Choosing a new name for a brand or a product is never easy. This is particularly true for companies that, through private equity acquisitions and spin-offs or other M&A activity, find themselves needing to quickly find a new name to separate them from their past affiliation. But finding a name that is original and conveys the right tone and attributes is difficult. Add to that the requirement that a URL be available, and it becomes seemingly impossible. Yet, as top branding agencies know, finding a strong new name can help launch a new brand that gets noticed, or re-ignite an old brand that is need of a new direction. What it takes is a proven and disciplined approach.

Finding the right name is hardly a new problem. Ford Motor Company notoriously faced this issue in the mid-1950s when launching a new line of vehicles into the U.S. market. Recently retold in an article in The New Yorker magazine, Ford searched long and hard to find a name for its newest car, even turning to a poet for help. She came up with a long list of suggestions that didn’t sound like a car, including the Intelligent Bullet, the Ford Fabergé, the Mongoose Civique, the Bullet Cloisoné and (my favorite) the Utopian Turtletop. Instead, Ford chose to name the car after the founder’s son and called it the Edsel. It went on to become one of the most notorious failures in automotive history.

Would a better naming strategy save the car from its ignominious demise? Maybe not, because the vehicle had other issues that didn’t resonate very well with consumers.

Flash forward 60 years, and the name challenge is even more difficult, with the modern twist of the proliferation of URL “squatters” that buy up every word combination in the hope that they can sell it at a profit, making it nearly impossible to find an available word without paying a fortune for the domain. Today, bad naming decisions still plague the corporate world. Earlier this year, the Tribune Publishing Company, owners of the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune among other papers, decided to rebrand itself as a content company and chose the name Tronc, short for Tribune Online Content. The name was not well-received in the market, and the company has since put itself up for sale (and has seen a half-billion-dollar sale to Gannett fall through). Any branding professional would have seen that coming.

Why? First and foremost, because it’s an ugly sound, that’s a key criterion for a new name. As The New Yorker article points out, there is lots of research about how people respond to words and sounds. So, for example, front-vowel sounds – ones that are formed in the front of the mouth like the “i” in “mil” – evoke “smallness and lightness.” Those that come from the back of the mouth, such as the “a” in “mal,” emote “heaviness and bigness.” Softer consonants, like “s” and “z,” seem lighter than so-called “stop consonants,” like “k” and “b,” which seem weightier. When George Eastman invented the name Kodak in 1888, he did so because he liked that “k” was “a strong, incisive sort of letter.”

Bluetext’s Four Pillars of a Good Name

We’ve developed our own four naming pillars that we strive to meet when working with our clients. We believe that a new name should:

* Be easy to say
* Be easy to spell
* Be easy to remember, and
* Most important, Tell a story

We know that hitting all four of those elements is not always possible, especially as URL and trademark issues often require the use or words purposely misspelled, like the car service Lyft. Tronc fails on several fronts. It doesn’t tell a story about the brand, nor is it obvious on how it should be spelled. As The New Yorker puts it, “Tronc wants to seem light, fast, forward-looking, and unburdened by the media industry’s past, but its back-vowel sound and its leaden ‘k’ ending sonically convey something heavy, slow, and dull.”

Real words when used as names need to make a connection between the underlying meaning and the brand itself. So, for example, Tesla was a genius on the cutting-edge of innovation. Bluetext is the color that text turns when hyperlinked in a document, and thus is the window to the digital world. Made-up names don’t always have this connection, and thus need to rely on the root syllables and sound for their meanings. Lexus suggests luxury, Viagra both vitality and virility. Inspirata, a medical analytics company we recently helped to brand, suggests inspired data.

Names are the first exposure that key target audiences have to the brand or product, and need to be carefully thought out. A disciplined process for evaluating the key messages, the nature of the audiences, the competitive landscape and what that brand aspires to be in two-to-four years all need to be part of the process.