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The Three Golden Rules of Naming Something

By - January 06, 2015

10645727_s(image) I love being part of naming something. It’s probably the flat out most fun you can have legally with your clothes on – but for many folks, including entrepreneurs, it’s the source of endless consternation.

It doesn’t have to be. Here’s how I think about coming up with a name for something – a company, a new product, even a project you might be working on.

Rule #1: Don’t Overthink It. A name means nothing till those using it make it mean something.

So be willing to consider non obvious, even crazy names. Google? I mean, really, Google? And….Yahoo?! Alibaba? APPLE?

In other words, don’t overthink the literal meaning of a name too much – a brand is nothing more than a cup you fill with meaning later – a vessel to hold what your brand ultimately becomes. (That cup metaphor, by the way, I stole from somebody famous at some point over the past three decades, and I can’t find the original source. Any help?!)

Rule #2: Narrative. The best names have a story behind them that evokes the purpose and mission of the thing being named. Google was a riff on a mathematical term that was almost unimaginably large (a googol, or 10 with 100 zeroes after it).  Big enough to tell the story of Google, which aimed to swallow and rationalize the entirety of the Internet. We gave my current company the name NewCo because it tells the story of how people are always striving to create new approaches to company creation, to do new things with companies – and often they call those things “NewCos” until they come up with a proper name. Sovrn was given its name because we wanted to evoke the idea of sovereignty on the Internet – our publishers are sovereigns over their particular domain, and our tools help those publishers be in control of their own fate.  And so on…. A name is just a word till it means something, and stories are how we give things meaning.

Rule #3: Find your Entendre. It helps when a name has a clever wink or nod to another meaning, an inside joke that your core community can believe in (and evangelize). Wired had this – it worked as an imperative “Get Wired!” – and it worked as a badge for insiders – “I’m Wired, are you?!”  The Industry Standard had at its core a goal of providing rigorous, high quality journalism to an industry overwhelmed with mainstream hype – so the name evoked old school newspaper naming conventions. Federated Media was so named because it told the story of federating many quality web sites together so as to have the power of one large site (Rule #2), but it also shortened to “FM”, which evoked the album-driven rise of quality rock’n’roll stations of the 1970s – and as founder, I always thought of blogs as the rock’n’roll bands of the Internet.

I could go on and on, but honestly, I think if you run a brainstorming session with these three rules in mind, you’ll find your name pretty quickly. Maybe in a subsequent post I’ll outline how to run these kind of brainstorming sessions. I still do at least half a dozen of these each year for friends and colleagues, and it’s a total hoot. The latest is a new publication called “Tincture.” More on that soon!

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2 thoughts on “The Three Golden Rules of Naming Something

  1. I love being involved in the process of creating brand names. I remember situations when, for the domain names of some websites, we started with a list of 500-800 possible names, just to narrow them down to a couple of hundreds, then some tens of options and in the end choose a winner from only a few.