Words have meaning, names have power: Insider tips for creating that billion-dollar brand name

Brand names à la Werklig

Simply "X"?

This past July, Elon Musk took to his recently acquired social media platform, Twitter, to announce that Twitter would no longer be called Twitter.  

Instead, it would be called simply "X". A name many were quick to point out that Musk has held a candle for since he launched his fintech startup, X.com, back in 1999. This was before cofounder Peter Thiel rebranded X.com to Paypal — and summarily sent Elon packing.  

The news of the Twitter name change was met with disbelief and near universal ridicule. A group of branding experts polled by Bloomberg estimated that Musk has vaporized "between $4 billion and $20 billion in value" by replacing a cultural icon with a brand identity that, according to a commenter on Reddit , "looks like an app for a membership only human trafficking gentlemen's club headquartered in Budapest".  

We give Elon some credit for swiftly addressing the strategic thinking behind the name change:  

… but he lost us again with his expansive plan to build an "everything app". Great brands have focus. But that's a subject for another insight post. In the weeks since he announced the change, Elon has run up a long list of what-not-to-do's when overseeing a major corporate rebrand.  

Let's start with the fact that Musk and his team seemingly didn't check the copyrights and trademarks before changing Twitter's name. As is to be expected for the most enigmatic letter in the English alphabet, X already has hundreds of trademarks for various intellectual properties across countries and industries. According to Reuters, a legal attorney found "nearly 900 active U.S. trademark registrations that already cover the letter X in a wide range of industries". Including Microsoft and Meta, to name just a few.

Even Twitter's much-maligned new X logo turns out to have been crowd-sourced on Twitter. Meanwhile, IRL the San Francisco police were called in to stop signage removal from Twitter's headquarters because the company hadn’t procured the appropriate permits in advance.

Thanks to short news cycles and attention spans, even a poorly thought-out, hastily rolled-out rebrand will eventually be forgiven and forgotten. But if the name is just... awful? A bad name is the ultimate branding albatross, weighing down any efforts for a company to differentiate itself from the competition and build their way into the black. Great messaging, great marketing, and even a great product can't make up for a bad name. It'll just cost you significantly more than a good name will. And a bad name remains a bad name until you change it.  

Consider whether Ralph Lauren could have built his storied Americana fashion empire on the back of a name like Ralph Lifshitz.  

In our nearly two decades in the brand-building business, Werklig has shepherded many through the naming process. Just like naming a human baby, every company is special, and deserves a thoughtfully considered name that reflects its unique character. That said, there are a few universal methodologies and best practices to follow when coming up with a new name.  

Keep reading to find out how to not end up like X.  

Never change your name — except when you should

If you've spent any time studying Marketing, you may have come across an old-school branding rule that says something like:  

Never-ever-ever change your brand name unless you really, really, really have to.

Old-school marketing rules, like conspiracy theories, are generally rooted in a grain of truth. Brand name changes will affect some of the company's key assets — copyrights, domain names, brand equity. Add to this the not-insignificant cost of updating all your physical and digital assets, from the logos on your website to the signage on your building(s).  

But the idea that, barring a scorched-earth PR catastrophe — no brand should ever change their name? That's just silly. Brands change their names all the time, for a myriad of reasons. Like when companies merge, get bought or pivot their business, a name change inevitably ends up on the table.

Then there are the brands that rename (quickly) because their old name was confusing, hard to remember, or simply didn’t resonate. Backrub (Google), Cadabra (Amazon) and Blue Ribbon Sports (Nike) are all perfect examples.  

Maybe a name, which may have been considered folksy, even wholesome, once — has become offensive by modern standards. Like Ben's Original, formerly Uncle Ben's.

Our world is changing all the time. It's just good business to change strategy accordingly. And if the brand name is no longer connected to the new strategy? It would be bad business not to change it.

This absolutely doesn't mean businesses should change their name just because their owners, personally, are sick of it. Or because they just want to drum up some press attention. According to Jill Avery, a senior lecturer of brand management at Harvard Business School,

“The success of a name change depends upon companies educating existing customers about the rationale for the name change in a way that is compelling. If the name change appears illegitimate, inauthentic or done for the wrong reasons, firms risk injuring their relationships with customers”.

If you're still hemming and hawing over the name change, know that there will never be a better time to do it than right now. The sooner it’s done the faster the pain will fade. It'll always be tempting to push it until next quarter or next year. Name changes inevitably come with trepidation and extra work. But it bears repeating that the only way to improve a bad name is to change it. As Jill already mentioned (above), the transition is usually smoother if the name change coincides with a good story. And since the logo needs changing either way, a name change is the ideal time to introduce a bold new visual identity, too. That would be a big signal of excitement and renewal all around.

"Nothing will be used more often and longer than your brand name." LEXICON BRANDING (the brains behind Sonos, Blackberry, Swiffer)

Brand name solid as a rock – get your cues from the 7 Cs

Even though finding the perfect name for a brand is a mixture of art and science, some rules and helpful methods apply. Whether creating a new name for a new company or renaming an existing one — here are some principles for creating that billion-dollar brand name.

P.S. These Clever Cs can also be found in a book co-authored by Liisa, Werklig's Head of Strategy and Foresight, with Michiel Maandag. Humbly named The Only Book You'll Ever Need About Branding. It’s short, sweet and contains the essentials for how to DIY a great brand. On Amazon, if you’d like to pick up a copy of your own.

These seven rules of thumb are tried-and-true benchmarks for creating unique and resonant brand names. It’s not about checking off every single one — neither advisable nor possible. The 7 C's are a little like blackjack in that you want to get as close as you can to the magic number, but not all the way.

C1 Crisp

Shorter really is sweeter. That's because short names are easier to remember, spell and say. Like these famous examples:

Federal Express or FedEx
Macintosh or Mac
American Express or Amex

One of ours

Right from the start, it was apparent that Kodit.io was going places. An aggressively growing proptech company that was actively expanding into new countries and markets, buying up traditional real estate players across Europe, determined to disrupt the conventional real estate dynamics while boosting peoples' access to that highly desirable ladder (home ownership). Kodit.io was in search of a name that could keep up with their ambition to be Europe's one-stop-shop for property-dreams-come-true.  

Rive is a name with growth potential. It's short and crisp, yet sophisticated. Just like their properties, Rive's name is custom-fit to its purpose, leaving its tenant room to grow. It's a name that will adapt well to new markets and languages, without getting tangled up in translation. Perfectly futureproof! But with roots in Finland, there’s always a log cabin involved. (Most Finns still have a hand-built cabin somewhere in the woods.) Rive means the saving-you-from-freezing filling, stuffed snugly between enormous logs. It also means "shore" in French, a subtle nod to the target market's real estate aspirations. For English speakers, Rive means, aptly, to make a groove. To break new ground.

Talk about a futureproof name

C2 Clear

And by clear we mean no acronyms. When consumers see an acronym, they'll immediately try and figure out what it stands for. Usually, they'll guess wrong. And even if they don't, they'll soon forget.  

For example, what percentage of the population could tell you (without googling) that the popular American pharmacy retail chain CVS stands for Consumer Value Store?

Save your customer’s time by coming up with an actual name, not forcing them to engage with mental crosswords.  

C3 Clever

Everyone loves a clever name. That little hit of dopamine when a person first "gets" the name is a down payment for living in their brain rent-free. Associate the name with the product category and they'll remember what you do, too!

For example:  

Sharing snippets of information > "A little birdie told me" > Twitter (RIP)
The world's longest river 🤝 Amazon 🤝 The world's largest retailer
An alternative is to connect your name to your main benefit — like Budget Rent a Car did.

Some of ours:

When we stepped in to assist a new pure oat mill with their branding, the construction for their state-of-the-art mill hadn't even started yet. Located in Utajärvi, in Northern Finland, at the 65th parallel, 65 Oats is the northernmost oat mill on the planet. It also happens to be the northernmost point where oats can be grown. And in these harsh conditions grows oat aristocracy.

Location location location

Henua Organics offers a premium skincare line consisting of products that only contain certified organic ingredients rooted in the essence of Nordic simplicity. Our objective was to create a brand identity that stands out from the typical look of organic skincare brands. Something a bit more luxurious.  

Together, we worked to choose the name Henua — a Finnish word for that lovely, sparkly feeling of being in total harmony with yourself and the world around you. Sitting on the edge of the bed and taking your heels off after a long day. Soaking up the sun with your fingers in the sand, toes in the surf.

It’s so Henua

C4 Conversational

Easy to pronounce. Easy to slip into conversation without risking social ridicule when — for example— you pronounce the name of the French auto maker Peugeot as "Pew-Gee-Ott". (Certain authors of this very blog post sometimes lay awake at night, reliving this personal pinnacle of cringe.)

C5 Connected

Alliteration — or the literary device that favors the use of similar sounding syllables (see what we did there?) — don't just look and read nicely. They're easier to remember, too. Which is why so many brands — including Best Buy, Firefox and the aforementioned Paypal — choose to incorporate the magic of alliteration into their names.  

One of ours

Teatiamo, a wooden design dildo company, is a fitting example.

C6 Crazy

By "Crazy" we mean "Not boring". But Crazy aligns better with the running C theme. Similar sounds = more memorable. But you already know this. So back to being not boring.  

If it had been up to the engineers at Research in Motion to come up with the name for their new phone, they would have named it the PocketLink. The phone had a tiny keyboard that promised to supercharge the act of emailing from a mobile device. The phone fit in your pocket. The phone was a communication link. PocketLink. Makes sense, right?  

The problem was that PocketLink, though descriptive (or exactly because of that), is a snoozefest of a name. "MeMail", "EasyMail" and "MegaMail" weren't much better (in fact, they are much, much worse).  

At this point in the story, Research in Motion's marketing vice president made a wise (and very underrated) decision. Having reached an impasse in the "namestorming", they decided to allow the engineers to go back to doing engineer things, and hired a group of professionals to come up with something better than PocketLink.  

As this fantastic Medium post goes on to detail, the research conducted by storied branding agency Lexicon found that any mention of the word "mail" in the product name was a dealbreaker. Mail was synonymous with stress. It inspired dread in the minds of the phone's target market, corporate employees, by "[making] them think of work piling up in boxes".  

Instead, Lexicon compiled a list of "soothing and positive words" including Banjo, Cielo, Hula, Nemo, Side Sling, Tailwind and Waterfall. Strawberry was another contender, but ultimately rejected because it "sounded too slow". Instead, Blackberry was chosen and a cultural movement was born. People just couldn't get enough of their so-called "Crackberries". When Candidate Obama became President Obama, he essentially told the Secret Service that they would have to pry his beloved Blackberry out of his cold, dead hands. They backed off.

Blackberry is a crazy name. What does a berry have to do with a phone? And therein lies the Crazy genius. But crazy names are never without controversy. The book goes on to detail how most of the Research in Motion people hated the name Blackberry at first. They still wanted to name it PocketLink. Luckily, the Research in Motion CEO (and deciding vote) — loved it. So did the buyers.  

One of ours:

Daily Jungle is a skin care, sun care brand for kids. Ingeniously packaged in a way that can be smeared on by the kid in question, so you can stand well away from the slippery getaway wild-animal-like target.

C7 Contradiction

Opposites attract — in life, and in naming, too. Think 'Slack' — as in "slacking off". But as the name for an asynchronous work communication platform that's 1000x more productive than email when it comes to sharing information (and workplace gossip)? Like a chocolate covered potato chip, contradictions and opposites attract in strange and delightful ways. Like Lonely Planet — a brand that has probably connected billions of solo travelers to other likeminded explorers.

One of ours:

Commission the top cutting-edge architects in Finland to design a new contemporary art museum with a strongly experimental agenda on art — but put it in a picturesque seaside village 100 km from Helsinki. Then call it colloquially Chappe, the nickname of the scientist / philanthropist founder from a prestigious local family; the de la Chapelles. Contradictions make for exquisite experiences.

Cutting edge cozyness

More naming stories from our repertoire

The go-to recipe for an authentic French cider company's brand identity typically involves something like this: generous helpings of rustic charm, pastoral landscapes, a grazing cow or pig, a preening rooster. Maybe a hardworking farmer. The name should be simple, honest, traditional, elegant.  

But what about an authentic French cider company that's specifically targeting young, urban-dwelling connoisseurs of life who seek freshness in both product and the package it comes in? In this case, you retain the same distinctive French elegance — with a bold twist.  

The name we chose, Galipette, translates to 'somersault' or 'forward rolling movement' (or even 'gentle lovemaking', depending on who you ask). The brand identity is the visual manifestation of the Galipette name: a perfect blend of elegance and whimsy which manages to pay homage to the brand's heritage while boldly making a statement all its own.

Gentle lovemaking of a name

When you're in a crowded category, it can be tempting to go with the flow. To choose a name that melts in with the other established brands, in hopes you can use this familiarity to begin luring customers your way. Resist this urge. Focus in on a single core group. Choose a name that's bold and different, that speaks to your chosen ones in a way they can't resist.  

Some hard truths about the naming process

Congratulations! You've (almost) made it to the end. As a reward for your diligence, here are some hard truths we've learned over our years spent deep in the trenches of the naming process.

1. Descriptive names are always bad

It's funny how society likes to hold on to false ideas because they sound reasonable. Like the idea we can expect to swallow approximately 7 spiders annually while we're asleep. (Not true.)

Or the idea that the name of your business should describe what you do. Again, sounds reasonable. But take a look at the list of the Top 100 most valuable brands, and you'll be hard pressed to find any descriptive names. Here's why. Brands with descriptive names have let go of all the incredible color and emotion available to giving something a name. Descriptive names simply... describe. Which is boring and nowadays, often confusing.  

Once upon a time, naming your business Bookstore might have worked, because you were the only bookstore within hundreds of miles and there was no mail orders or web shops so you could choose from all the bookshops is the world. You actually had to walk or take a horse and cart and go there yourself. Call your business a Bookstore now, and people have no idea WHICH bookstore you're referring to. Could be Amazon, Suomalainen Kirjakauppa (a borderline descriptive name), Barnes & Noble, Waterstones, Adlibris or any other. Try to tell somebody about your favorite place to buy books, called the Bookstore and their reply will always be “Which bookstore?”.  

Then there's the copyright and trademark issues. If it's a descriptive word, it's probably already taken. Or if it’s not, it’s likely because it’s so descriptive it’s impossible to trademark. Like creating a new car brand called simply Car.

Solution: Invent new words

Get creative and invent words that are new. Like our dear own Werklig. How did this name come about? It was a play on words with meaning close to our hearts:  

Verklig in Swedish means real and genuine
Werk in German means work and piece of art  
Werklig = authentic, real work and piece of art

Which is what we believe brand work should really be all about. Why Swedish and German, you might ask? Well, why not! Creative work frees you to look for inspiration anywhere and everywhere.

2. A truly great name should feel uncomfortable at first

A truly great name will feel uncomfortable at first. It should feel uncomfortable. Is it too crazy? Can we pull this off? Will our customers like it? What will the board think?  

All these questions are valid — and a very good sign. A lack of discomfort is usually a red flag that you're playing it too safe — i.e. boring, conventional, expected. Embrace the discomfort. The name is more likely to be noticed and, most importantly, remembered. Nobody falls in love with the easy!

The solution: Sleep on it

Give it time, collect some opinions. Take it for a test drive in your mind for a few days — or even weeks. If you find yourself slowly falling in love, you'll know you've struck gold.  

3. Some of your team is going to hate the name

Just like with the discomfort, if everyone in your company immediately loves the new name, you've played it too safe. There will always be at least one person with personal historical reasons to hate the name. For them it has bad vibes. Suffice it to say name, changes are not without cultural turbulence. But when handled with empathy and openness, naming and name changes can be an opportunity for growth and a more united front moving forward.  

Remember that ultimately your brand name is made to attract customers. They need to be the ones to notice it, remember it and grow to love it.

The solution: Get some outside perspective

And speaking of outside perspective... you can always call in backup.

Startup culture has spread the idea that it's well within the wheelhouse of any founder or internal marketing team to come up with the perfect brand name if they think long and hard enough. But just like any other job, coming up with brand names is a skillset that's honed over time. Working with the right branding agency will bring outside perspective, expertise, and tools to the naming process — as well as a support system to guide you through when you get stuck.  

Is your perfect brand name just out of reach?  We're here to help.

Words have meaning, names have power


Brand strategy