Red Flags to Avoid When Naming Your Company, Product, or Podcast

One of my favorite SNL parody commercials is undoubtedly “Red Flag Perfume.” As Kristen Wiig elegantly glides across the room at a gala, grabbing the eye of every gentleman within eyesight, the voiceover slowly reveals she’s a complete disaster, increasingly throwing red flags throughout the skit.

A red flag is something that should be, well, pretty obvious, but often—both in love and in business—we see right past them. When I sat down with naming expert and brand strategist Rob Meyerson for Making Ways, we talked a lot about his path from academia to agency and the launch of his own firm, Heirloom. We didn’t dive too deeply into the details of what it takes to knock it out of the park when naming your company, product, feature, or podcast, so I thought I would share some of Rob’s vast insights on the subject here. Buckle up, pay attention, and avoid these red flags the next time you’re leading a naming exercise for your company.

Unclear Brand Proposition

Yes, there is always a pesky step before you actually get to the task at hand. With naming, it’s the b-word: brand. You’ve got to have your brand principles and product positioning down in order to arrive at a name that will resonate with customers. Without the foundation of brand in place, you’ll never know if your name is hitting the mark or not. Brand principles and product positioning ensure that you can clearly define the strategic criteria that a killer name delivers on. Rob explained that brand can be best defined as “the identity of the company or the product,” likening it not just to a logo but to “a person’s identity—family history, values, personality, all these things that go deeper than just what we look like or our height and weight. . . .For some products, a lot of the ‘brand’ comes through the product; for others it really does come through communications.” And what’s the biggest umbrella for communications that your company or product has? The name.

Stakeholder Disarray

Coming up with a great name, or even putting together options for one, shouldn’t happen in a silo. If it does, you’re in for a world of hurt. Well, at least the kind of hurt that comes when you have to redo work, set a new internal plan, or clean up shoes you may have scuffed in your early, clumsy missteps. So know thy stakeholders, educate them on the process of naming, and get everyone aligned early. If you don’t avoid this red flag, you’re bound to encounter senior management who will derail any and all of your naming progress. And while you’re at it, make sure everyone on your cross-functional team has the realistic expectations for what a name can do for them (and what it won’t). Rob puts it in terms we can all understand: “Try to get into the right mindset from the beginning so people are not necessarily expecting there to be a silver bullet. I’ve been asked, ‘How do you make everybody happy with the name?’ You may not. And you may not even want to.” As Rob put it, if you are trying to make pizza that everyone will like, it’s got to be cheese—universally liked, but not exciting for anyone. The same applies to a name, minus the piping-hot tastiness.

So in naming as in pizza choice, remember, the most important thing is that your stakeholders agree the criteria has been met and the name satisfies the brand, product, and audience you are trying to reach.

No Lawyer, Big Problem

It’s all fun and games until someone gets sued. A ton of creative energy goes into the naming process—whiteboard sessions over dinner, synonym research, wordsmithing, gathering feedback—but perhaps the biggest question you have to answer is, Is it legal. . .or at least legally defensible? In order to do that, you must have a lawyer in on the process. A trademark attorney will help you assess risks and exposure and eliminate names you fall for early on but are unfortunately owned by Coca-Cola, Walmart, or [insert megacorp here]. A good working relationship with a lawyer will take you far. Rob adds, “Try to get to know your attorney early. . . .It’s best to get on the same page with how the process will work and understand how that particular lawyer thinks about risk because with lawyers, everything is a gray area. You’re not going to hear, ‘Yes, this one is safe, and that one’s not.’” Not only do you need a lawyer for vetting, but you also need one on your team (or someone you contract externally) in order to better understand trademark law and to secure the legal trademark on your name.

These are just a few of the red flags you should avoid when kicking up a naming exercise for your company, product, or project. Since these aren’t quite as obvious as Kristen Wiig’s hot mess of a trainwreck on SNL, hopefully the guidance here helps you avoid being trapped by a naming process gone awry. Be sure you’ve thought about these big issues before you are in the throws of a deadline, product launch, or event. And if you want to get a better idea of what it takes to name things like an expert and have a career in brand, listen to my conversation with Rob Meyerson on Making Ways, connect with Heirloom on Instagram, and peep their site at Heirloom Agency

And here’s your bonus red flag: give yourself enough time! Finding a name and securing a trademark takes months, not weeks—so start planning now.

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