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Many entrepreneurs have told me naming a product is one of the hardest things about starting a company. This week’s New Yorker profiles Lexicon, a company that is paid to create names for companies and products. Lexicon developed the Pentium brand name, a combination of 586 (the fifth chip starting with the 186) and -tium, the suffix from the element titanium. Pentium would become better known than Intel just a few years after launch.

Naming products became important after WWI of mass production. Suddenly, lots of similar products flooded the market and branding became critical. Interestingly, the 1920s new products had some of the same naming practices as startups today: Windex, Pyrex and Cutex were released at the same time. IBM, 3M and GM were contemporaries. Remember the trends of the -r services (Tumblr) or the -ly services (Optimizely)?

Some argue a company’s name isn’t that important. eBay is a great example of a brand that defined a category but defies many of the naming guidelines below. Others, like Lexicon, contend that the right brand can dominate an industry. I’m of the mind that any framework can at least help the process along.

Lexicon’s guidelines for product naming

  • Names should evoke some characteristic of the product. Proctor and Gamble chose Swiffer because it conjure images of lightness and speed.
  • Names should be unique. It’s important to make sure you’re not infringing on other IP.
  • Names should grow with the company. Although Netflix started as a DVD-by-mail company, Reed Hastings always had a vision that the company would migrate to video streaming. Netflix is sufficiently broad to allow the company to evolve.
  • Names should be easy to spell and say. The easiest names to remember and spell are consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel…like Amazon, Gatorade and Lipitor.
  • Certain sounds elicit known reactions from consumers. t is for speed. p and b are for luxury. c and v evoke vitality and well being.
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