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There’s More to Naming Than Meets the Eye: Using Psychology to Create Brand Names

The branding decisions of your startup live and die with their name. Naming carries your branding, and that carriage trickles right down to each and every product. The best brand names come easily to the tip of the customer’s tongue. They’re easy to say, easy to remember, easy to refer to, and with repetition they get incorporated into our cultural consciousness.

The relationship of the name to the product is one of the most important resources that creative marketing has to work with. But there’s more to a name than the memorable syllables that we map our image onto.

Brand names are ubiquitous and naturalized around us. Some of these sprung up as happy accidents. Others, though, have been carefully crafted to appeal to our psychology and the emotionally-driven science behind naming. This science is geared toward making names easy to remember, and compelling to their target demographic. So, what is this science, and how can you master it?

Let’s look at the psychological background of naming, and how it plays into a customers’ everyday perceptions of brands.




How We Remember Words

Whether or not we know exactly what we’re looking at, words have shape and form. This means that when we think about how a word will convey our brand, we are already beginning thinking graphically. This is because the linguistic parts of our mind have learned character recognition, as well as gestalts, or the ability to take in a complete shape of a word.

With branding, as with many proper nouns, our mind ties the name and sound to its shape. For example, it’s difficult to think about Apple’s branded, lowercase “i”—iPhone, iPad, etc.—without knowing that the “i” is lowercase. And, indeed, if these product names were spelled differently, it would take our brains more time to understand what word we’re reading.

This awareness of the word’s shape and form stems from gestalt psychology, which allows us to perceive words as a complete whole, even when they’re deformed for design.

Our brain fills in the gaps. It makes assumptions based on prior experience and learned feedback, and it uses these assumptions to influence our perception of a brand, as well as our willingness to engage with it, and the likelihood that we’ll remember it. This means that our perception of a brand is both subjective and cultural.

Speaking of cultural resonances, this can get very specific. Cultural feedback and tastes aren’t only affected by one’s country, nation, or broader linguistic tradition. Cultural feedback can also affect individual perception on the regional, city, and local level, as well as generational groupings, professions, hobby groups, and other peer groups.


How Branding Addresses Customer Needs

The brand offers a promise that lures customers in. As customers, this promise triggers our amygdala, or the pleasure center of the brain which fields and modifies many of our perceptions.

The promise, however, doesn’t addressing arbitrary feelings or rootless gut reactions. Instead, these brands are promising to fulfill psychological needs. While the way that these needs are expressed may be culturally coded, the function of these psychological needs is part of the common human brain. This is one of the reasons that brands that are widely successful in one place may also successfully translate globally.

Brands tick off boxes starting at our basic needs. Basic or fundamental needs have to do with the conditions of our physical and living experiences. The hierarchy of needs then moves toward the more abstract with our individual growth needs. Growth needs make their promises based on self and cultural identity, as well as personal development. Fundamental psychologist Abraham Maslow identified the hierarchy of human motivational needs as follows:

(You can use this as a checklist to see what needs your product meets, and how to use your branding and marketing to make these promises to the consumer).

  • Physiological: Does your product satisfy hunger? Thirst? Physical needs and basic bodily functions?
  • Safety: Does your product offer safety and security? Does it provide shelter and protection?
  • Love and Belonging: Can your product offer a sense of affiliation? Does it augment the way that an individual obtains affection or acceptance?
  • Esteem: Does it make people feel good? Does it offer them a sense of recognition among peers? Is there a sense of status, prestige, or respect? Can it help them improve the way that they see themselves?

If your product doesn’t have many of these basic needs covered in its marketing, then you can target growth needs, instead. Take note that the average person will invest first in their basic needs before growth needs, which are more likely seen as luxury expenses.

  • Cognitive: Does your brand or product provide knowledge or a sense of understanding? Can it strengthen the individual mind?
  • Aesthetic: Does it offer beauty, a sense of order, or symmetry? Does it appeal to self-representation?
  • Self-Actualization: Does it offer some form of self-fulfillment or personal growth? Does it give consumers a chance to realize their full potential?
  • Transcendence: Does it empower your consumers to help others? Does it give your consumer the opportunity to aid others in realizing their own potential?

Using Names to Incite Emotional Purchasing

These motivational needs are longhand for talking about the way that brands help individual form their social identity and incite emotional purchasing.

Consumers construct their identity and present themselves to others through their brand purchases. This is good for companies, as happy consumers will wear, use brands, and refer friends, thus offering these companies their social endorsement.

On the failure scale, however, branding a product with a name that individuals don’t want to be seen with or can’t identify with will often amount to your brand being bypassed for the competition.

Tips for Using Psychology to Create Brand Names

The name of a brand is one of the biggest decisions that your Startup will make. It’s also among the most difficult to change. If you need to change your brand name, though, don’t lose heart. Many companies have changed their name and become extremely successful from it.

Here are some tips to help you get started with your naming decision:

Use Shape and Sounds

A good brand name ticks both the boxes of having an appealing shape and sound.

A name’s shape will determine our overall impression of how it looks. One way to change the shape of a word is to try out word modifications. You can explore the potential of your word by adding a prefix or suffix, purposefully misspelling or truncating it in a memorable way, or using a meaningful abbreviation.

You want people to talk about your brand, so the name’s sound must be distinctive and easy to say. When we speak about brands in conversation, the words become normalized due to our exposure to them. However, they should not lose their ability to sound a little different from a normal word within their syntax.

Fortunately, most cultures take care of this for you with speaking inflections that are slightly different to highlight proper nouns. Branding can accent this by inventing new words, altering the syntax of words, or falsifying expectations with an unexpected or contradictory combination of words.

Portmanteau and Compound Words Brand Names

Portmanteau and compound word naming is very trendy in the startup community. Though it can be seen as a fad to make technological companies appear futuristic, there are some strong reasons as to why this naming method works so well.

To make a compound word, add two words together that combine to say what you mean. This is particularly effective with naming that addressing at least one fundamental psychological need and at least one growth need. Consider the branding of FitBit. It tells consumers that it provides both a physiological function (“fit” standing in for fitness) as well as a cognitive function (“bit” implying digital data).

Portmanteaus refer to putting together two different words without either of them being whole. Portmanteaus often work as puns. In most cases, the portmanteau method reshapes the form of the word into something more interesting to our brains.

Portmanteaus cut off part of the words they use, which gives our mind more to puzzle and figure out, making the word more interesting to us. This is similar to the photographic concept of using odds, which tend to be more intriguing to the brain than evens. Truncated words interest us because they give our mind something to figure out. Once our brain has worked on a word enough to figure it out, we are more likely to remember it.

Keep It Simple

Use clear and memorable words that state what your brand does. This will get you further than something obscure and non-descriptive.

Also be aware of linguistic differences. People don’t like to order things that they can’t pronounce, often out of a fear of appearing foolish in a social setting. This means simpler wording, clear translations, and abbreviated use of foreign words will allow customers to feel more in their comfort zone with your brand than otherwise. If, however, your brand is attempting to communicate complexity or draw customers out of their comfort zone, go for it, but be aware that you may drive away some potential audience.

Ultimately, your brand name should be explainable. If someone asks you about your brand name, you should be able to clearly indicate what it means and why you chose it. Your explanation should feel natural, while also conveying a compelling part of your brand story.

Make Sure It’s Available

You don’t want to brand your company with a name that is taken by an established business or rings too close to a name that is already in use. Not only will you likely lose this popularity contest if you’re just beginning, but you may also find yourself facing a lawsuit. This means that even after you’ve chosen your name, you should keep doing your research to make sure it’s not already out there somewhere.

Each industry and culture has their own brand naming conventions and styles. However, these will generally work in similar ways, as they convey their promises to consumers and help to fill psychological needs. This makes it an emotional decision to engage with a brand. Over time and with repeated use, brand names form a gestalt and naturalize in our language, allowing us to identify certain brands as meaningful cultural symbols.

Rebecca Moses on Twitter
Rebecca Moses
Staff Writer: Rebecca Moses is a creative writer who can't keep from meddling in the real world. While living in Colorado, she developed a particular interest in small business production. She loves a writing challenge, dabbles in illustration, and reads to figure out how all things work and grow. Find her at RebeccaMosesWriting.com

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Staff Writer: Rebecca Moses is a creative writer who can't keep from meddling in the real world. While living in Colorado, she developed a particular interest in small business production. She loves a writing challenge, dabbles in illustration, and reads to figure out how all things work and grow. Find her at RebeccaMosesWriting.com

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