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What’s in a name? Adding method to the madness

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Whether a new soda's hitting the market, a state-of-the-art games console is set to hit the shelves, or a revolutionary mobile phone app hits the app store, there’s one question we blurt out without a second thought:

What’s it called?

The name of a product or service serves as a way of enticing your prospective customer, and getting it wrong can serve as an immediate turn-off for those within your target market.

I'm Alexander Chahin, PMM at Lyft, and today, I want to talk about an uncomfortable topic, which is naming. Why is it so hard? It should be relatively straightforward. But time and time again, I hear product marketers say, “I wish this was just a simpler process; it took a twist or turn that I didn't expect”.

Maybe at the start of the naming process, you feel like this...

You've done a lot of thinking about how you're going to name your product, you put together a great recommendation, type up that proposal email for your leadership team, fire it off, and you're feeling good. They're gonna love it. Then you get a couple of emails back, and you start feeling like this...

Oh no, this is not as easy as I thought it would be. Pretty soon you transition to feeling like this...  

Everything's on fire, but we're going to make it work. So let's start here.

I wonder how many of you reading have had to name a product? Ostensibly, that's why you're reading this article. But I also wonder how many of you find it consistently tricky? I sense vigorous head nodding. Well, let's imagine a world where the naming process was:

  1. Far less daunting.
  2. You were able to get faster alignment on naming.
  3. You had more time for more strategic product marketing work.

That's what we're going to get into today. But before we do that, let's get the gears turning a little bit with a quick naming brief right out of the gate. We have something that's going to hit the market, we want the name to be easy to pronounce, we want it to have a shortened version because we fear that people aren't always going to want to say the full name, and we want it to work in English and Spanish versions. Any thoughts?

It's me! So that is how my parents named me, they literally used some of those points to get to my name. I'm Al Chahin, and I lead the Core Rider product marketing team at Lyft and we have named a lot of products over the years, whether it is ride types millions of people use every day, subscriptions, payment products, or different features, we spent a lot of time naming.

I want to share with you some of the tips and tricks we've learned along the way. So what we'll go through together is why we name products in the first place and some of the types of names products tend to get. How we can actually name them, and taking you through some of  the processes we've landed on. I’ll also be including a couple of examples and case studies, and some tips and tricks to round it out.

Why should we even bother naming products in the first place?

Well, first and foremost, a name is shorthand for what something is and the value it provides. It provides a quick communication so that you don't have to do education every single time you're talking to your audience.

On top of that, good names can make your job easier. Your job is to drive adoption as a product marketer and a really good name can help ease customer understanding and set you up for success. On the opposite side of that, bad names can make your job much harder. If people don't understand what it is, you'll have a much harder time product marketing and I'll get into an example of that a little later.

You can build equity in a name so that over time you don't have to explain and people come to understand what this is all about.

Interestingly, you also give customers the language to market on your behalf. If you provide the right language, people will talk about it to other people. If you don't, they will use made-up names that will not carry that equity forward for you.

Think about this, think about sometimes when Apple is launching new products, sometimes people get it kind of wrong. Apple said "Hey, call this the Apple Watch", and people would walk into the store and say, "Do you have the newest iWatch?"

If you're not consistent and people don't know how to name it, you won't give them the language to market on your behalf.

So great, you're on board, we're going to name products that make sense to name, it should be easy, right? Can't I sit with a thesaurus and just go through some options and pick that way?

Let's start there. If I was to ask how many of you feel like you get it right on the very first try, I'd be pretty confident the answer would be nobody. Let's get into why that's so difficult and it'll start with the range of different types of names.

I just mentioned Apple Watch, pretty descriptive, I get it. It's a company called Apple and they made a watch.

Let's look at a little more evocative examples like Airbnb Experiences, or even more evocative - Instagram stories, and what about Google Pixel? You don't even know it's a phone until you see associated collateral.

So when we think about it, the reason those are different is that there's really a naming spectrum.

The naming spectrum

There are a lot of different types of ways to name, and on the most descriptive end, there are just totally literal names. These are where you're just straight out saying what it is. Good examples of this would be things like America Online - the country on the internet, or Bed Bath and Beyond - I bet they sell things for my bedroom, my bathroom, and maybe a little more.

Benefit names, these articulate what customers get out of it. Examples are the food delivery app Seamless, or the appliance app Kitchen Aid, it tells you the value you're going to get out of it.

Right in the middle between descriptive and branded, you have portmanteau. This is where you take two words combined together to create a new one, examples are things like Netflix and Airbnb.

One step closer to branded you have evocative, these are meant to evoke a certain feeling. Good examples of this are things like Nike, Alexa, or Lego. For those of you who don't know about Lego, it's interesting, it's a combination of two Danish words that mean 'play well', really on brand there.

The most branded are totally invented words, and these are meant to evoke intrigue and to be compelling in that way. A good example is Haagen Daaz, and an interesting story here is that to us it looks pretty Scandinavian, but really it means nothing. The founder's daughter reported that the founder used to sit at the kitchen table and mumble words he thought sounded Scandinavian until he landed on a combination he liked.

When should you use each?

That's a big spectrum.

Generally, you should use descriptive names when fast customer understanding is really important, when you may have limited time and money to build equity, and customers are faced with a lot of choice.

Conversely, you should use branded when you do care more about lasting meaning and equity when you have more time and money available to build that equity, and there isn't as much choice for customers.

The 7 steps for naming success

So, I just went through why we name things, that product names can be descriptive or branded, and the strategy for when to use each. Now let's get into the naming process and to do this let's imagine a hypothetical situation - you are the product marketing lead on a new local tourism product. Maybe it looks a little something like this...

You can pick little hikes to do in your city, but what do we call it? Let's apply what we were just learning. So on the descriptive side, you might call it something like Local Tours or Urban Excursions, on the branded side you might call it Explorer or Atlas to evoke maps or Columbus to evoke exploration.

Maybe you decide this is the overarching product and the brand name so I want something a little more branded than descriptive, so let's say you landed on Voyager with your team.

Down the line Voyager is about to launch a loyalty program and lucky you, you're going to name it.

Step one: answer some upfront questions.

  1. Does it even need a formal name for this case? Probably, but not all features will.
  2. Should you consider descriptive and branded? Let's say you err on the side of descriptive but this time you will include a couple of branded options.
  3. You've got to decide who's the final approver on this - that will save a lot of thrash later on.
  4. Who is it for? What do you know about them already? And,
  5. Will you need to do research later on - this I'll get into in a little more depth in a minute.

A number of you may be familiar with a framework called DACI, it stands for Driver Approver Contributor and Informed. Use this framework to help you decide who needs to be involved in the naming process.

For this project, let's say you are the driver, the CEO is pretty involved at Voyager so they are ultimately approver for the name, you have identified that a few other cross-functional teams will need to weigh in and there are a couple that should know the ultimate outcome but don't have to be actively involved.

Step two: set process expectations

It is the least shiny step but arguably the most important and one that everybody tends to skip. So you're going to decide who needs to be involved in the process with that DACI framework, you're going to identify timelines that cross-functional partners need like:

  • How long does the creative team need to noodle on some naming options with you?
  • Legal to do trademark clearance?
  • Engineering to build it into all the places in the product?

You're gonna socialize how this process will work with these cross-functional partners and your executive team so they know what to expect and when. You're going to acknowledge that it's an inherently emotional process, people tend to forget this and expect people to be far more objective than they end up being. And you should decide how you will decide, are you going to use research when it comes in? Are you going to make it a decision based on strategy alone? Is it going to be a combination or some other permutation?

Step three: define your naming principles

These are parameters that will help you decide what your name needs to achieve. You should consider things like:

  • The audience
  • What you want people to feel and the identity you want them to take on when they use your product
  • You should consider all the places the name will appear - is it small constrained digital places which will get you to things like character counts, are there limitations there?
  • Are there taboo words that the company tends to reject that you should avoid out of the gate?

And make sure before you go further the approver is on board with these principles because if they're on board with the principles, you're one logical step closer to being in agreement on a name.

To give you a flavor of how we've done this at Lyft, this is a smattering of how it might look, you might say:

  • Oh, I want the name to be flexible.
  • It's got to convey value out of the gate.
  • It's got to be enduring and lasts a long time.
  • I want it to be really clear - I don't want to spend a lot of time educating on what this thing is.

So these can be whatever makes sense for your project. Let's say this is it for the Voyager loyalty program. But this is a good time to align on what you need the name to do.

Step four: brainstorm & ideate

This is a great time to schedule time with cross-functional partners and decide which brainstorm format will work best. One we'll often use is we'll plot out that spectrum from descriptive to branded on a board and we'll have people brainstorm on Posts-its options that could live in each of those. But you might say another way to do it is I just want people to scribble ideas on Post-its for 10 minutes, but decide the format that you think will work the best.

Then you're going to share key contexts in that meeting, especially those principles, how the product will work, the audience. And before people leave, have folks vote on names that they really like. Now, this is not how you'll ultimately decide - consensus is not ultimately a good way to land on final names, but it is helpful to get an idea of what has potential early on. And then you'll use that brainstorm outcome to get to a shortlist.

So let's use that same spectrum.

Maybe literal options for this loyalty program might be 'Loyalty Programme' might be 'Rewards' might be 'Club'. Benefit oriented options might be things like 'Value' or 'Perks' or 'Savings'. Some funky options now, we're jamming words together for portmanteaus, maybe rewards and perks make 'Rewerks' or explore and rewards make 'Explorewards'. More evocative names could be things like 'Beyond', 'Trove', 'Treasure' to 'Tesoro', which is a translation of treasure. And then this is where we've just lost it for invented, 'Avanta', 'Valorita', 'Gemsy', ooh gems, right?

So those are a couple of ways to make it more branded. Let's say, as an example, before people leave the room they tend to like 'Rewards', 'Club', and 'Beyond', 'Trove', and 'Treasure'.

Step five: conduct research

Now what you'll need to do is do some research, and you'll decide how you want to measure - we'll get to that in just a second, make sure to pull together a sample product description and mocks to put into the research.

You can usually include about five to seven names as you're doing this, a mix of descriptive and branded. Make sure before you go further that the approver is really on board with the shortlist and make sure that you're getting both a qualitative and quantitative read - quantitative will be really helpful for getting that signal on what's performing better on certain attributes. But qualitative will help you pull customer quotes to sell it in later.

So a couple of ways you can do research:

  1. You can give respondents the product description and then ask them to rate a number of attributes.
  2. The same as above but also show them a product design mock at the end and then ask them their new favorite name.
  3. Only give the names and you ask people "Hey, tell me what you think this is", a couple of ways to triangulate there.

Let's say for your project, this loyalty program you decide number two is the best approach, and you will get an output that looks something like this.

That shortlist that we had, attributes like how easy is the name to understand you would ask customers about, is it unique? Does it feel like the company understands my needs? Am I likely to use the thing? And after you do this, you would get sample data like this.

Okay, that's hard to parse so you dig in, and you're looking for what's shining in each of the columns there.

The blue is where you're seeing winners, and it looks like those descriptive names tend to be performing a little better in customer research. This is a trend we've seen time and time again because they're easier to understand, people tend to like the descriptive names in research - the branded names not so much.

But there is an interesting thing that happens with the branded names. Let's say you showed a product design mock that included a lot of gem-like colors, some rubies, some dark blues, and had maybe diamond shapes in it. What those pops are at the bottom is after you showed people designs, they liked that one more. So we've done this too and you can make a decision based on how tied you think the product design and the name have to be to each other.

As we mentioned, though, be careful if you do really think you're set on a branded name, research won't be as helpful, it'll just be limited in the value it'll provide.

Step six: build your proposal

Take the time to really make it feel real. People tend to skip this, they might just put a word on a page and say these are the options or the recommendation. But it's hard to make this decision in abstract so take the time to put it in mocks of the product, sample out of home, or email marketing assets.

Pull together those customer quotes as well to make your recommendation and conduct a word study. How do you expect people will talk about this product? Is it going to feel awkward? Do you think people will actually say it? Will they give it a nickname that you do or do not want? Think about all these things as you make a recommendation.

Show your work as you get to the recommendation. We've made the mistake of going into executive meetings a couple of times and saying, "This is it, we've done all the thinking, and we think this is the name" and people assume that you haven't done work outside of that. So show people how you got there, say these are the 50 we considered, but the 10 we put into research and the two that we would recommend, so people can come along on the journey with you.

Don't forget key contexts like what is the competitive landscape of names? Are there other products that you offer that are similar or dissimilar, that should be taken into consideration? So you might mock something up, it might look like this, throw it into a sample software like this, to put it into a phone or laptop shell and make it feel like "Oh, it's really real. I can imagine 'start earning with Voyager rewards'".

So now you can start to bring it to life for your executive team.

Step seven: get final approval

You're going to schedule an in-person interview with the approver, you can do it digitally, but generally, people have questions and in-person works well for those. Reach out to legal to vet those names for trademark clearance.

Have a next best option going in because oftentimes, people will not be aligned with your recommendation so it's good to be prepared and then you can get final sign off and move forward. You've done it. You're successful. They love Voyager Rewards.

How you got there: a recap

  • You answered upfront questions to set you up for success.
  • You set process expectations and socialized that with stakeholders.
  • You defined your naming principles upfront.
  • You brainstormed and ideated with your colleagues.
  • You conducted that research to get both qual and quant.
  • You built your proposal and you got it approved.

Case studies

Lyft Line

We used to call our shared product Lyft Line, the tricky part with that is you don't exactly know what that is when you get in the car. It turns out to be a problem when people will get into the car, and they didn't expect other humans and then they're grumpy about those other humans.

So what we did was we said, we actually need to rename this, if you use the product now you likely have noticed that it's lift share, and cancels have actually gone down now people understand it more clearly when they're making that decision when they're buying a ride.

The insight

Descriptive names are better for fast understanding.

Subscription naming

We've also named subscriptions, if I gave you the options to either name our subscription that gives you discounts on rides 'the savings plan', hyper straightforward, or 'the smart savings plan', I wonder how many people would pick just the savings plan? My guess, not many of you.

So yeah, we landed on smart savings and this is why we did that. It's more words to say but research told us that people felt better with that name because it turns out, people like to think they're smart. So we went with this and it adopted really well.

The insight

Consider how product names make people feel and the identity that it fuels.

New Coke

Let's talk about the classic blunder that was 'new coke'. I would argue here that the mistake was not just in reformulating a classic recipe, but actually framing it so aggressively with the name by calling it 'new' people were primed to think this is something way different than the product I've come to love, maybe have really nostalgic connections to.

The insight

Naming can have really outsized power to frame how people think of your product.

It’s time for some real talk

A couple of final nuggets of wisdom, some real talk here.

Example #1

The first example I see is, "I believe that there's a perfect name out there for my product". Generally, no, names have no meaning out of the gate. And really, it's familiarity that leads to liking.

An example of this, many of you may work in companies where you use project names, many of you may have had people say, "Hey, can we just call the product, the project name?" I've had this happen twice in my career and the answer is no, you cannot because it makes no sense.

But because people are familiar with it internally that's why they're recommending that. It's the same thing with external names. It's that repeated exposure that leads to liking.

Example #2

Another idea I've heard repeatedly, "If we find a strong name. leadership's going to love it!". No, it doesn't work like that, so much of the process is all about these soft skills and managing people's expectations along the way.

Over index on communicating as you're going through this and show your work as I talked about - the 50 I considered, the 10 I put into research, the one I recommend.

Example #3

Alright, my last example, "People will remember to be super objective throughout this process". No, definitely not. Naming is emotional and people bring their own bias to it.

I've seen people say, "Well, I use a product like this, and it's named that, ergo I don't like that recommendation". And that's why bringing data, research, customer quotes, these product mocks, will make it feel more real for people to eliminate a lot of this decision making bias.

To summarise

If you only remember three things, you're going to remember the naming engine and that it revs. So you're going to take away:

  1. There is a range of names that you can give to products from descriptive to branded, but generally, as product marketers we'll stick to the descriptive side, there are few times in our careers where really branded names will make sense.
  2. Explaining the process to people is just as important as the ultimate outcome of that final name.
  3. To visualize it and make it feel real for people with mocks, marketing assets, and different customer quotes.

Don't let that image of a revving, naming engine leave you. You now have the tools to make naming less daunting, to get that faster alignment, and to create more time for strategic work.

You'll spend a lot less time feeling like this...

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Written by:

Alex Chahin

Alex Chahin

VP of Marketing at Titan | ex-Lyft, Amex.

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What’s in a name? Adding method to the madness