4 Ingredients of Naming

Like cakes, names are built from multiple ingredients. At River + Wolf, we call these ingredients as the 4 Cs: character, communication, construction, and continuum. Below is a breakdown of each. 

Character is the personality of the name — what in the branding world is referred to as “tone of voice”. In examples, do you want a name that feels classical or edgy? Whimsical or scientific? Technical or natural? Whatever character or personality you choose, it should match your brand. In the athleisurewear industry, for example, Cobalt21 conveys a powerful, strong character. On the other hand, the personality of Oiselle is lyrical and poetic. Or, in fans, Craftmade has a premium and artistic character whereas Big Ass Fans is playful and a bit off-color. 

Construction refers to the build of the name. Some of the most popular are single dictionary words, camelback names, lexical blends, clipped or  telescoped words, short phrases, and acronyms. To cite a few examples: Senhance, a surgical robot name developed by River + Wolf (built from the Latin word for senses and the English word “enhance”). YouTube is called a camel case name as it features a medial capital (which make it look like the hump of a camel). LinkedIn and StumbleUpon are examples of phrasal names and Fedex is a clipped or telescoped name. 

Acronym type names can be a real word created from a longer string of words such as MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) or K.I.N.D (Kids in Need of Desks) or else be an abbreviation formed from the initial letters of other words like AOL (American Online) or KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken). 

Communication refers to the message or messages you want your name to telegraph, directly or indirectly. Even if the product of company is the same, names can convey different communications. In the cryptocurrency space, Tether speaks to stability whereas Neo conveys a new kind of money. And Ripple gets at yet another communication — that of ever-widening reach. 

The 4th C — continuum — highlights the fact that brand names fall on what the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) calls a Spectrum of Distinction. On one end of this spectrum you’ll find generic names and on the other, fanciful ones. Falling between these two extremes are descriptive, suggestive, and arbitrary marks. To get a better sense of these categories, let’s take a closer look at each.

Generic 

A generic name is synonymous with a general class of product or service. No one can have exclusive rights to a term that simply describes a goods or service — e.g. shoes, chairs, etc. That said, context matters. A crayon manufacturing company called Crayons would not be trademarkable; however, a non-profit called The Crayon Initiative led to a successful trademark registration. 

Descriptive 

Descriptive names tell you exactly what the product is or what it does. Examples of descriptive names are Three Day Blinds, TripAdvisor, and VitaminWater. Clearly, no head scratchers here. Be wary, however, of overly descriptive names; they can be hard to trademark unless they accrue a secondary meaning as was the case with Holiday Inn. 

Suggestive 

These kinds of names hover between descriptive and arbitrary. They aren’t as obvious as descriptive names, but they do suggest something about the underlying goods or services. Method is a considered suggestive because its meaning is associated with cleaning and ordering. Chop’t, a salad restaurant chain, calls up the eatery’s main foods — salads and vegetables. 

Arbitrary

Arbitrary names are real words that bear no obvious relationship to the underlying business or offerings. Apple is an excellent example of an arbitrary name as its meaning only becomes clear with some imaginative riffing. An apple could point to the Tree of Knowledge (Adam and Eve), education (students often give teachers apples), or science (Newton and the apple). Perhaps, given the streamlined look of an apple, the name is meant to call out the company’s minimalist aesthetic. 

Fanciful

Fanciful marks are invented words. They may point to some relevant meaning—the sleeping pill Lunesta fuses the word “luna” for moon and “esta” from siesta. Fanciful names can also be meaningless like Kodak and Oreo. Similarly, foreign words unknown to the average customer can fall into the fanciful category as is the case with Kijiji, the name of a Craig’s like platform in Canada means “village” in Swahili. The fanciful category also includes pairs of real words not commonly found together — think Youtube and Facebook. 

The four categories on the naming spectrum are neither hard nor fast — one category can blur into another. Similarly, the ingredients aren’t always sharply distinct. That said, having a grasp on these things is wise; it can help you cook up some good, maybe even great names!

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