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Brand naming & copy psychology: how to choose the right name for your services

As a marketer, I get asked about brand naming all the time. It’s one of the most important decisions you’ll make for your business and it’s not always easy.

Copywriter confession about brand naming questions

I get alarmed when I see “help” posts in marketing groups asking for quick ideas for choosing names for brands or services.

Ugly confession: as an experienced copywriter, my hackles rise too.

Some agencies ONLY do brand naming. That’s their entire, profitable business. Naming stuff takes lots of thinking and expertise. It’s not just like picking a name for your cat.

That’s why I want to share some tips on how to choose the right name for your brand or service.

As well as leading you through an easy naming framework, I’ll also show you how to create emotional branding using copy psychology.

Names are the labels on your brain’s filing cabinet

Picture yourself walking into a room filled with countless drawers of unknown items. Without labels, finding what you need is daunting.

Brand names effectively serve as labels on your brain’s filing cabinet. They help categorise your experience (and decide quickly whether that brand or service is for you).

Shocking findings about female freelancers & brand names

Harvard Business Review published an article on how the ‘glass wall’ can hold female freelancers back.

Their research looked at systemic bias against female freelancers.

And their recommendation?

Females should obscure their gender by using a business name rather than their own.

In an ideal world, we could all express every aspect of our identity without fear of bias. But in practice, our follow-up interviews with female freelancers suggested that obscuring your gender can be an effective way to avoid biased initial evaluations and get a foot in the door. One way that many freelancers do this is by incorporating their freelancing practice as a business, and then using that business’s name (rather than their own) when communicating with potential clients.” [Harvard Business Review]

I’ll leave that with you to sink in.

How to come up with a good name for your service or brand

Choosing a name for your business or service is a big decision, but it’s worth spending time getting it right.

Copywriting and name psychology can help you build a strong identity and connect with your customers.

The steps in this post should make sure your choice is unique and memorable. You don’t want your name to get lost in the shuffle. Your name should also (almost always) be easy to spell and pronounce.

Whatever you do, don’t let name choice hold you up from taking action on launching that service. Find help if it’s a real sticking point for you.

Use the 5 step summary below as a brand naming framework

Using this 5 step process, you could easily come up with a decent name in a week.

Just take one step per day.

Or you could do a brand naming sprint and do everything in a couple of days, although I recommend marinating time for all your ideas.

You can use this process whether you’re naming your business or a service within it. I’m using the phrase ‘brand naming’ as a catch-all term for all kinds of business name ideas.

Should you hire help with brand naming?

If you really can’t do it yourself, try a brand naming agency (could be spendy) or a copywriter with naming expertise. Hiring a copywriter will probably be less expensive than a specialist agency, but allow for additional consultancy fees for domain name research and trademarking too (if you need it).

You can definitely try it yourself. Start with the 5 step process below. Read the summary first.

Then use the tips that follow to complete the deeper work.

If you’d like the help of a fillable naming workbook with prompts, you can buy one here.

Brand naming process: a quick 5 step summary

Brand naming 5 step summary

Step 1: Define your messaging & target audience

Any brand naming exercise should start with a clear message and voice.

As a bare minimum, you need answers to these two questions –

  1. Who are you trying to reach with your business or service?
  2. What do those people want and need?

Step 2: The longlist – turn on the tap & let your ideas flow

In this step, you’ll come up with a list of words related to your service or brand. Any of these words could inspire potential names.

Don’t stop when you fill a page. Keep going. Note them all down, however ‘wrong’ they seem.

When I’m choosing names, I fill an A3 sheet at least with my initial ideas.

When you run out of ideas, look around. Check music playlists. Study billboards. Look at magazine covers. Your shopping list. Just let the ideas flow and note them down without judging.

Step 3: The shortlist – narrow down your most promising ideas

You can instantly strike some words off the list when you study them closely in step 3.

But what about the ‘maybes’ that remain?

Weigh up those ‘maybe’ names against the following 4 questions –

  • Relevant: does the name obviously relate to your brand or service?
  • Sticky: is it easy to remember?
  • Original: does it sound unique?
  • Positive: does the name have a golden glow around it? (You’ll learn more about the psychology of word choice when you read on).

Step 4: Test your frontrunners

Once you have chosen a shortlist of names, test-drive them.

You could –

  • Ask for feedback (preferably from ideal client types).
  • Conduct market research to see reactions.
  • Make sure the domain name is available.
  • Make sure it’s not trademarked already.

Step 5: gold medal for your best name

You’ve done it. Now get out there and launch that service, plan that event or name your business.

That’s the quick summary of the brand naming process. Now let’s break down each step at a time.

You’ll find lots of practical tips below to move through the naming process in detail.

Brand naming: steps 1-5 in depth

Brand naming step 1 - Messaging

STEP 1: Messaging & brand naming

My specialism is messaging for business, brands and solopreneurs. That means I’m never going to suggest you jump over this step.

Even if you don’t have a strategy yet (click here to see how you can get a messaging strategy), you should think about these 6 prompts.

Use these 6 thinking prompts to define your messaging …

  1. What’s the single most important benefit/main message you want to get across? Yes, just the one.
  2. Who exactly is this message for?
  3. What emotions do you want to stir up in these people?
  4. What words or phrases are relevant to these emotions?
  5. Can you incorporate any unique features of your brand or service into the name?
  6. Does your brand have a formula or follow particular conventions when choosing names? (see below for an example of this naming technique)

Formula-following naming: the Baby Giraffe technique

Takeaway: choose one word or phrase to use consistently across your business. Use a variation on this core language for every service or product you offer.

Here’s a quirky example, so you can see how easy this naming technique can be.

Belfast Zoo names all its newborn giraffes Bally(something).

For example, Ballyhenry, an endangered Rothschild giraffe, was born into the zoo’s breeding programme. He has a sibling called Ballyronan. In fact, the zoo bred 37 other baby giraffes with variations on this Bally- name.

The Baby Giraffe Technique is great for consistent messaging. You get maximum familiarity with your brand by repeating one core word/phrase in every name. And you get to do the bulk of the thinking work upfront.

Giraffe head and neck in profile
Can you apply the Baby Giraffe technique to your brand naming? (photo by Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash)
Brand naming step 2 - brainstorming a longlist

STEP 2: The longlist – how to brainstorm creative brand names

Seamus Heaney called creative inspiration “a ball kicked in from nowhere“.

I love the Heaney metaphor, but you can prod your creative brain into action without waiting for the unexpected ball to be kicked into play.

Here are some easy brainstorming techniques for brand naming. If you’re looking for an ultimate guide to brainstorming brand names, I recommend Onym resources.

Convertkit also has a handy guide to naming your newsletter.

Brand name brainstorming techniques (with examples)

I usually start Step 2 with a word association exercise.

Write down a list of words or phrases that are relevant to your product or service. Then, brainstorm associated words or phrases that come to mind when you think of them. It feels like this was how the energy company, Bulb, got its name.

It often helps to note these down in a mind map, with a central concept and related words branching out from it.

More so than a list, this visual technique has helped me make some surprising connections between words. Sometimes I also use a random word generator just to spark ideas.

Sticky notes are also a useful idea. Write one word/phrase per note, then you can shuffle them around to see what creative ideas flow.

Sticky notes can help generate connections between words (photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash)

Try making portmanteau names

This just means blending two words together to create a new one, like Brangelina or spork.

For example, in my workspace, I’ve named my flesk (floor-desk).

It’s a trick that lots of well-known brands use. I call it The Noun Smoosh.

To try it, just list nouns only (may or may not be related to your offer), then spend a happy hour smooshing them together until you hit the jackpot.

Some examples of portmanteau brand names in the wild –

  • Evernote
  • Instagram
  • Pinterest

Make adverbs by adding -LY or turn nouns into verbs by adding -IFY

Potentially an overdone naming technique, but experimenting with it could lead you to interesting places.

  • Deliciously Ella
  • Grammarly
  • Weebly (more of a nonsense word with -ly added)
  • Spotify
  • Shopify

Build a quirky combo by joining unrelated words

FMCG brands use this technique a lot. No reason why it can’t create something memorable for service businesses too.

  • Field Doctor
  • Cheeky Panda
  • Fat Llama
  • Bending Spoons
  • Lucky Saint
  • Toucan Box
  • Tony’s Chocoloney
  • Fever Tree

Create mental associations with hint-y names

  • Revolut (revolutionary banking)
  • Viagra (supposedly inspired by a vigour/Niagara combo)
  • Netflix (movies -flicks- on the internet)
  • PayPal (the friendly way to get paid)

Founder names suggest a business is trustworthy, personal & a bit retro

  • Abel & Cole
  • Pip & Nut
  • Me & Em

By choosing a founder brand name, you can also lean on the psychology of Authority Bias. This is one of Robert Cialdini’s key principles of influence. This bias suggests that we tend to trust people who signify authority – that’s why brands invite people of influence to endorse their products. Unsurprisingly, it can help to tie your ideas or products to the name of a recognised authority figure.

I suspect even a lesser-known named authority has a similar effect. Sometimes even a simple title can signal trust to a customer. Think of Dr Bronner’s soap products. Or Dr Martens, Dr Pepper, Dr Seuss and the Baby Einstein franchise.

One word names (increasingly hard to do – the good ones are mostly taken)

  • Lick (paint)
  • Graze (snacks)
  • Dash (water)
  • Pact (coffee)
  • Tide (banking)

Misspelled versions of common words (because the real words are already taken)

  • Lyft
  • Digg

One great example of this I spotted recently is The Sports Bra (a sports bar and restaurant in Portland). Clever name for a bar that’s dedicated to showing women’s sports.

Sometimes this naming technique relies on disemvowelling. It began with tech startups and then other brands jumped on the bandwagon. It suggests something rugged and no-nonsense, although I sense the trend has waned. The latest research seems to suggest that choosing unconventional spellings for brand names may backfire. (The Ariyh newsletter has a useful post on this topic).

  • Abrdn
  • Unbxd
  • Mndfl
  • Srsly Chocolate

Try some ‘What it says on the tin’ names

  • Not another bunch of flowers
  • Whole Foods
  • Scottish Power

The most important thing in Step 2 is to let your brain play with ideas. You can weigh them up later. For now, just note them down.

Step 3 - creating a shortlist

STEP 3: Weigh up your list of possible brand names

Now it’s time to narrow your options and weigh up the merits of the words on your list.

In Step 3, you’ll create a shortlist.

To arrive at a shortlist, check names against this criteria.

Which names on your longlist are –

  • Easy to say?
  • Simple to spell?
  • Suitably short?
  • Distinct and not generic?
  • Memorable?

In this Forbes article on brand names, behavioural scientist Roger Dooley puts forward a counterintuitive opinion – specifically, that sometimes a disfluent or more complicated name is the better choice. Dooley quotes Adam Alter’s analysis of the Häagen Dazs brand, suggesting that a harder-to-process name can signal luxury and distinction to customers.

Once you’ve settled on name length and identified some possible candidates, let’s think about the emotions they bring to mind. This can either be from the associations they come primed with, or from the sound of the words themselves.

Which leads me to my favourite topic, copy psychology.

How to do smarter brand naming with copy psychology

The psychology of names and naming is fascinating. Not just for brands, but for people too.

Did you know, for example, that people who have names with positive associations tend to do better in life? (Richard Wiseman, 59 Seconds)

Someone with the surname Gold, for example, will tend to do better in life than Mr Crooks or Ms Payne.

Heuristics & copy psychology

Let’s look at five ways that our brains make sense of names.

Subliminal priming

Subliminal priming refers to the subtle activation of certain ideas or concepts in your subconscious mind. These can influence your thoughts and behaviour.

In the context of naming, marketers can use words or elements to subliminally prime with positive associations or emotions.

Lush is a also great example of this. The word itself primes us to associate the brand with nature – fresh, indulgent and full of life.

The individual phonemes of the word are also entirely on-brand – the rounded l sound, soft vowel and the melodic, hissing sh.

Phonetic patterns that resemble words associated with success or happiness can create a subconscious positive bias towards the brand.

For example, the prefix ex- can imply excellence or superiority, as seen in brands like Expedia or Microsoft Excel.

Sound symbolism

Sound symbolism refers to certain sounds or phonetic patterns that are already associated with specific meanings or qualities.

Marketers can leverage this by choosing brand names with phonetic qualities strategically aligned with the brand image or attributes.

For instance, sharp, crisp sounds like k or t in a brand name can help marketers convey brand values of precision or efficiency.

On the other hand, soft vowel sounds like the long o in skincare brand Dove, suggest nurture. And of course, there’s priming in the word dove itself – a bird associated with whiteness, purity and gentleness.

Mere Exposure Effect

The Familiarity Principle (or Mere Exposure Effect) suggests that people tend to prefer things they are familiar with, or have been exposed to before.

Marketers can leverage this by incorporating familiar words, phrases or cultural references into brand names. By tapping into familiar elements, you can create an immediate sense of comfort, recognition and trustworthiness.

Patagonia is a great example of this. By associating the brand with a rugged region of exploration, we get adventurous vibes from this brand before we even take a close look at the products.

Novelty bias

On the flip side of familiarity, novelty bias suggests that people are often drawn to things that are new, unique or different.

Marketers can harness this by creating brand names that stand out from the competition and pique curiosity.

Unconventional word combinations, playful language or unexpected associations can make a brand more memorable.

Innocent embraces novelty combined with playfulness. The name itself suggests simplicity and wholesomeness. We’ve come to expect unworldly whimsy from the brand, which fits perfectly with the playful, childish associations we get from the name.

Bias towards concreteness

This bias, otherwise known as the Concreteness Effect, suggests that our brains process concrete words more quickly and easily than abstract ones.

Marketers can use descriptive or suggestive words in names that make it easier to picture the key benefits, features or purpose of the brand.

This helps customers understand quickly what the brand offers, smoothing the way for faster decision-making.

PayPal and QuickBooks leverage this in their brand names.

The surprising impact of the Name-Letter Effect

The Name-Letter Effect is the tendency for people to prefer the letters in their own name over other letters in the alphabet.

The effect is most pronounced for the first letter in any name. That’s because the first letter is the most salient and distinctive part of a word.

Although this effect has been found in several studies, there’s no certainty about why it happens. Probably we associate our own names with positive emotions. In turn, that makes us more likely to feel positive about other names containing the same letters.

Read more about the science behind name-letter preferences here.

The Name-Letter Effect suggests that people are more likely to remember and prefer brands using letters associated with their own names.

Why am I telling you this?

Not because it’s simple psychology to apply to branding, but because of what it reveals about the emotional resonance of words. And even letters and sounds within words.

The Name-Letter Effect & positive emotional branding

Unless you’re targeting your services towards people whose names begin with P, for example, this might not seem relevant or useful. However, the science does tell us something about the subconscious associations we make when we hear names.

The most effective and stickiest names create some kind of emotional resonance in customers’ brains.

How do we create this emotional resonance with language?

By understanding the cognitive biases at play and choosing words with positive associations.

Copy psychology creates positive emotional branding through language (photo by Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash)

Aptronyms & brand names

An aptronym is a term used to describe a person’s name that is highly suited to their job, character or personal qualities. For example, Mr Carpenter the woodturner is an aptronym.

In fiction, the term is called a charactonym. For instance, Mr Banks in Mary Poppins, who works in – yes, you’ve guessed it – a bank.

Aptronyms used by marketers in brand naming often use wordplay or humour to create memorability.

FitBit and Rayban are both aptronyms.

Speedo is too. In fact, Speedo is a marketing variation on the naming trope of picking a quality (in this case speed, and adding an o to create a name). Just as the Marx Brothers did with Groucho. Or we all do with Weirdo.

That’s just one naming option for marketers. Brand namers could also consider taking a relevant, familiar term, shortening it, then adding an o. For example, techno or dino.

Positive word associations & The Halo Effect

The Halo Effect is a cognitive bias that shows we tend to make assumptions about a person based on a single positive or negative trait.

For example, when we meet someone who is well-dressed, we tend to assume they have other positive qualities too. We might assume they’re also successful and intelligent.

Copywriters can also maximise a version of the Halo Effect through language choice.

By using metaphorical language that suggests positivity in brand naming or messaging, a smart copywriter creates a Halo Effect around a business.

Let’s take the name Glossier as an example. In my opinion, this is a great name for a make-up brand.

Here’s what the Glossier name has –

  • Euphony – it sounds great (more on that later)
  • Emotional resonance (who doesn’t want to be glossier?)
  • A Halo Effect suggesting polish, sheen and poise.

Come to think of it, would Glossiest be even more effective?

Lower in euphony (because of the sound of that abrupt t) but higher in emotional resonance (yes to being the best, the most glossy).

How to apply the Halo Effect in brand naming: 3 examples

Here are 3 easy-to-use examples of language choice to maximise the Halo Effect –

Use brand language that suggests sunshine & warmth

Metaphors of sunshine and warmth suggest positivity in our brains. That’s because we often associate comfortable heat with positive emotions.

In fact, without thinking, we express all kinds of emotions using metaphors of heat. You might say you’re lukewarm to an idea. Or decide that someone is hot!

Laughter is warm, hearts are warm, smiles are warm, hugs are warm.

Someone’s kind words can warm your heart. You can glow with happiness.

Here are some examples of naming words with positive ‘warmth’ associations – ray, light, glow, golden, bright, shine, beam.

Blue skies & clear water = emotional clarity

Expanses of sky and water can create a linguistic Halo Effect that suggests clarity.

For example, thoughts can be cloudless like the sky. Or calm, like a body of water.

Other variations of naming words suggesting natural clarity include – horizon, blue, clear, tide, shore, still, ease, oasis.

Blue skies and clear water = the language of emotional clarity (photo by Emma Harper on Unsplash)

Metaphors of natural growth = emotional & business growth

The natural growth of flowers and plants evokes positive associations in our brains. Instinctively, we link these words and images with individuals (and brands) growing and flourishing.

Some examples of words to consider to give the Halo Effect of growth include – bloom, blossom, heights, nurture, unfurl, spring, flower, rosy, sprout, bud, ripe, petal.

Emotional resonance doesn’t just come from word choice. Sound matters too.

Every copywriter with even a passing interest in the psychology of words has heard of the Kiki/Bouba experiment.

This study (and variations on it) mapped the sound of words to our perception of the shape of object they described.

The original study asked participants to match nonsense words to a shape.

In brief, a majority matched Kiki to a sharp-edged shape and Bouba to a curved one. Similar findings have been observed in people across different cultures, native languages and age profiles.

One theory suggests that the way we produce the sound in our bodies influences our perception of the thing described.

Read more about the Bouba/Kiki Effect here.

We’re getting in depth now and talking phonemes. Ready?

Copywriters – this is for you. We’re talking phonemes.

A phoneme is a small unit of sound.

The sound of the letter j in job is a phoneme.

The sound of the sh in ship is also a phoneme.

Taking English as an example, some sounds or phonemes sound more pleasant (softer, rounder, more harmonious) to our ears than others.

For example, L and R sounds flow easily and smoothly off the tongue. To see what I mean, try saying them to yourself.

Sounds that soothe (or not)

Hissing or buzzing consonants, known as fricatives, are less soothing.

When you say them, you’ll see that your mouth and vocal cords produce the sound differently.

Try f as in fan and z as in zip. Compare how they sound in contrast to the smooth, flowing l as in love or r as in run.

It’s worth remembering that vowels sound softer than consonants too. As you say vowels, the air flows easily through your vocal chords and out your mouth.

There’s an element of poetry in great copy. Copywriters and strategists with a deep understanding of how language works, and crucially how it makes us feel, can play with words to create names that not only sound good, but feel good too.

Syllable structure can also influence our emotional responses.

For example, brand names with two syllables and a stressed-unstressed syllable pattern (called a trochee) – like Starbucks – sound more accented, urgent and lively.

Unlike trochees, spondaic feet contain two stressed syllables. This is much more unusual in brand names, but gives the effect of forcefulness or intensity. Netflix and TicTac follow this format.

Euphony: A pleasing smoothness of sound, perceived by the ease with which the words can be spoken in combination. The use of long vowels, liquid consonants (lr), and semi-vowels (wy), contributes to euphony, along with the avoidance of adjacent stresses; the meaning of the words, however, has an important effect too. Euphony is the opposite of cacophony. 

The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms

We’re aiming for euphony

That’s the detailed definition of euphony above. Basically, euphony happens when a sound pleases the ear and brain.

Google, for example, is a euphonic brand name, because the double o gives it a musical quality.

Sound symbolism & names

Sound symbolism seeks to find links between the sound of words (or their phonemes) and their meaning.

A 2013 study on sound symbolism looked at the most popular British, Australian and American baby names over a period of 10 years. It found that male names were significantly more likely to include ‘larger-sounding’ phonemes, while female names were significantly more likely to include ‘smaller-sounding’ phonemes. The study gives the example of Thomas and Emily to illustrate their findings.

You can read more in the full study about high front vowels, such as the i in Emily, and low back vowels such as o in Thomas.

This study suggests that we associate low-frequency sounds with larger, more dominant characteristics.

How this might play out in the field of brand names is pure conjecture, but worth thinking about. If it is possible to infer gender from the phonology of names, or even predict expected job success based on the meaning of names, this could have interesting implications for brand positioning.

The Rhyme-as-Reason Effect in copywriting

The Rhyme-as-Reason Effect is another cognitive bias that’s useful for copywriters. It reveals that people are more likely to be persuaded by a phrase or statement if it’s presented as a rhyme.

The science suggests that this effect occurs because rhyme is more fluent and easier to process in the brain. It seems to lead to greater familiarity and credibility.

You can use straight-up rhyme in your name. Or try to create a pleasing sound from internal melody, by picking words using alliteration or assonance.

Naming, copywriting & alliteration

Alliteration happens when the same consonant sound repeats in a phrase. For example, Ted Talks.

You can use an online thesaurus to find related words starting with the same letter. I like Onelook for this alliteration task.

Assonance for copywriters

Assonance happens when vowel sounds repeat in a phrase or name. For example, Dropbox (say it and see how your mouth forms the repeated o sound).

You could use an AI tool to generate words with assonance. Try a prompt like this on ChatGPT –

Suggest words with assonance to [your word] but which don’t rhyme with it. These words should have a short [o] sound (tailor your prompt by choosing which vowel sound you want to repeat).

Step 4 testing your brand name

STEP 4: How to test your name choices

This stage of brand naming is simply a deeper dive into the kind of questions you considered in step 3.

This step involves less creative effort and more admin.

Watch out for these mistakes in your now-much-shorter list of names –

Step 5 choose a winning brand or service name

Step 5: and the winner is …

By step 5, you should have arrived at a winning name for your brand, business or service. Now it’s time to get it out there.

You might have landed on a small tweak to an existing name or a shiny new word or phrase.

A quick name change story

During some one-to-one work with one of my clients, we deliberated a name change.

The existing business name, Curiosity and Clarity, was nicely alliterative.

It summed up the benefits of working with this business (their service is market research and customer insight).

It also had emotional resonance. Above all, curious customers wanted clarity about what business move to make next.

However, it was a bit of a mouthful. That’s why we settled on a tiny, but effective, tweak to the existing name.

That’s how Curiosity and Clarity became Curious to Clear.

The new name has the same alliteration and resonance, but now also suggests a journey or emotional transformation. And it’s much easier to say and spell.

Need some help with messaging or brand naming?

That’s exactly what I do for my clients.

Check out my services here and let’s chat about what you need to move forward.

Summary: naming prompts for marketers using copy psychology

Not all of these thinking prompts will be appropriate for every one of your naming projects.

However, it’s always worth considering your shortlist against these prompts. Sometimes they’ll help you come up with a new and better option. Other times, you’ll be able to make tweaks to optimise the choices you already have.

  • Can you include a word or reference in your name that links to something familiar and trustworthy?
  • Have you considered converting any abstract words in your name into concrete words? Can you ‘picture’ your name easily?
  • Have you broken down the phonemes in your name choices, to assess how they sound? What bodily movements create the sound? For example, does your mouth move into a smile as you say it?
  • Is it more appropriate for your brand to use soft, smoothing phonemes or sharp, crisp ones?
  • Can you incorporate any kind or rhyme or musicality, such as alliteration or assonance?
  • Have you considered using specific naming shortcuts, like shortening a familiar word then adding an o?
  • Does your name contain words with positive emotional associations? If not, can you include some?

Not sure where to start?

Get my fillable workbook on choosing a name for your service, business or brand. For a few pounds, it’ll take you through each step. Grab your workbook copy here.