Naming Disasters: Three Pitfalls to Avoid

photo credit: IZATRINI.comIs “Milton” more likely to get beat up on the playground than “Jake”? (Absolutely.) Should we spell “sneakers” with a “z” at the end? (Absolutely not.) Is it trademark infringement if there’s a company with the same name, but they’re on the other side of the country? (You’d better check.)

Whether we’re talking about a baby or a new line of athletic shoe, naming can be an arduous process. There’s a lot to consider: history, associations, the competition. That’s why big brands pay companies upwards of $100K to do it for them.

So what do these fleets of linguists schooled in the art of nomenclature know that you don’t? Among other things, they know how to avoid these three classic pitfalls.

Pitfall #1: You didn’t do your research.

Don’t handicap yourself right out of the gate with a name that offends a huge swath of potential customers. I’ll bet Mazda wishes they’d done a little more research before naming their SUV crossover “LaPuta.” (Spanish translation: “the whore.”)

Lesson: We live in a global marketplace. Make sure your name can live everywhere else, too. For reference, here’s a list of the 13 most commonly spoken languages.

Bonus: Check out this list of the 10 all-time worst car names, including Buick LaCrosse (“masturbating teenager”), Nissan Moco (“booger”) and Mitsubishi Pajero (“wanker”).

Pitfall #2: You didn’t check with legal.

Forget about being clever; there are so many companies and products out there that just coming up with a name that doesn’t violate trademark laws is a huge challenge. And if your product is consumable, a green light from legal isn’t enough. You need the FDA’s blessing.

This is part of why drug names are so bizarre — Xalkori, Zelboraf, Yondelis, Horizant. The FDA rejects any name that might be confused with another drug. They also reject names that sound like a claim is being made about the product itself. For example, you’d never see a drug called “Gout-Away.”

Lesson: While pharma is in a class of its own when it comes to legal wrangling, all companies need to watch out for trademark infringement. A simple Google search will quickly show you which names to cross off your list. (Steel yourself: It will probably include your favorites.) You can also conduct a free search on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office website. This helpful article outlines the whole process.

Pitfall #3: You didn’t want to leave anyone out.

People love trying to come up with names. It’s fun and it’s something everyone thinks they’re good at. (Unlike, say, writing white papers.) But if you invite your whole team — plus your friends, family and neighbors — to join in the naming process, you’re going to hurt a lot of feelings when telling them their ideas are terrible. Because most of them will be.

Besides, there’s nothing like consensus to kill creative. You think everyone liked the name “Yahoo” when they first heard it?

Lesson: Of course you shouldn’t make such a big decision unilaterally, but don’t ask everyone you know to weigh in. Key stakeholders only. Plus your mother. She always has the best ideas!

Want to keep digging?

If you’d like to delve a little deeper into this topic, Entrepreneur offers some additional mistakes to avoid. (The article is from 2005, but still very relevant.) And once you know what not to do, here’s a more recent article on what it takes to come up with a great name.

Finally, to quote our old friend, Jon Stewart, “Here is your moment of Zen”: the 25 worst business names of all time.

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  1. Jim Gallant says:

    Thank you for not reminding us that “Nova” (Chevrolet) in Spanish means “it doesn’t go.” As for “La Puta,” that’s hilarious news for me, but not so much for a poor schlep at Mazda.

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