say one of your customers are deep in the jungles of Madagascar and they missed the memo, so they come back and they go to your old website and what happens? It’s redirected to your new website, and it says, “Formerly known as xyz”. So that way people get it and you are not going to get lost, people will find you. We have Google, there’s all kinds of tools, you have a Facebook page. So it’s not as high risk as it used to be, in fact I think it’s pretty low risk.
What you do want to do though is before you change your name make sure that you have a name that is not going to get butchered by people and that is available trademark-wise.
Rich: Alright, we’ve hinted around some of the things that make for a good name, but I know you’ve got this clever acronym for the rules of what makes for a good brand name. Can you kind of walk us through what that is?
Alexandra: Sure. It’s called the “Smile and Scratch Test”. And it’s based on my philosophy that a name should make you smile instead of scratch your head. Smile is an acronym for the 5 qualities that make a name strong.
The “s” stands for “suggestive”, and that just means your name should suggest something about what your company or product does. Don’t make people guess. It doesn’t have to hit them over the head but it should hint at it. Like “Eat My Words”, the name of my company, we started out naming things that make people fat and drunk – and we still do name a lot of food and beverage – but that hints at what we do but it doesn’t say “Eat My Words Brand Names”. But it’s important that you don’t make people guess.
The “m” is “meaningful”. Your name needs to be meaningful to your customers not just to you personally or to your engineers.
“Imagery”, people remember imagery, pictures, images, much more easily than they remember random words or letters. Because when we can figuratively picture something in our head, we’ll be able to much more easily recall it when we try to think about it in the future.
The “l” in smile stands for “legs”. Think of legs being a theme, so your name lends itself to a theme so you can get a lot of mileage out of it. Back to Eat My Words, if you come here in our parking space there is a sign that’s a little pink refrigerator – that’s our symbol – and it says, “Eat My Words Client Parking Only, Violators will be eaten”. So that’s tied into the theme, we have a menu of services, we names a cupcake store The Church of Cupcakes and their whole theme is church. The woman that runs it calls herself the “church lady”, they have flavor names like “sinful strawberry”, the vanilla flavor we named the “missionary”. So when you have legs with your name and it lends itself to a theme, you can really have fun with it. But if you’re just stuck with a name.
You have “flyte” in your name, so you know that lends itself to all kinds of visual imagery and word play around “soar to new heights”.
Rich: We’ve got a “flyte plan”, we’ve actually got “flyte club” – which you’re totally allowed to tell other people about – so yeah.
Alexandra: See, that’s perfect. That’s a great example. Plus, I don’t know what your title is, if you’re the Pilot, but there’s a lot of word play so I highly recommend that people do that.
And then the “e” in smile stands for “emotional”. You want your name to make that emotional connection with people and not go over their head.
And then “scratch” is when to scratch it off your list because it makes you scratch your head, and those are 7 deadly sins. You don’t want your name to be spelling challenged – we just talked about that – my test for that is ask Siri to find you and if she doesn’t know what you’re talking about then you might want to rethink your name. And if you name looks like a typo, chances are people are going to have trouble with it.
The first “c” stands for “copycat”. You don’t want to be a copycat because it shows you’re not original and you’re going to open yourself up to trademark infringement, so be careful not to do that.
The “r” in scratch stands for “restrictive”, and that’s where you outgrow your name.
Rich: Well Apple Computers and Kentucky Fried Chicken both had to make alterations to their names. Suddenly they weren’t just selling computers or fired chicken just kind of went out of fashion – although it never should have.
Alexandra: Well they were luckily able to make lateral transitions where they didn’t have to radically change their name. But I was driving by Fast Signs a couple years ago and their tagline said, “More than fast, more than signs”. It’s just like Burlington Coat Factory, “we’re more than just coats”. If you’re having to do that – we talked about when is it time to change your name – that’s when it’s time to change your name, if you’ve completely outgrown it.
Canadian Tire in Canada, 9 out of 10 Canadians shop there once a week, but most people here in the states wouldn’t know that they sell way more than tires. They sell toys, and tropical plants, tents, trampolines, and all kinds of stuff. But if they rolled into the U.S. under the name Canadian Tire, they’d have to spend a lot of money to educate people that they do sell way more than tires.
So when you are naming your company, look into your crystal ball and think what could we be in the future, and make sure that it fits. A perfect example of who did that right is Amazon. Amazon is big, there’s lots of tributaries, and they can sell and be anything they want and the name still works.
And then the “a” in scratch stands for “annoying”. We talked about some of those names, like the amalgamations train wreck names where people just mash up these two words together, or you spell your name backwards. Or if you have letters in your name, that makes it difficult for people, and I mean letters in place of words. So if it was Coast 2 Coast with the 2 in it, again, you’re going to annoy people because you have to spell it. So that’s a pretty broad category.
And then the “t” stands for “tame”. Tame is where you just have a flat descriptive name – like Joe’s Drycleaner – it doesn’t say anything about your brand. So try a name that really stands out in a sea of sameness.
And then the second “c” is cursive knowledge, and that’s where internally – this is usually something engineers do – it means something to them. Maybe it’s your lingo, an inside joke. A lot of times cursive knowledge is when a name is in a foreign language. The cooking store – I can never pronounce it – Sur La Table – and if you ask them to pronounce, it takes French to pronounce it, it they will say it much better. But people mispronounce it all the time, and why wouldn’t you? It’s the word “table” and they’re a kitchen store.
So I’ve talked to people before who have gone with the fancy foreign name, and they regret them because people butcher them and we don’t want to butcher a French name. Have you ever been in a French restaurant and wanted to order something on the menu but been embarrassed to say it because you know you might say it wrong and the French waiter might laugh at you.
Rich: Worse than that I used to date a French Canadian girl, oh my god, when I first told her about my bicycle panniers, she almost broke up with me on the spot.
Alexandra: There you go, yes, you know that feeling.
Rich: I know that pain, yes.
Alexandra: Nobody wants to be embarrassed when announcing something.
And then finally the “h” in scratch is “hard to pronounce”. And we just talked about that with Sur La Table. So don’t make your name difficult for people. And when you’re starting out with a blank slate don’t give yourself any disadvantages. And the best way to think of this is to think about your own name.
So your name, Rich, is really easy for people. I can’t imagine that anybody ever spells it wrong.
Alexandra: So I can use you as an example. My friend Jim Box, no one ever spells his name wrong either. People will spell my name “Alexander”, “Alexandria”. They don’t butcher “Watkins” very often, but most people have names that people totally butcher, and it’s frustrating.
So think of your company name, if you’re naming something new why would you want to give yourself any disadvantages just like your own personal name has. Or think of the street that you live on or that your office is on that you’re constantly having to spell for people. Anything that’s complicated, anytime you’re having to explain it or spell it, you’re just taking away from it. It’s so much better just to be able to say it. Eat My Words, it’s easy, or Gringo Lingo. Neato Vacuum.
Rich: Neato is brilliant and I love Garden Society, too.
Alexandra: Thank you.
Rich: Those two just totally jumped out at me. So I have a question for you – and maybe you can’t tell us this – but what is the best brand name that you came up with or a company and they just didn’t go for it?
Alexandra: I’ll totally tell you. You know, for every name that we have there was always a runner up. And a lot of the times it was the one that we push but it’s not the one that the client chose. The story that just kills me is Lending Club – who I’m not sure if on the east coast you know of it – but it launched about 10 years ago on Facebook and it’s peer to peer lending. So you could borrow money from someone or someone can lend you money. If you’re borrowing you’re getting a lower interest rate than a bank. If you’re lending you’d make some interest on it.
So they launched on Facebook – and this was back before grownups were on Facebook – its back when Facebook was relatively younger people. So they wanted a hip name that had to work for people borrowing and lending, and that’s hard to do. And I came up with the name Bankroll. They could have bought bankroll.com, it was for sale and they could have purchased it. It worked if you were borrowing money, you were getting a bank roll. If you were lending money you were bank rolling someone. It had so much visual imagery, you can just picture that big, fat wad of cash. It totally passes the Smile and Scratch test.
They would not take the name because they said, “We’re not a bank”. And I said bankroll has nothing to do with a bank and no one in the history of time has ever walked into a bank and uttered the word, “bankroll”. It’s slang. When you’re in a bank and you’re asking to borrow money, you’re not saying, “Can you bankroll me?” So it was such a missed opportunity and that’s the one that got away.
One time somebody asked me to tell them a story about the one that got away or when didn’t the client take your suggestion, and while I was telling that story I was in San Francisco sitting in some financial offices in the ferry building and the Lending Club yacht was sailing by, and it just kills me. It should have been the Bankroll yacht. It’s just this fun, sexy, cool name. Its one word, it’s easy to say, it’s impossible to misspell, impossible to pronounce, and it’s fun and makes people smile. To me Lending Club felt like a rip-off of Lending Tree, and it sounds like a place, it sounds suburban. It didn’t sound like a virtual place, and bankroll is a verb which also makes it a verb and a noun. So that was just a huge disappointment.
Rich: That’s tough. For them, and for you, especially. It works on a lot of levels, it’s very clever, very cute, and I absolutely can see it working. This has been a lot of fun, Alexandra, I really appreciate it. Where – if we want to learn a little bit more about you – can we find you online?
Alexandra: Go to eatmywords.com, or awesomealexandra.com.
Rich: Awesome. Alexandra thank you very much for your time today and sharing some of your expertise.
Alexandra: My pleasure, thank you Rich.
Alexandra Watkins has branding down to a science. Check her out at her website. And if you’re interested in finding out more about how to choose the perfect name (and what to avoid), you’ll definitely want read her book.
Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine. He knows a thing or two about helping businesses grow by reaching their ideal customers, and to continue with that goal, he puts on a yearly conference to inspire small businesses to achieve big success. You can also head on over to Twitter to check him out. He also just added “author” to his resume with his brand new book!
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