Naming a Brand

We’ve tapped into an experienced writer to discuss and digest the importance of a brand’s name.


At 5 by 5 Design we believe it’s possible to change the world by posing the right questions, listening to the honest answers, and following the path that emerges from the dialogue. Today, we’re focused on brand names.

At age 8, Diane Richard told a substitute teacher, coincidentally also named Diane Richard, that her middle name was Pixie. In junior high school, she took on the middle initial of X, not out of political enlightenment (think Malcolm X) but because she wanted a three-letter monogram for a Shetland sweater. (Her father, also lacking a middle name, had used X in the Navy.)

From early on, she has recognized the value of a strong identity. Today, Diane writes for a variety of consumer brands, working on naming, taglines, and other brand-defining materials. For her, naming is a plum assignment. Still, she says, you can’t live on plums. Naming is exhausting, if exhilarating, work.

1. How important is having the right name for a brand?

Very. A name is a promise. It’s a personality. It’s a flag and a calling card and a cri de coeur. In a time of relentless distraction, the right brand name can be a beacon. It’s the first impression a brand makes.

2. How can you tell if your brand name is (or isn’t) working for you?

Above all, the name should be memorable. Many names today are, particularly those using single common words (Google, Chipotle—even though some find it difficult to pronounce) or cognates with a wink (Lyft). They work. Names that don’t work obscure their purpose. The names of utilities, for instance, once were clear; e.g., Minnegasco. Now, whenever I smell a gas leak, I falter (I’m talking to you, CenterPoint Energy). Which is a problem.

3. What do you consider before you start exploring new name ideas?

I consider how a brand wants to be perceived. If, for instance, the brand attributes—descriptors essential to the organization’s personality—are bold, disruptive, and/or fun, the name should be, too. Otherwise there’s a disconnect.

4. What is your approach to naming?

Naming is a process. It takes hours of exploration and conversation before the actual naming part begins. Once I have a solid understanding of the client’s goals, I read everything: project briefs, competitor information. Then I read everything: magazines, newspapers, books. I listen to the radio, to music lyrics, to podcasts. Every word or phrase I read or hear enters my naming filter. I walk in nature and see what speaks to me. Everything becomes a possibility.

I get inspiration in unlikely places. When I read, I’m constantly gleaning. When I swim laps at the Y, I leave a pad of paper at the end of the lane (yes, it gets soggy). I drive with paper and pencil on the passenger seat. My husband knows I have a naming assignment when I bolt from bed to record ideas. Naming is a form of mania. I could not do it full time.

5. Are there any common roadblocks to finding a great new name for a brand?

The naming brain runs free range, until it’s trussed up by trademark and online searches and competitor analysis. After that, it’s amazing how quickly the idea list whittles down. It’s hard to find an original idea in many categories.

Then the client weighs in.

Naming, as anyone who has ever had a baby or a pet, is deeply subjective. Even if the short list is strategic and smart, it can flop at the finale. Renaming is even harder. Enthusiastic clients looking to reimagine their brand often balk when the expense of new stationary, signage, and promotions gets tallied. It takes a bold leader to change an existing brand name.

Finally, names show their age and reflect their times. Imagine what the bearded founders of Sears Roebuck & Co. would make of Alphabet. Or Accenture. Or Big Ass Fans.

Did this spark an idea? Let's talk!

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