Pragmatic Naming: Full Product Name Development

[Ed: This article was specifically written for new or inexperienced product managers. Many may have pragmatic marketing experience but not realize this is part of their job responsibility – hence this comprehensive first overview look at what is important and practical for them to undertake.]

While teaching marketing and product management for UC Extension in Silicon Valley, I always used to discuss with my students how ironic it was that product managers were responsible for everything but usually had little or no authority. Now this doesn’t mean they have to do everything. Simply they have to ensure all tasks are completed. It is obvious who to go to for the majority of items:  engineering for the product design; manufacturing for the bill of materials and production; shipping for distribution logistics; accounting for financial matters; tech pubs for the manual and so on. However, who is responsible for the packaging design and content?

In a larger consumer company there will be a whole team or department for this, including designers and researchers. In a high tech company, even some of the bigger ones, it tends to fall somewhere between product management and marcom and your graphics design agency. If you are selling off the shelf in retail or big box distribution, then this team is efficient and  experienced. They will work off standards for look and feel and corporate image. For example, it is still a big factor (but shrinking rapidly) for video games. However, for software, most of the “packages” are primarily electronic today. Similarly for the associated marketing materials.

But before most of these can be developed, one key item every finished product needs is a name. Not an internal code name or product number – rather a unique name that becomes the common, complete, worldwide shorthand for the product or service offering. The name by itself is not the brand. It is the handle for all that the brand promise and experience offers, as well as the implied values, features, positioning and differentiators.

Unless you are very lucky there is probably no single department or person in your organization responsible for naming even though there are starting to be corporate brand managers that may have tools and resources (and rules!) to assist you in finding and developing a name. It therefore behooves most product managers to understand the basics of naming, to develop some creative resources and contacts, and to understand the basic legal and intellectual property issues surrounding names. Implied in this last phrase is the fact that you might want to befriend the right people in your legal group, if you have such an in-house team.

There are three key components to successfully naming a product. This is where we mean anything that can be productized, including hardware, software, services, people or I/P:

  1. Creative side of finding a name
  2. Legal checking and approval
  3. Implementation and usage

Consumer oriented companies might even add a market research step to the above three, but in most cases it is of little or no value in technology and scientific fields. In fact, it may even be detrimental as names often drop to the lowest common denominator in market research, especially for names for new products that no one yet really knows.

Are you starting to realize naming can be a very serious business? So before we proceed let us do one sanity check first by asking: “Do you really need a new name for this product?” Realize that just because lots of engineers worked on the project, because there are numerous new features and usages, and one or more internal code names for it, does not necessarily call for a new name. Names have to be looked at from a customer’s point of view – and you know the product manager is the customers’ advocate.

Will customers see this as merely a new version? Or is it really something new and different? Are you changing the name to disguise a price raise? Are you changing the name to create a different version so both consumer and pro versions can co-exist? These are the kinds of questions to ponder, because your customers will probably see through all these ruses very quickly. And finding, protecting and promoting a new name takes an awful amount of concentration and effort, so should not be undertaken lightly.

Remember the old branding adage:  ” if it ain’t broken don’t fix it”. If you clearly have the rights to a good name, and many people identify with it, even if they are engineers in a niche technical market, then you may want to refresh the logo or messaging or look and feel. Perhaps even add a modifier or version number to the name, but try to run with your existing name and brand equity whenever you can.

There is one other case when you may not want to jump into creating a new product or product family name, and that is if you are a young startup company and your own company name is barely known outside of your own small employee and investor’s realm. As a result, it is fairly common for new startups that the company and the product name are the same. Or the product name is some generic word after the unique company name.

Although not always the case, most company names are unique nowadays, and usually some real effort has been put into finding and protecting that name. When they started, even Adobe’s first product was simply called Adobe Fonts. It was used to a large extent to help position the name Adobe as standing for fine graphics software tools, and not just a word for ugly mud huts (or a creek in Silicon Valley, depending on your view point).

Do note however, the product was called Adobe Fonts.  It was not called Fonts. Words like fonts are generic. Anyone can use them. No one can own them or trademark them. In a trademark filing nowadays for a name like Adobe Fonts you would even have to put a disclosure that you are only claiming the combination of words and make no claims on the word Fonts by itself. This is one reason Microsoft has never been able to claim a registered trademark on Windows (by itself) despite many legal attempts. However, they can have Windows95 or WindowsNT, etc.

1- Creative Side of Naming

Once you have decided to go ahead with a new naming exercise, the first two things you are probably going to need are (a) some creative help and (b) time. Those of you who are parents know how many days it took to come up with a name for your children. If you are the analytical researcher type (like many a high tech person) you probably even looked up books at the library and meanings online and in dictionaries. You had nine months to do so. And duplicates were allowed!

For product names, however, you need a name that is unique, applicable and defensible. You need it in a finite time frame so that the rest of the productization and  marketing can stay on track. Realize from the outset that everyone has an opinion on naming even though few are linguists and brand experts, very few stop to think about the legal issues, and personal likes and dislikes are all valid – but are also all over the map.

You definitely need a process, just like at other times you needed a project plan or a roadmap. You can then use this process to structure the creative process and to keep everything organized and moving. I wish I could say moving forward here, but so often (as in a few other creative fields), you may have to circle around a few times before moving on. Suffice to say the big, big trick to naming is to process lots and lots of names. Then to track and process every name mentioned by anyone involved in the naming process.

I recommend a spreadsheet program for tracking names, as you will see why later. I know many others use PowerPoint as they expect many presentations to teams and managers, but if you do it right, management are involved and may only need a final presentation – because they have had their input and votes (even if through a representative) included in the weeding down process. Others use a word processor. Yes names are words… well sort of sometimes. But they are not sentences. You need to be able to sort, search and rank them quickly.

Do whatever you have to do to form a long list of names to start the process. We define long as 500+ and it often runs to more, sometimes much more. Yes, you will need help. Running a competition sometimes works. Involve family and friends, all employees, even vendors and customers. If you do run a competition, a physical prize (like a new iPad or new color TV) will work much better than the equivalent in dollars. (Human nature is at work here).

People closest to the product development are often not the best source of names simply because they are too close to it – so they tend to describe the product. Also, they tend to use the same vocabulary as everyone else in their niche field, and there are only so many words in the English language – and your competitors are using them too. So look to any department for help. Who knows, there might be a good language person or scrabble player on the factory floor. Do remind everyone over and over: We are trying to name the product, not describe it.

When Anderson Consulting Corp. split up, and the one big group had to find a new name, it is said that up to 5000 names total were in play between all their employees and the big branding agency involved. Some Scandinavian employee actually came up with the name Accenture. A unique, great new name that was legally clear worldwide (as it was a completely new word) and which  coincidentally starts with ACC, an old abbreviation for Anderson Consulting Corp.

Similarly, apparently Intel had 2000 or more names from their internal competition to name their new chip family after they lost the legal battles around the numbers 386, 486 etc. They had promised a round trip for two to Hawaii as the prize. Then they also called in two big naming agencies, one of whom came up with the name Pentium. To their credit, they still awarded the prize to the employee who came up with the closest name.

Hopefully your project is neither as big nor as stressful. When you have a long list, pick your top 80 or more to take to the first naming meeting where your team of assistants will select their favorites. Do not expect one magic name to jump off the page. It seldom happens. If one name is a clear obvious winner on first pass, then that means everyone relates to it, which probably implies they know it from before or somewhere else, which probably means it is taken. So you want to be continually working with a shrinking list, but do not shrink it too quickly. People need to see variations and other names. In fact, one of the only sure way to evaluate names is to compare them with other possible candidates.

2 -Legal Checking and Approval

At the same time, something else very important has to be going on – you have to be doing provisional name availability checks. This is where you have to learn about some trademark basics. Your lawyers will give the final OK, but you don’t want to be bounced out of their  office over and over again when they just do a quick check and see the name is taken.

Total in-depth worldwide checks can be very complicated, but none of that matters if you fail the first few checks.  One check you all know: check the domain name with common .com .net .org suffixes using any domain registry or WhoIs service. For a product name, you usually don’t need the domain name yourself, but it is a quick check that no one else is using it for a similar offering, or something bad or pornographic say, just in case one of your customers goes there.

Names are measured on many values

The real protection of a name is via a US Federal Trademark (or similar in other countries or the EU). Anyone can login to the, the US Patent and Trademark office and do an electronic trademark search (TESS). If you rush in  and check your name and it finds nothing, great – at least as a first step. More likely you will be in shock. How could such a cool name for this new line already be taken? Then you start to wade through the hits and see the name is not used for the same goods or services as yours, but how do you make the call?

One of the basics you missed in your haste is that trademarks are filed by International Class. So go back and look them up on the USPTO Site and determine under which class your product falls. There are only 34 classes for goods and 11 for services. These classifications were developed long before computers or other modern devices. So all hardware, software, electronic and optical goods fall into Category 9. Ouch. In the US, Category 9 is so big it is bigger than most other countries total trademark databases. If your product is really an instrument or piece of equipment, then you will rather be in Category 11 (or 10 if for medical usage) though all categories are pretty busy nowadays.

Despite this crowding, duplicate names within a classification are allowed, as long as they are not “confusingly similar”. If someone has a networking device protected in Class 9, you cannot use that same name for another networking device (and usually not for networking software either), regardless of feature sets or even patents. But if they have a networking device and you make flight simulator software, then you are not confusingly similar and may be able to co-exist. This can become very complicated, but for now, try to stay away from names that are the same (in whole or in part) in your classification.

One last example, if you make CAD software say, and someone already has your  favorite name for shoes say (Class 25) then it may be amusing or interesting, but it probably is not relevant since it is hard to confuse shoes and software. Often you have to watch two or more categories that are closely related.

Back to your naming process: Take all the names forward that people voted for, especially those that had multiple votes. I am assuming you did these basic checks above before you even showed the list to anyone. Before the next naming meeting, please do what is known as a basic common law check. Just because a name is not a registered trademark, does not mean it is available. Anyone can use a name at any time, with or without a TM  next to it (the proper designation until it is registered). It is a self policing system so if no one complains, they start to have rights in the mark in trade.

For most technology products, you will find some reference somewhere on the internet to these products and names. This used to be called an industry literature search. So switch on Bing, Yahoo or Google and look at all the results. Hopefully you are not working with some common name that any intelligent person can tell you was probably taken years ago. Google hates to return little or nothing, so it often returns garbage – at least from you relevancy point of view. But like on trademarks, you find that cool name you made up is the name of a lake in Slovakia say. Interesting, amusing maybe, but not relevant. However, if it is a rude word in Spanish or French.. watch out!

You really need to check far and wide. Do not cover up discoveries – even though we know some names are starting to get real traction. A big amateur mistake here is to say, oh we have never heard of them. They can’t be big or important like us. Let’s ignore them. Microsoft ignored (or missed) a small software company with a web browser out of Illinois. Later they paid over $6 million to continue to use the name Internet Explorer for their own product. Apple had the name iPod from a previous device they planned, but had to license the iPhone and iOS name from Cisco.

Repeat this process until you have a list of 10 or less to run by upper management so they are not surprised later. Then take the top 3 favorites to legal for their blessing. From those that get the final approval,  you can then easily pick a winner. Having more than one finalist also helps you weather last minute surprises. For example, on a very big multi company naming project I once ran, Symbian became the name for the embedded OS in a lot of cell phones after the first name choice had last minute issues in Japan.

3- Implementation and Usage

Now you can return to your packaging design, marcom materials and product rollout. You have a name to use. Of course some people won’t like the name, others may make jokes about it, others will be asking still what happened to the project name. Ignore them. Get on with your job. To properly grow and protect a name, as well as to start to build the product brand, you have to use the name. Many people are visually motivated. You will see this type embrace the name more when they see it in print, in color, on tradeshow banners, etc. Others are aural and may have to hear it often until they embrace it. Regardless, ninety days later everyone will love the name, especially if your product launch is successful and it starts to sell well.

Wherever you use the name, use it with a small TM next to it, and in the small print somewhere on the box, and early in the literature or website and manuals, emphasize the point that NewName™ is a Trademark of YourCompany. When you have sample artwork of the product or service in usage, have your lawyer file for a registered trademark. This will take about a year, and when the PTO agents check, they too should find only you using that name for that class of goods, and doing so properly.

Note that in case of any disputes, it is all about dates of first usage or first to file, not first to be granted a registered trademark. Once they do send your registration certificate, celebrate, then change your materials to say NewName® is a Registered Trademark of YourCompany. Then and only then can you use the valuable ® symbol. Note it does not automatically give you worldwide rights in the name, but it will give you priority approval in most other western countries.

See elsewhere on this web page, articles on name styles, creative ways of freeing up name space, and developing naming architectures, but none of this matters for now if you don’t have a name so that the product can ship.


Disclaimer: This article is meant as basic information and guidance only and we are not licensed to provide legal advice. Please consult your own lawyer on all legal matters.


<– Return to Naming and Branding Articles

All articles copyright Brighter Naming. You are welcome to link to these articles, but not to copy them in any manner whatsoever.