We all have personal associations with names, so which ones really matter?

Words take us to weird places

What comes to mind when you hear the word “heatwave”? You might think of slow radiating waves of energy rolling across an electric blue sky, those lasers that come out of the Flash’s eyes, a microwave, The Wave waterpark, Indian summers in Berkeley, Calif. and why the bay doesn’t have emergency A/C, because hello global warming.

In a Princeton study mapping word associations in brain scans, the team’s senior researcher, Matthew Botvinick observed that, “…someone will start thinking of a chair and their mind wanders to the chair of a corporation then to Chairman Mao. The brain tends to drift, with multiple processes taking place at the same time. If a person thinks about a table, then a lot of related words will come to mind, too.” Point is, we have tons of associations with any given word. It’s important to siphon which ones actually matter, especially when thinking of a company or product name. If you don’t keep your associations in check, they can inhibit you from seeing the potential in a name.

Suss out the right associations for the right audience

When thinking of a company or product name, it’s important to shift the focus from you to your audience. Sure Hyphen could remind you of your fourth grade English teacher, but will your audience feel the same way? It’s really easy to let our own subjectivity get in the way of a good name. Putting your audience first will get you into a different mindset and help you evaluate names on a more objective level.

Let’s use Subaru as an example. Their line of cars including the Forester, Outback, and Crosstrek take our minds to different places. With Forester, you could think it’s built for people who live in cabins in the woods. Outback could relate to dangerous rural territory where you can get lost. Crosstrek sounds like a pain in the ass and like it’s more of a long distance runner than a sprinter for short commutes. If you’re naming a car, these thoughts could hold you back  —  but if your target audience is the adventurous, outdoorsy type, these names work pretty well because they evoke the spirit of the great outdoors.

Negative isn’t always a bad thing

You can easily pick apart any name. When it comes to negative associations, there are a few things to consider. If a name has an overwhelmingly negative connotation for the vast majority of people (think: Seamen, Plunger, or Razor Sharp Death Trap), then that’s a valid reason to hesitate.

However, if you did choose a name that has a negative connotation, it could actually be a good thing. A 2016 study in Plos, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, found that negative brand names, “…trigger a survival response within us to react to potential threats. Negative information may have undesirable consequences for the perceivers’ wellbeing and so is automatically, preferentially, and more efficiently processed. Negative words capture, hold attention and induce larger neural responses than positive words and are remembered for a longer amount of time than non-negative names.”

Negative associations give you an edge and get people talking. If you think about it, there are a ton of names with negative associations that work. Monster energy drink basically labels itself as something that you should be afraid of. Arrogant Bastard Ale is another popular beverage because of its name. Dior has a couple lines of perfume and makeup called Poison and Addict. Then there’s a more extreme example where a former fitness trainer who started In & Out Workout, received a cease-and-desist letter from In-N-Out burger, and got the idea to create the Heart Attack Grill. These brands still thrive despite their negative first impressions.

Part of this has to do with the fact that names aren’t stagnant. The Oxford Handbook of Names and Naming observed that names acquire, “…meaningful associations as a story or [brand] progresses, and prior associations might even be radically altered. For example, in the many plot sources from which Shakespeare drew for Romeo and Juliet, the principal characters are viewed primarily as victims of their own lust, but in Shakespeare’s play they acquire a different meaning — they become victims of their parents’ feud.” The associations your audience has with your company name will change over time as your brand evolves. Not a lot of people know what Starbucks means but now it’s associated with a coffee shop, same with Google as a leading search engine. When applied to negativity, you can essentially rewrite its story.

Getting to the root of fear

When it comes to weighing the associations of a name, we at A Hundred Monkeys have heard it all before. Cloudbreak sounds like it could be a tech company. Maplewing reminds me of the time I went bobsledding in Canada and ran into a tree. Tectonic is four letters off from Moronic. Dispatch means ‘garbage’ in Germanic Swahili. The key thing here is that these associations are minor and subjective. Your audience probably won’t think the same thing. What’s going on here is a deeper fear: the fear of misunderstanding.

Thinking of a company name can be challenging, especially when you want to fit in and stand out at the same time. The thing is, you can’t be everything to everyone and that’s why you should focus on your audience as a whole. Of course you don’t want to offend anyone or have people take your company name the wrong way  —  but how often does this actually happen? Worrying about what someone is going to think is like trying to control the weather. You don’t really know what’s gonna happen until it happens. You have an idea, but people’s minds change all the time.

Don’t pay attention to individuals with outlandish comments but rather see the overall impression of your audience. What do they care about? What matters most to them? Take individual opinions with a grain of salt. There’s only a slim chance of misunderstanding, especially since your audience will be seeing the name in context.

Context is everything

A study on how we associate unfamiliar words noted that people are “continually learning the meanings of new words. Most are picked up casually from the context, without the help of a formal definition.” Luckily, names don’t operate on their own. It’s harder to misunderstand a name when you see it in context. It gives the name a sense of belonging and dispels phrases like sounds like a tech company. Well it’s clearly not a tech company, it’s a book. Delta Air Lines is a completely different company from Delta Dental. When you see Delta in an airport, you’re not going to go up to the ticket counter and say you’re there for a routine cleaning.

We stage our names for each naming presentation because we want clients to see how the names could operate in the real world. We put each name as it would be on their website, app, or product so they can experience the name similar to how their customers will. Whether it’s on a billboard, book, app or storefront, thinking about the name in context is essential to thinking about what a name can do for your audience.

It’s okay if a name takes you from the Northern Lights to the frigid cold to a deep dark hole somewhere. Associations are completely normal. A name shouldn’t be tossed aside just because it has myriad associations. You have the power to choose which association matters and what name will be best for your audience. Just remember to ask yourself: will my audience feel the same way?