Crafting a unique & popular brand name? Semiotic & creative ways to design one easily.
We’re running out of brand names.
If you’ve tried to register a brand name in the past few years, you’ve probably been frustrated and disappointed. We’re running out of brand names. It’s a lottery to get a first, second, or third choice between trademarks and registrations. Businesses have responded to this hurdle with an energetic neologistic response. Though some of these names are innovative, many are increasingly nonsensical. What should you keep in mind when creating a new brand name?
This post shares some of our experience creating brand names. There are three parts to this:
1. Consider your brand’s name from a semiotic perspective.
2. In creating your brand name, there are some guardrails to keep in mind.
3. 10 ways to generate original brand names.
Brand Names: What do they mean?
Branding has historically been a more literal process. In Roman times, successful Generals were branded with their achievements: Scipio Africanus (conquered Africa), Augustus Caesar (Divine Caesar), Sulla Felix (Lucky Sulla). Those of British descent were branded with surnames based on their occupations: Smith, Weaver, Fletcher, Tailor, Fisher to Kellogg (kill a hog). In today’s market, tradesmen are still branded this way, as shown in the Simpsons episode Mr. Plow. Recently, I’ve seen Mr Mowing, Mr Screw, and Mr Pools.
Branding is affected by this in some significant ways. Names such as Mr Plow denote direct trade. The names of some of the biggest brands, such as Qantas (Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services), Corel (Cowpland Research Laboratory), and Adidas (“Adi Dassler from the founder”) are all nonsensical words. Without branding and marketing, they are meaningless. Positively, they allow marketers and brand builders to build layers of meaningful connotations from a blank canvas.
Furthermore, names can also work in reverse and have been shown to define us, subconsciously. Based on the meaning or connotations of a person’s name, nominative determinism suggests that a person’s name can influence his or her life or career path. It is easy to come up with many examples when you think about it, and many of them can be found online: Dr Welfare who works for Public Health England, Dr Graves who is an archaeologist, etc. Crowned by the commonly cited paper as a reflection of this phenomenon from the British Journal of Urology, “The Urethral Syndrome” by A.J. Splatt and D. Weedon.
A successful brand name choice will define you in the minds of your target market, but it may also define you, subconsciously, the more you use it.
Brand Names from a Semiotic Perspective
Brand names can also be understood as signs. The sign theory of Charles Pierce holds that all human communication involves signs, and that signs can be classified into three main categories or “modes of being”. Through your brand name, you can creatively communicate what part of your brand you want to convey:
- Symbolic – rely on convention or cultural association to convey meaning, rather than a direct relationship or resemblance to what they represent.
- Iconic – are those that resemble what they represent, such as a photograph of a tree being an iconic sign of a tree.
- Indexical – signs are those that have a direct causal or spatial relationship with what they represent, such as smoke being an indexical sign of fire.
A semiotic example of an iconic brand name would be the Xerox brand name. In Greek, Xerox means “dry writing.” Xero means “dry,” and graphy means “write.” This photocopying technology uses dry, granular ink instead of messy liquid ink.
“Pampers” – a brand of disposable diapers – is an example of an indexical brand name. The name Pampers is indexical as it directly indicates the function of the product, which is to keep babies dry and comfortable by “pampering” them. The brand name functions as an indexical sign because it has a direct relationship or connection with the product it represents.
Symbolic brand names convey meaning through cultural associations or conventions, rather than directly referring to the product or service they represent. Nike is a symbolic brand name that does not directly refer to athletic shoes, but rather conveys cultural associations related to victory, speed, and athleticism.
In summary, while indexical and iconic signs rely on a direct relationship or resemblance to what they represent, symbolic signs rely on cultural conventions or associations to convey meaning, and a brand name can be symbolic in this sense.
Here are a few guard rails to keep in mind when developing your own brand.
a) Don’t make it hard to say
When a brand is challenging to say, people feel stupid. A brand like Ikea might accept that most English speakers pronounce I-kea, rather than its correct pronunciation, ee-kay-uh. Sometimes there are benefits to having to learn a brand name. Quinoa started off as Quin-Oa to many English speakers, and now is more commonly known as Keen-waa. This knowledge has even become a social marker of wellbeing status. There are a whole range of foreign names that fit into this category of insider knowledge.
There are times when the name is such a barrier that it inhibits engagement. For example, the beer Nastro Azzuro was first launched in Australia with that as its main name, with the brewer, Peroni, on the bottle neck. It was too difficult to say or remember, so engagement suffered despite other imported beers’ popularity. As a result, it was rebranded in reverse so that the prominent name was Peroni, which immediately increased its popularity.
b) You may want to check its meaning in other cultures and languages.
It is possible for words to have distinct meanings in different cultural contexts. It is imperative that global brands understand this when naming their products. In Spanish, Mitsubishi Pajero means ‘wanker’; Sega has a similar meaning in Italian; and Apple’s Siri means ‘bottom or ass’ in Japanese.
c) Names that feel generic should be avoided.
A challenge is when a category has too many names that feel indistinguishable, collectively. It can be seen in categories like fabric softeners: Fluffy, Cuddly, Huggie, Comfort, Soften, Downy, Soft. Collectively, they convey the same meaning, and consumers find it difficult to distinguish between them in a meaningful way. These waters are further muddied by private label brands that deliberately mimic leading brand names.
d) Play with category naming conventions.
There are times when categories have a shared identity in how they name themselves. Through these shared conventions, categories train consumers and customers to think of brands as authentic.
Many tradesman companies use conventions like ‘Mr’ Sparky, ‘King of’ Pools or ‘Hire a Hubby’. It is also common for hairdressers to play with names in the same way: Cutting Edge, Upper Cuts or Dye Hard. Many Thai restaurants use humour as well, such as Thai Riffic, Thai One On, Thai Foon, and Thaitanic.
e) Meaning constantly changes in culture, so be aware of this moving forward.
The meaning of a brand name evolves or changes with what is going on in the world, which is completely beyond the control of the brand. We’ve more than forgotten the earlier SARS coronavirus from 2004 (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome). It caused confusion in Australia because several leading brands of Sarsaparilla soft drinks were called SARS, which confused the public and they had to respond to.
A leading Australian cheese brand was Coon cheese. The cheese was named after an American cheese maker who patented a ripening process in the 1920s. Coon was rebranded as Cheer in 2021 after an anti-racism campaign because the name had been associated with racist slurs.
f) The final step is to check if it is available.
This is the most important piece of advice on this page. Sometimes the joy of coming up with a new name can override the common sense of checking nationally, and globally, to see if the name is already registered or trademarked. Furthermore, what are the domain realities?
Here are 10 ways to come up with a new brand name when everything else is taken.
- Combining existing words: One of the most common ways of creating a new name is by combining two or more existing words. For example, “brunch” is a combination of “breakfast” and “lunch.” Groupon is a conflation of group and coupon.
2. Shortening existing words: Another way to create a new name is by shortening an existing word. For example, “phone” is a shortened form of “telephone.” This can be done to an existing brand, with Logitech becoming Logi. Alternatively, a combination of two shortened words are used to form a brand name, e.g. FedEx as in Federal Express.
3. Using acronyms or initialisms: A third way to create a new name is by using acronyms or initialisms. For example, “NASA” is an acronym for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or SCUBA is Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus. ASOS, the online fashion brand, stands for ‘As Seen On Screen’.
4. Backronyms: This is a type of acronym that is created after the fact, to fit a word or phrase, such as “SPAM” (which stands for “Spiced Ham”).
5. Borrowing words from other languages: A fifth way to create a new name is by borrowing a word or phrase from another language. For example, Sony, as a brand name, was created by combining the Latin word “sonus” meaning sound, and “sonny”, a slang word used by Americans to refer to a bright youngster.
6. Inventing new words: A sixth way to create a new name is by inventing a completely new word or phrase. This can be done by combining sounds or letters in a novel way, or by creating a word that expresses a new concept or idea. For example, Accenture ‘Accent into the future’ was created by an employee to replace Andersen Consulting.
7. Repurposing existing words: A seventh way to create a new name is by repurposing an existing word to have a new meaning. For example, the word “tweet” was originally a noun meaning the sound a bird makes, but has since been repurposed as a verb meaning to post a message on Twitter.
8. Borrow from history, mythology, or legends: Brand names like Nike, Hermes, Ajax, Venus, and Pandora are all borrowed from Greco-Roman mythology. Bluetooth was named after the Viking King ,Harald, and Mazda, the Japanese automobile manufacturer, name is derived from Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian god of wisdom, intelligence, and harmony. Starbucks was named after Starbuck, a character in Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick. Samsonite bags were named after the biblical strongman, Sampson. Founder names in brand history are also a source of many brand names: Nestle, Gillette, Ford, Bose, Dr Martins, etc.
9. Explore phonetic words – playing with the sound of words to create a new word. Kodak was created by George Eastman as a name because he was playing with his favourite letter, K.
10. Play with letters and spelling – truncating words, deliberately misspelling, or jumbling letters. Glaxo, a dried milk company, wanted lacto but it was too similar to another company, so they played their way to Glaxo. Suunto was derived from the Finnish word, suunta, meaning “direction” or “path”, or in navigation, “bearing” or “heading”. Flickr, Fiverr and Tumblr are examples of deliberate misspellings.
As you can see, these ten methods can be used individually or combined in order to come up with names that convey original concepts or ideas in creative ways.
There will only be more competition for new brand names in the future. We’re moving away from the history of branding which was more literal to creating words that have no immediate semantic value.
In closing four pieces of advice in moving forward:
- Consider what part of your brand’s meaning you want to introduce to your target audience first.
- Be aware of the competitive context, your category, and other cultural associations. Brand names are defined by their context.
- Create a name you are passionate about, don’t settle for anything less.
- Get feedback from colleagues and your target market about the name.