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How to choose better names in tech: Bridge the familiarity gap

Your company needs a name. Or the current name needs to change. Or maybe you’re launching a new product.

Early in the naming process optimism is high. Ideas come easy. We don’t judge, just generate.

But then the time comes. You have to choose.

Here even the bravest adventurers on a branding journey find trouble.

You expect to scan a list of names and— “There it is! The perfect name!” Lightning flashes. Trumpets flare. Laptops shut. Coworkers slow-clap you out of the conference room.

Reality looks more like this:

With all of the choices in front of you, you find yourself overwhelmed. Nothing seems to speak to you in the way you think it should. Nothing connects.

But it doesn’t mean the answer isn’t there.

We ask names to be creative and purposeful and exciting. To stand out from the competition and be ownable in the market. That’s why we pull in outside experts to help.

Except our brains are wired to find the familiar. But the familiar might not be differentiated. 

I call this the familiarity gap. The cognitive distance that too often keeps great names from seeing the light of day. I want to help you overcome the gap so you can give your potentially world-changing names a fighting chance.

I love that fight. I’m a word person. I love giving names to companies and products. Just knowing this name will come to represent the dream of the founders, the passion of employees who give it life every day, and the trust of customers who bet their careers on it.

A name could start with shades of meaning or almost no meaning at all—and over time mean everything.

But naming is not like mining for gold. When you find gold, you know it’s gold. But language is more complicated than that. Words live in our minds. A word that inspires one person repels another. Just because you’re holding a 24kt nugget doesn’t mean everyone sees it with the same eyes.


Why Technology Naming is Tough

Naming is harder than ever. And it requires more care. Especially in our technology space. There are too many open source projects, too many SaaS B2B products, too many existing trademarks, too many taken URLs. Easy names are often taken.

So you’ve got to look deeper. To name anything today, you have to get creative.

The more collaborative the process, the more care required by its facilitators. In a naming process, complexity grows exponentially with the number of participants.  

And no companies are more collaborative than tech companies. Particularly open source companies with collaboration at their core. Where a lot of people participate and the best ideas win, the naming process must be navigated carefully. Otherwise you might end up with something that’s ordinary and not ownable in the market.

Large groups tend to weed out novelty. No large group would have ever named my former company, Red Hat. Yet that name to me, and so many employees and customers, is now so rich with decades of meaning. It’s not just two words. It’s not a color and a piece of apparel. It’s an idea.

Apple. Company or fruit? Same word, wildly different meaning.

Renaming presents an even tougher challenge. Even if everyone hates your old name and agrees it has to go, it still has a familiarity advantage.

After you’ve said and read a name a few thousand times, it has worn a path deep in your mind. It’s damn-near hardwired. I often ask people to call their dog or cat by a different name for a day and see how that feels. Your dog won’t like it either.

This is also why we tell developers to choose project code names carefully. Even temporary names tend to stick. I’ve seen plenty of companies spend lots of time and energy on a renaming initiative only to fall back on a code name just because they’ve grown so used to it. And the code name is rarely easy or cheap to own since it was never really vetted in the first place.


5 Ways to Bridge the Familiarity Gap

1. Know what you’re naming and why

Make sure everyone is on the same page from the start.

We spend a lot of time at the beginning of naming projects helping participants understand the language of naming and preparing them for the journey:

  • What makes a good name?
  • What kind of name are we looking for?
  • How does this name need to fit into other existing names?
  • Why can we not have any name we want?
  • What if another company already has the name we want?
  • Who is TESS and why does she hate us? (TESS: Trademark Electronic Search System. The place where many great name ideas meet premature deaths.)

We also help them recognize their biases.

A new name may not be love at first sight. Don’t ask it to.

Or during the process they may fall in love with a name so much that when the legal trademark search tells them they can’t have it—their heart breaks. Optimism out the window.

They’ll go through all the stages.

Another thing we discuss from the start: When it comes to products, not everything needs a name. Sometimes the best names are ones that aren’t creative (or “arbitrary” or “fanciful” in the language of naming), but serve under the master or company brand.

All with good reason. Often we simplify product and service names because a cohesive structure helps new customers navigate your offerings. In tech companies, products sprout everywhere. But simplicity sells. And the easiest way to show you have an integrated product suite is with integrated product names.

When you choose your strategy from the start, clarify expectations, and align your search—it saves everyone a lot of time and leads to much better choices at the end.


2. Define your attributes

Attributes are a list of 3-5 words that the name needs to represent. We research thoroughly and lead several collaborative exercises with the internal naming team to help arrive at these attributes.

Attributes are critical because they become our paths for name generation. And later, when we’re judging names we’ve generated, we measure their viability based on those attributes.

Attributes are also critical guideposts as new stakeholders (surprisingly, inevitably, unfortunately) enter the process late. That executive who just decided the project is far enough along that they should start showing up to meetings? Your agreed-upon attributes will help them see the journey that led you here so they don’t steer everything off course.

Attributes help you take the first steps toward building meaning and familiarity into your names, increasing the chances that other stakeholders will make the same mental connections you did.


3. Build up, don’t tear down

Picture a lion hunting zebra on the Savannah. The lion sees a large herd. But the busy pattern of one zebra blends into the next, making it harder to focus and single out one prey.

When we see a large list of name possibilities, we might first feel excited, “Look at all those choices! So many zebras to eat!” We can easily get overwhelmed, scanning across our options, trying to find something that triggers a response of familiarity and existing meaning.

Our human bias kicks in. Names start to blur together. It’s what psychologist Barry Schwartz called “The Paradox of Choice.” Choice overwhelms us. Inevitably we feel less happy with the choice we’ve made.

Our first tendency is to take the easier path: Eliminating what doesn’t work instead. We start crossing off bad names. This leads to a converging, narrowing mindset rather than seeking possibility.

But at least you’re making progress, right? So you keep crossing out and crossing out. Your team joins in like a firing squad. This is fun! By now you’re sharpshooters with eyes trained on the negative, so you don’t feel that good about the names that survive, either.

By the end, you feel less hopeful than you started. Staring at all those cast-aside names that didn’t work. “So many zebras in front of me, and not a single one to eat. I’m going to starve…”

What to do instead:

Take the time to consider names individually. Remember your attributes. Remind yourself that hearing the name for the first time happens only once. Consider the name’s merit and meaning over time.

Yes, some names will obviously not work and need to be culled early. But spend your energy focusing on names that might work rather than ones that won’t.

Because what often happens in a naming process:

You go back to a name from a previous round. “Wait…that name just might work for us. Actually, it’s really good. I can see it. That just might be the answer!”

Why does this happen so often? Maybe because the name is more familiar to you now in a way it wasn’t the first time you saw it. 


4. Show your top contenders in context

Your new name will exist in many forms—not just among a list of potential names on a presentation slide.

Imagine a world before Google. What if you were shown the word “Google” in Helvetica type on a slide. Does it seem like a serious word for one of the world’s largest and most admired companies?

If you were on the “Search Engine Company” naming committee, would you have raised your hand for that name? Compare that to how we see the word now: Writ large in lights and glass of corporate offices, in full color against a white backdrop on sides of Google Fiber vans, printed on swag worn by everyone, everywhere.

Sure, few names will ever have Google’s benefit of market saturation.

All we are saying… is give names a chance.

One way to do that: See your name in multiple contexts. Test your top 3-5 names by displaying them how you’ll see them in the real world:

  • Write it into a press release
  • Mock it up on your homepage
  • Have a designer display the name on a coffee mug, t-shirt, or tote bag
  • If there is swag specific to your company, show that

I can’t tell you how many times we’ve heard, “I didn’t really see this as a contender until I saw it on the shirt.”

If Google can become Google with a name like Google—try to keep an open mind.


5. Commit

Here it is. The moment of truth.

You have a list of 3-5 potential winners. Now you need to choose. Sometimes the legal trademark search helps make the choice for you. But otherwise the choice is in your hands.

How do you make it?

Commit! Pick one and pretend the choice has been made. Try it for a week. Have everyone on your team use it in meetings. Type it into emails. That’s your new name.

In one recent project we suggested a client book that night’s team retreat dinner reservation under their new name. “NewCompanyName party of 10? Right this way.”

It will feel strange at first. Which is literally the whole point of this post.

But at least you’ll be able to better judge the name on its long-term merit rather than short-term unfamiliarity.

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