Outside the confines of a company naming process, people aren’t used to seeing names all alone. In the real world, names are surrounded by subtle and not-so-subtle cues that channel our perception. Logos, imagery, packaging, environment – they all play a role in defining the context in which we understand names.

Looking at a potential company name by itself, most people tend to keep their thoughts close to the surface: they look at the definition, spelling, words the name rhymes with. Almost all names feel flat with no context. Especially when you start to compare these names in your head with competitive brands that have logos and colors and products – all working together.

It isn’t just small startups that have trouble picking names. We have worked with big international brands that have insisted on attempting to isolate the name as a variable. They separated it from visuals and packaging and any other feature which would accompany a name that ends up in front of consumers in the real world. Of course focus group participants have no problems waxing poetic on potential names for your company regardless of the context. You’re compensating them for their time and making them feel important. Why would they care that the names they’re looking at are being presented differently than every other company name they’ve seen in their lives?

The group think culture that’s pervasive in many companies today sucks all the air out of naming and branding. Nothing creative has ever made it cleanly through a focus group. Nothing creative has ever received unanimous support from a board of directors. This is why so many companies end up with names that don’t really mean anything – names like Verizon, Rovio, Alcatel. Because if you give people nothing to react to, they aren’t going to have anything negative to say. And ‘nothing negative’ sounds like a pretty good place to land when you’re trying to get ten people to agree on something.

This is why we do everything we can to set the stage for potential names. We show them in context, in conversation, on signage. It isn’t people’s fault that they can’t see the potential in a company name when it’s written in Helvetica on a sheet of 8-and-a-half-by-11. When you can see a name in context, you can start to see its electricity, its creative potential.

Let’s look at a few simple examples of how the context of an image can change how you think about a name:

iPad: When the iPad came out, everyone attacked the name. People said it sounded like a feminine hygiene product and an old steno pad. Obviously no one says this stuff anymore. Apple built a visual language and experience around the name that made people’s jerk reactions fall by the wayside.

Virgin: If Richard Branson took this potential name for his empire and ran it through a focus group or board meeting, how do you think it would fare? Spoiler alert: horribly. The name clearly has risks, but it’s great. Virgin is memorable and differentiated in any situation or endeavor. Without a strong brand to support it, the name would have been killed before it was born.

Pennyroyal: I made this one up. When you look at the name in the context of the images, it takes your brain to two very different places. You can make the name feel rich, or poor, or colorful or almost anything you want with the right surroundings.

So remember: the name is just the beginning – it’s only a word or two until you show people its potential.

Having trouble finding a company name with potential? Check out our naming page.