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Brand Naming Is Tricky, and Generative AI Can’t Do It (Yet)

A brand’s name is the start of its story – the launching pad for all branding and marketing initiatives. At minimum, the name must be pleasant on the tongue and easy to spell – sometimes in a dozen languages or more. It should be visually appealing as it will appear on digital ads, billboards, and products.

Even more, the name needs to communicate something about the brand and convey its personality. And it must be broad enough to account for the company’s evolution. Case in point: Amazon started as a bookseller… how fortunate it did not limit itself to a name with “books” baked in.

If that’s not enough, it also needs to also clear the hurdles of linguistic checks and avoid trademark conflicts. Sometimes in dozens or more countries.

So, how do brand naming specialists address this daunting task? Happily, there is a method to the madness of naming, and it begins prior to any name creation.

First Steps in Naming

Generally, the preparation for a naming project is threefold: conducting in-depth research on the client’s industry, audience, and competitive landscape, establishing naming criteria, and developing unique pathways to inspire names conveying a range of communications.

Given this considerable upfront work, I wondered if ChatGPT could really create noteworthy names based on simple queries.

To answer this question, I took the AI for a spin, asking it to create a name for a fictitious non-alcoholic craft brewery. To keep the process manageable, I restricted it to five options.

Test Drive

My first prompt was straight forward: “create five brand names for a non-alcoholic brewery”. The bot buckled down and within ten seconds, generated five names with rationales for each one (for simplicity’s sake, I’ve omitted those here):

• Clear Brew
• Sobriety Brewing
• Brew Without Limit
• Hops Without Hangovers
• No Proof Brewing Co

Hops without Hangover is a fun, phrasal name with memorable music. And Clear Brew isn’t bad as it nods to “clear-headed”, though on superficial look the name will hit trademark issues in the USPTO (United States Patent and Trademark Office) and the EUIPO (The European Union Intellectual Property Office).

For that matter, most of the bot’s offerings carried significant risks for a trademark refusal. Compounding problems, they tended towards the descriptive, and descriptive names don’t make the strongest trademarks.

Most great names are suggestive, arbitrary or even abstract or “fanciful”. More often than not, such names are the result of lateral thinking – an indirect, non-linear approach to problem-solving that can lead to more original and surprising outcomes.

To help the bot move beyond its penchant for “on the nose” offerings, I made the next prompt more specific: “create five names for a non-alcoholic brewing company inspired by myth, folklore, or beer-making terminology”.

The bot obliged, proffering up two names:

• Nectar of the Nymphs
• Wort’s Wisdom

While more imaginative than the first group, these too fell short. For obvious reasons, the wince-worthy “Wort’s Wisdom”, was a no-go. The AI agreed. When I queried “Why can’t generative AI create great brand names?”, it responded:

“The English language is full of irregular spellings, pronunciations, and meanings. Generative AI may struggle to understand the subtleties of language and may generate names that are confusing or hard to pronounce.”

Case in point.

Too, the alliteration is unsophisticated. In the hands of great poets, alliteration can be spellbinding; it can create music that sways the heart. Music that stays in the mind long after the reading is over. And while this much-used literary device can lead to memorable brand names – think Tik Tok – it can also lead to names with a juvenile tone. Chucky Cheese anyone?

To help the AI overcome its penchant for overly cute, alliterative names, I spelled-out a specific character or tonality in my next prompt: “develop five brand names for a premium brewery making non-alcoholic beers”. The bot spit out five new names:

• Elevate Brewing Company
• Nectar Brews
• Craft Zero
• Sans ABV
• Revelry

Getting better. “Revelry” possessed a luxurious tonality, as the bot itself noted in its accompanying rationale. “Sans ABV” had a sleek, sophisticated feel. “Revelry” also went beyond the obvious benefit of “no hangover” and “sobriety” to the more nuanced idea that fun, festive moods are possible, even without alcohol.

Despite these improvements, the bot continued to strike out in the trademark department. Given today’s crowded databases, single English words like Revelry, Elevate, and Nectar are almost always non-starters, especially in crowded trademark classes like the ones for beer and light beverages, wines and spirits.

Moreover, as ABV is an industry acronym for “alcohol by volume” the name “Sans ABV” might be considered “merely descriptive” from a trademark perspective. Using “sans”, the French word for “without”, doesn’t help much either. Under the doctrine of foreign equivalents, a foreign word (from a language familiar to an appreciable number of American consumers) will be translated into its English equivalent.

ABV is also an industry term, known as a “term of art” and “terms of art” are not trademarkable.

Trademark issues can be the buzzkill of naming. And while the bot’s chops created some “almost good” names, its failure to create monikers with reasonable chances of surviving the trademark clearance process, puts the “naming is easy” myth to rest.

That aside, I was intrigued by how a more specifically-defined character improved the names. To see if the bot could repeat its success, I changed the tonality and added a target demographic: “create five irreverent names for a non-alcoholic beer targeting a 20–30-year-old audience”. The bot kicked into gear and came up with five new names:

• Buzzkill Brews
• Sober Sips
• The New Brew Crew
• NAB Co.
• Boozeless Brews

Apart from the pedestrian “Sober Sips” and “Boozeless Brews” (the kind of names typical of novice namers), this group was more nuanced. I found the AI’s ability to see the cool factor in “NAB”, the acronym for “non-alcoholic beer” impressive, the “term of art” issue notwithstanding. And its ability to create a name like “The New Brew Crew”, suggesting a likeminded group for a new kind of beer, is notable. And “Buzzkill” delivers on the request for names with an irreverent tone (the others not so much).

That said – and no surprise here – Buzzkill is already registered as a wine and aerated water. For trademark purposes, wine and water are considered related goods to beer. So, while there might be room for co-existence agreements, the bot created another high-risk name. In fact, I am beginning to wonder if its neural network had been trained on data found in worldwide Patent and Trademark Offices!

In Conclusion

When faced with the equal parts daunting and delightful task of naming a new brand, we do many things at River + Wolf to ignite a creative spark.

We wander the aisles of bookstores, riffle through magazines, and study product labels as if preparing for a quiz. We take deep dives into multiple disciplines, from mathematics and music to food and fashion and everything in-between, forever on the lookout for intriguing words and concepts in the magical, messy world of language.

We review venture capital portfolios to get a sense of the zeitgeist, and pore over poetry, songs, and arcane books of symbols, foreign languages, and word etymologies.

I would happily add ChatGPT to our toolbox because ChatGPT is a good tool. And it could become even better if a naming specialist partnered with an architect in the emerging discipline of prompt engineering who assists large language models such as ChatGPT yield better, more accurate responses.

And wouldn’t it be great if the AI could be linked to worldwide patent and trademark offices so it could avoid, at minimum, blatant trademark conflicts?

Professional namers, not ChatGPT, understand how to craft brand naming strategies, avoid the obvious, and, with the help of IP attorneys, navigate the murky waters of trademark law. They also know how to get individuals to rally around a name – a huge part of any name development assignment.

For these reasons, at least at its current stage of development, ChatGPT is a handy tool for ideation and inspiration, but it would be a mistake to rely on it to quality creative naming work.

My hope is that business owners and brand managers, along with entrepreneurs looking to develop names, understand these limitations, too.