Name that Product!

If you’ve ever held a brainstorming session to come up with new product names, you know that it is usually not hard to get people to attend. In fact, such meetings generally start off with a lot of enthusiasm and elation. This quickly fades though as the cold reality sets in. Naming a new product is really difficult.

Naming a product is about as close as you can get to having a root canal without going to the dentist. Even done well with an expert team, it’s an exercise in pain, frustration, and disappointment.

Nevertheless, there are some things you should know about the process.

First of all, get a reality check on how important a product name really is. Some people tend to think that it’s a life and death matter, others rate it as inconsequential, and the truth is probably somewhere in between. Having a great name is a definite asset. Having a poor name is a major liability. But in the area between, there is probably not much difference as to whether a product has a good name or a mediocre name.

Second, you need to have some legal assistance as you do this, ideally with an attorney or paralegal specializing in trademark registration. They will tell you that you cannot trademark descriptive names. For instance, if you ran a chain of motels, you could not trademark the name Motel. By the same token, you can’t call your new drug Cholesterol Pill or your new heart monitor Heart Monitor.

Fanciful names are best. Fanciful is a legal word for “made up.” Pharmaceutical companies do this all of the time as they invent not only drugs but totally new words as product names. Viagra® is a made-up name; so is Aleve® and Tylenol® and Lipitor®. Some of these words sound so normal to our ears it’s hard to believe that they were literally crafted, made up by somebody in marketing.

Legal eagles will tell you that fanciful names work best, mainly because fanciful names are easy to protect. After all, there is not likely to be a rush of people fighting to trademark some word you just concocted.

The drawback for fanciful names is that they sound dreadful at first and if you have some knee-jerk bosses or executives in your company, fanciful names almost always die the first time the boss hears them. Few bosses are good at naming products but most of them are pretty good at throwing out serviceable fanciful names. Keep in mind, all made-up names sound clumsy at first.

The second drawback to the fanciful name is that it takes a lot of marketing muscle to get the name into the customer’s awareness. That means a lot of ads, a lot of promotional materials, a lot of literature. You are literally teaching your customers a new word and most adults resist efforts at educating them.

Sometimes marketing people will try to invent a word that has associations with other words. For instance, words like gem, jewel, ace, expert, accurate, precise, rapid, quick are all words that carry connotations that you might want to appropriate. Some product names use intriguing but seemingly distant real words to make a powerful name (the Mustang from Ford was that kind of name) or you can dissect various positive words and paste together something that sounds familiar but is, in fact, made up (Microsoft’s name is a combination of terms to form a new word that was instantly familiar-sounding). SlimFast® is not a real word, but it’s recognizable to us in terms of its parts.

When reaching for names with associations, don’t reach too far. Many marketing people are bright individuals and they may ponder a name for hours and come up with an association that they expect a busy customer to make instantly. For instance, if you name your product ChessPlayer because buying your product would be a strategic move for smart “masters” of your industry, don’t count on your customer making the leap. Most customers are busy and don’t want to waste their time trying to get inside your head. The truth is that sound marketing principles would turn that around!

Make lists of lots of viable names. Some brainstorming sessions start off with rules that say no name will be rejected and no suggestion is to be hooted at. While you don’t want to discourage people, there are some names that deserve to be hooted off the list right at the beginning. On the other hand, let any name with any shred of potential stand on the list. From that major list, cull the duds, and arrive at what you and your legal advisor determine is a workable number of names.

The next step in the game is a legal process. Trademark searches have to be conducted. The name you want is probably already taken but that is not necessarily a road block; of legal importance is whether the name is in use in an industry so closely related to yours that confusion among customers is possible. For instance, Mustang® is already taken as a car name but I suspect it could be the name of a catheter if anyone cared to register it. The logic behind this from the perspective of the Trademark Office is that if a customer out car shopping is not likely to get confused by your brand and accidentally purchase a catheter of the same name instead.

Many wonderful names will get bumped out of the running in the initial trademark searches. It is a good idea to treat new names like puppies; don’t get too attached to them at first because you may not be able to keep your favorites.

Even if some names survive the first searches, the legal team will keep tightening things up. Usually a couple of more searches will occur before a name is cleared. At that point, paperwork is filed.

One thing many legal people do not tell you too loudly is that just because you apply for a name and start using it does not mean you own it. Companies who have claims to that name or similar names can come after you. Sometimes two companies will file for names around the same time and then have to duke it out in court. And sometimes the Trademark Office will not let you have the name you applied for even though your lawyers thought you had a solid case. Trademark judges are apparently human and subject to making unpredictable decisions.

What happens if your name becomes part of a tug of war? At that point, the lawyers get involved and will be your best source of advice. But just like any legal dispute, things like this can often be settled amicably out of court.

What about global issues? Trademark protection is a national thing so just getting a name trademarked in the U.S. does not necessarily mean you’ll enjoy trademark protection in other markets. Beyond making sure your legal team registers in the appropriate geographies for your market, you should also consider linguistic and cultural nuances that your new product name carries.

It is always wise to talk to your teams in other geographies to get their input on a new product name. However, it’s rarely possible to hit upon a name that everyone loves. Instead, consider yourself successful if you find a name that no one really hates.