Daniel Burstein

Naming and Branding: How marketing pros chose names for their own companies

September 22nd, 2011

Photo credit: NatalieMaynor

I’m horrible at naming. As a writer, this is one of my least favorite projects.

First, you have to create a string of words/syllables that have never existed before. Then, you have to make sure that, well, it truly never existed before and you can legally get the name (and, as the Barenaked Ladies so wisely sang, “It’s all been done.”) Lastly, you want to secure that Park Avenue address of the Internet – a “.com” address.


And unlike the perfect headline that just sounds like music to my ears (even years later), by the end of the entire process, I find myself saying random syllables over and over so much that they all just start to sound kind of weird.

Yet, a good name can make be a huge ally to all of your future marketing endeavors. I’ve always loved ICQ, an early instant messaging client, because it gave you a real sense for what the product did. HotelTonight is another great one, and the subject of David Kirkpatrick’s product launch article in today’s MarketingSherpa consumer marketing newsletter. Get a hotel … tonight.

But if you’re engaged in your own product launches, you flat out need a good name. So I asked a few marketing pros for the origin stories behind their own names, and what lessons they learned in the process to help you the next time you have to, gulp, name that product or company …

Netted by the Webbys

In 2010, we launched “Netted by the Webbys”, a daily email from The Webby Awards that brings the best sites, apps and all things online, that makes life better for your inbox each morning. The most interesting challenge we faced with naming Netted was how best to integrate and leverage the value of the Webby Awards brand into the new offering without causing any confusion or in any way detracting from the current Webby Awards. We had three main concerns:

  1. People would think that sites we covered in our publication were Webby Award winners. (Winning a Webby conveys a higher achievement and would be much harder than receiving coverage in our newsletter).
  2. We didn’t want people to think The Webby Awards only honored the type of work we covered in Netted. Netted’s editorial mission would be more narrow than the breadth of what the Webby Awards honors.
  3. The Webby Awards honors the best of the Internet annually and the brand stands for that longer view of what’s excellent, judged by the best, etc. We were concerned that associating it with a daily publication would muddle that message.

So, for these reasons and more, we were very mixed on how to use it. Should we call this new publication “Webby Tips” or “Webby Likes?” (i.e. use the word “Webby” directly in the name, or should we not use the word Webby at all?) Everyone on the team had a different opinion and as we discussed it further many of us changed our minds.

Ultimately, we decided to explore both options, and I think that was really key. It moved the conversation from theory to reality and what we found was that there were names we liked in both camps that eliminated these concerns. And if you look at the name we chose – “Netted by the Webbys” – you can see that we probably would never have discovered it without this flexible approach.

Now 18 months into Netted, we couldn’t be happier with the name. At launch, having Webby in the name really helped. The product instantly felt more familiar to potential subscribers, gave the editorial added authority, and helped when pitching for press and coverage. And in the year since, we’ve been able to build up Netted as its own identifiable brand that stands for “better living through the Internet.”

Three other things I learned from naming Netted:

  1. Own the exact Web address for the name. I think this is critical. Otherwise, you will be forced to choose a URL that has the name you chose and some other descriptive word, or worse yet, words attached to it. This is probably one of the most important lessons I’ve learned. For anything dealing with the Internet especially, the URL is marketed as much as the name.
  2. Some names get better with time. When we first saw the word “Netted,” it didn’t immediately jump out at us. But after a few days, it really stood out and everyone on the project was talking about it.
  3. Work with an agency and people you trust on the naming assignment. I took our branding/design assignment to Nicolas Roope and Iain Tait at Poke London (Iain’s now at Wieden + Kennedy) because I knew that when I asked them to make something both beautiful and Internet-y with a great name, they’d understand what that meant for our organization. This sounds a bit simplistic, but if you don’t trust the taste and expertise of the people you are working with, inventing new things can be a lot harder.

But still the biggest lesson I learned was how important it was to focus discussion on actual names rather than on the potential problems some kind of names can have. Some words have unexpected qualities that make the theoretical problems go away.

– David-Michel Davies, Executive Director, The Webby Awards & the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences and Chairman & Co-Founder Internet Week New York


As a brand marketer the naming of the company was incredibly important to me. My last job was at Leo Burnett, where the name of the product (Green Giant) could become the whole idea of the brand. I also knew that, unlike the agency world that loves to putting the partners’ names on the door, I wanted to build a brand that was bigger than one individual.

When I first started the company I toyed with several names. On the business plan we were “Harvest” because I liked the natural sound of it. But it didn’t seem to say anything about what we did.

When I incorporated I still wasn’t happy with any of the names I had so I just picked one, “The Brand New Group,” as a stopgap LLC name – at least described our vision to find a completely new way to do research.

As soon as we got our first clients (Sony and Clorox – same week!), I hired my friends at Flow Creative to help me build an identity for the company, including the name.

We generated hundreds of names but kept circling back to two ideas:

  1. We were on a journey of discovery looking to better understand the human mind and buyer behavior.
  2. We had a unique approach based on dissecting human motivations.

I remember the moment we finally came up with the name one afternoon. We were down in the Chicago offices of McKinsey. My friend, Mark Mitten, (who left McKinsey and went on to produce “The Apprentice”) had let us borrow his office for brainstorming.  Peter Zapf, the principle of Flow Creative, and I were throwing about names and after hours of frustration, one of us said “Motive” and the other said “Quest.”

The name seemed right. A quest to find what motivates people to buy. The company was born and later Peter (who used to be a copywriter at DDB on the Budweiser account) added the brilliant tagline “Fearlessly seeking the reasons why.”

– David Rabjohns, CEO of MotiveQuest

Merit Mile

What’s in a name? Everything.

Some companies arrive at their brand name casually and some put real time, energy and strategic thinking into it. Having embarked on several brand, product and business naming subjects throughout our professional history, when we founded Merit Mile, it was important for us to embrace our own best practices (read: Dogs eating the dog food).

We can write chapter and verse on this subject, but let’s distill it down to three key points:

  1. Make sure you name is legally obtainable by checking with your state’s division of corporations.
  2. Imply a key customer benefit in your name. By example, “Al’s 24/7 Plumbing Corp.” is not the most creative or glamorous brand name, but as a potential customer, you get the sense that Al and his team are in fact available around the clock.
  3. Make sure you can secure the dot com. Not the dot net, not the dot info, not the dot us… the dot com. Why? Because it’s still the most highly recognizable, and more importantly, it’s the most highly recallable.

If possible, open the naming review process to a select few stakeholders. Perhaps a key employee and a prospective customer. Without evolving the process into an unmanageable focus group, these key stakeholders should provide you with tangible and honest feedback. By example, when we named our firm, we really wanted to emphasize long-term commitment and differentiate ourselves from the many partially devoted and untrustworthy marketing, advertising and Web development firms in the industry.

Similarly, we put a few names into an email and blind copied several people seeking feedback (even some competitors!). As such, we arrived at Merit Mile after brainstorming about two dozen names that all fit our criteria. And as one client told us, “I love the name Merit Mile; it’s aspirational and gives me a sense of professional confidence before even getting to know you guys. ”

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

– Mark Reino, CEO, Merit Mile Communications


In choosing a name for our promotional products company, we kicked around quite a few ideas, but FarFromBoring really resonated with our founders. Each of us wanted a name that defines who we are, what we have to offer and how we differ from the competition. FarFromBoring seems to sum it up best.

We did our due diligence, assembling a focus group of twenty people, of varying demographics, and posed a number of questions about FarFromBoring and a number of other potential names that we sincerely liked. FarFromBoring seemed to generate the most excitement and promise the most “call to action.” So, it was settled.

Naming a business is not easy, but it’s important to have vision.  eBay, Google, Yahoo! – these names meant nothing.  But the founders of these companies had vision and never wavered on how the brand was to be represented and what the name means to them.

In selecting a name, the principals of a company should imagine that all of their dreams for a successful endeavor come true, and that being the case, what name would they be proud to hear announced at an industry meeting as they take home the prize for “Best Agency,” “Best Dry Cleaner,” “Best Restaurant” or whatever.

– Robert Stillman, President, FarFromBoring

Related Resources:

Domain/Product Name Testing: Our testing demonstrated that choosing product, service, or domain names based on what you “like” can cost you dearly

Website Optimization: Testing program leads to 638% increase in new accounts

Netted by the Webbys

11 True Stories Behind Tech’s Top Names

Daniel Burstein

About Daniel Burstein

Daniel Burstein, Senior Director of Editorial Content, MECLABS. Daniel oversees all content and marketing coming from the MarketingExperiments and MarketingSherpa brands while helping to shape the editorial direction for MECLABS – digging for actionable information while serving as an advocate for the audience. Daniel is also a speaker and moderator at live events and on webinars. Previously, he was the main writer powering MarketingExperiments publishing engine – from Web clinics to Research Journals to the blog. Prior to joining the team, Daniel was Vice President of MindPulse Communications – a boutique communications consultancy specializing in IT clients such as IBM, VMware, and BEA Systems. Daniel has 18 years of experience in copywriting, editing, internal communications, sales enablement and field marketing communications.

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  1. September 22nd, 2011 at 12:50 | #1

    Love it, Daniel. I love business names that actually tell you what they do. The founder of the company I work for (CoupSmart) hunted for a long time to find the perfect name (ie, one that also has the .com available – I couldn’t agree more with the .com domain need) that actually hinted at what we do.

    I had the same hunt of my own when doing my freelance illustration site. My fiance was the one to come up with the name (Brain To Page) just by talking with her about what I want to do with it (get people’s ideas out of their head and onto the page).

    The worst thing is when you have the most PERFECT name for your company, and the .com is taken. Like for my apple picking business. Do you know who owns “apple.com”? 😉

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