Chevy Nova logo
PHOTO: Shutterstock

Words matter. Especially when customers are considering whether to buy your product.

There are cautionary tales like the Chevrolet Nova that, according to urban legend, unfortunately translated to “no go” for Spanish-speaking markets. And there are names destined for greatness, like the GoPro Hero that inspired epic uses of this action-oriented camera line.

Here’s a look at what makes a great name, including some successful examples and at least one #fail.  

What’s in a Name?

A lot's at stake with brand and product names. As FastCompany’s article on Best and Worst Brand Names tells us:

“When naming is done well — be it for a business, a brand, a product, or anything — it paves the way for a good impression, enticing the listener or reader to come in closer. But when naming goes wrong, it can become the hook upon which the world hangs its grievances.”

So, naming is important. But is naming an art form or a science?

One school of thought says call the product what it is and another that emphasizes catchy names. There are examples all along the continuum.

The joke that circulated among marketers back in the day was if AT&T owned KFC they would literally call it hot dead chicken. Leading IT consulting firm Gartner mixed the literal with the fanciful, calling its market research reports Magic Quadrants. And look no further than the big Pharma companies to find drug names that sound like Star Trek planets: Brilinta, Paxil and Dimorus. (Okay Dimorus is a Star Trek planet, one inhabited by poisonous dart-shooting rodents, but that just proves my point.)

Some names are a result of extensive research and others just happen.

Looking for a new company brand name? Well, a brainstorm session at Stanford University came up with "googolplex," one of the largest describable numbers, that one of the students then accidently misspelled to Google and that’s what company founder Larry Page registered as his brand.

Though these examples don’t necessarily indicate it, there is a science behind naming products.

Related Article: 5 Rebranding Lessons From a CMO Who's Been There

The Weird Science of Brand Names

Nick Kolenda based his guide to constructing a good brand name on academic research in  linguistics. As he puts it, “Turns out, there is a science behind it. Certain names sound right for specific reasons.”

Kolenda points out that fit with the product or business is critical, but memorable brand names can be somewhat incongruent. Why? Well, incongruent names “capture attention because they trigger curiosity. Oftentimes, that curiosity produces a pleasant sensation in our brain (which we misattribute to the product).” The thing is extremes don’t work. With fully congruent names, we have no puzzle to solve and with fully incongruent names, we cannot solve the puzzle.

And meaningful names are more important to achieve than strict relevancy. “For example, if you want to convey these characteristics: Delicate, Beautiful, Innocent, and Pure, no descriptive name could convey that much information (and still sound appealing). However, a 'deviant' name could convey all of that information in four letters: Dove.”

Whether a deviant or descriptive name, sound matters too. For example, in a study with ice cream, people preferred a rounded name (Frosh) to an angular name (Frish) because the rounded name conveyed smooth and creamy ice cream.

When you get it right, your brand or product name can be one of the “most valuable assets a company possesses” according to the Nielsen Global New Product Innovation Survey, because the best brand names are not only memorable but powerful in setting customer expectations.

Related Article: Bill Sweetman Explains What's in a Domain (Name)

Two Hits, a #Fail and a #Win?

The brand name Tesla was chosen by cofounder Martin Eberhard to honor the inventor of the AC electric motor used in its cars. Though not the first company to produce electric cars, the strength of the name is evidenced by the fact it has now become synonymous with the technology. While that doesn’t happen often, when it does, it signals extremely strong customer engagement like Kleenex and Band-Aids in the consumer world or more recently Google's path to becoming synonymous with search. 

Elon Musk’s latest venture, The Boring Company, is a clever double entendre that engages the listener. Humor works here in a self-deprecating way since the company’s ambition is to dig (aka bore) tunnel systems. At the same time, they’ve chosen literal if not boring product names that include Loop Transportation System and Conduit Tunnel.

My final example is about a product name that is both terrible and great, all depending on context.

Included in CNET's five worst named tech products, "GEORGE" was the choice of Chestnut Hill Sound for a tabletop music system because it was their first product, like George Washington was the first president of the United States. Huh?

Yep, GEORGE is just a bad name for this product. 

Yet those of us of a certain age remember George as the perfect name for a revolutionary monthly politics-as-lifestyle magazine from co-founder and editor John F. Kennedy Jr., the son of the thirty-fifth president. When one of JFK Jr.’s prospective publishers wanted to change the magazine’s name, offering alternatives like Crisscross, Kennedy insisted on George — a mildly irreverent nod to the first president.

And as it turned out, Kennedy’s instincts about George were right.

He artfully picked a great brand name for his magazine that covered politics like it was pop culture when that was an unheard-of idea. And, in the 20 years since his death, for better or worse, we have seen the story unfold with politics and pop culture now inextricably intertwined.