Don’t kill these names

By Ben Weis
May 13, 2022
Reading Time: 4 minutes
Filed under Naming

Recently, when sharing names with clients, I’ve had a few folks say something along the lines of “That’s a nice name but it sounds like a soap company” or “If I were starting an [insert industry here] brand, this would be perfect.” To which my response is something along the lines of “Yes, that name could work quite well for a soap or [XYZ] company, and it also works particularly well for you because…” and I proceed to talk about how a given name helps them amplify the signals we’re looking to send.

To be clear, I appreciate clients speaking their mind and we’re always looking for unvarnished feedback, so I’m happy to talk through thoughts like this. For me, after the third time hearing something like this from a client in about as many weeks, I wanted to spend some time with what’s at play here.

Here’s where I netted out: Words carry different meanings and those meanings come forward based on context, so when we use words as names, the same rules apply. 

To dig a little deeper, let’s look at some examples. We’ll start with Patagonia. Patagonia is a region of South America. Patagonia carries a varied set of meanings and mental imagery surrounding it depending on who you speak to. To me, as someone who has yet to visit South America, no less Patagonia, I have a few mental images of the region (from what I’ve seen on the internet) and I know it’s a hot spot for climbing and backpacking. To those who live in and around the region, Patagonia is going to mean a whole lot more, with a lot more context.

Photo by Snowscat on Unsplash

The key here is when words become names, new contexts are created. Now, Patagonia, to a lot of people, means clothing, outdoor gear, climate activism, fly-fishing, climbing, dirtbagging, etc.

The point I’m here to make is that Patagonia would also have been a perfectly fine candidate as a name for a VC firm, an airline, a production company, or a one-off Nike colorway because there’s nothing about the word Patagonia that seals its fate to be a clothing brand. In fact, brands can share the same name and take the same word in different directions. Look at Ace Hardware and Ace Hotels. 

Same name, very different vibes.

Now, let’s drop into the point at which we find ourselves working with clients: we have a name (a word) that we’re looking to recontextualize—to see if we can take a signal the name is sending and use the brand to amplify it in a new way. For this exercise, let’s use the name Orbiter, a name I’ve liked for a long time and haven’t yet found a home for. It may help to include the definition, which is: “a spacecraft designed to go into orbit, especially one not intended to land.”

We’ll start with the most obvious and work our way towards the less obvious to see how far we can push the ideas contained in Orbiter.

Obvious first: Orbiter would be a natural fit for a spacecraft tracking website, to locate the James Webb Space Telescope or track the International Space Station.

Let’s push a little further: Orbiter could work nicely for a moon phase app. The moon is our little orbiter.

Further still: Orbiter might work for a Certified Public Accountant—positioning them as always within reach and easily contacted, there when needed, and out of sight when not.

Again, further: Orbiter would be a solid, and slightly unexpected fit, for a dim sum style restaurant, a la State Bird Provisions in San Francisco, where waiters circulate (orbit) with carts and trays of delicious food.

Orbiter, like most names (words), could work for any number of brands. The key here is a little imagination and linking a definition or understanding of a name to some interesting part of what a brand might offer, thereby creating a new context and a way for people to connect to the brand. What’s also important to remember is that all of these brands could coexist, making use of the Orbiter name in different trademark classes and separate contexts. So, just because a name sounds like it’d work really well for one brand doesn’t mean it won’t work for many others.