TR Design’s eNewsletter covering the topics related to the branding and marketing
of technology products and medical devices.

Naming Can’t Be That Hard — Can It?

By Carroll Ray for Designochology®

Have you ever tried naming a company or product? It seems so simple at the outset, but nearly always becomes an exercise in frustration — especially if you have a committee to “help”. In the current economic climate, device manufacturers are watching their expenses and choosing to name their own products. This article was written to help those of you who are about to take on this challenge.

Nearly every naming assignment I work on starts the same — with pages full of names that the company has developed through internal brainstorming and naming contests. Sometimes the choices have been narrowed to a few, but often they’re unweighted lists of name ideas. There are constellations, Greek gods, acronyms, scientific formulas, animals, vegetables and minerals. There are coined names, suggestive names and descriptive names. The list is usually offered with a shrug of the shoulders and a plea for help. What started as a fun little naming project had turned into an endless list of names, with no consensus for a favorite and no process for arriving at a decision.

It’s easy to create a long list of name ideas, but then what? How do you choose the right one from the list? That’s where everyone gets stuck, so it’s the focus of this article. I will share a few tips on creating the list, and protecting the name, but most of the information will be on the process of narrowing the choices. This step-by-step process will help you develop your list, objectively analyze the names, whittle them down to a short list of finalists, and ultimately, to secure trademark protection of your new name.

The 3-step naming process.

1. Creating the List
2. Narrowing the Choices
3. Protecting the Name


1. Creating the List

There are many ways to develop names. You may have already conducted a brainstorming meeting, and sent a request to everyone within the company to submit their name ideas. So, how did that work out for you? I suspect if you’re still reading this, it was probably not what you had hoped.

This is where everyone starts, but unless it’s done with some structure, it will often be disappointing. Effective brainstorming requires a group of individuals who are confident in expressing their ideas, without fear or reservation. It requires individuals who will allow ideas to flow from one to another without judging them as they are expressed. Nothing will kill a brainstorm as quickly as someone responding to each idea with a negative comment. If there is a dominating member of the committee, either by title and/or by personality, then the anticipated brainstorm can turn into a drizzle.

Try this alternative — an emailstorm. Have each member develop their list and submit them to the rest of the team. This allows each individual to think at their pace and to use tools to help them in the development of their list. Team members then should be encouraged to use others’ lists as inspiration to build upon. The ideas will grow exponentially, and much faster than during a face-to-face brainstorm.

Naming Tools
There are dozens of online tools that can help with idea generation. The article 18 Strategies and Tools for Naming Your Business or Product provides a description and links to many useful name generating tools. These sites are often simple algorithms that take the root of one word and combine it with another to form a new, arbitrary word. Many of the names that are generated will not be useful, but you never know from where inspiration will come. Spend some time with these tools and add the best of what they provide to your list.

Expand your thinking
The challenge with naming is to break out of the limitations of your own life experience and vocabulary. Here are some techniques to help you:

• Take the list you’ve started and dig deeper. Look for synonyms (words that express a similar meaning) at Synonym.com.

• Run your names through a thesaurus — a useful tool is Thesaurus.com. Or, one that I recommend is Visual Thesaurus, which requires a small annual fee, but the site allows you to interactively explore word associations.

Thesaurus.com Visual Thesaurus

• Think about the product or company you’re naming, and the value that it provides to your customer — and ultimately to the patient. Think of your value proposition. Are you providing confidence? Comfort? Ease of use? Affordability? What other words convey those same qualities?

• Try combining words. These combined words can be literal, but there are powerful examples of combined words that don’t appear to belong together, yet communicate a tone that feels right (LionBridge is a good example).

The benefit of creating an entirely new word is that you have the opportunity to define its meaning and you may find yourself with a name that is completely unique. An example is the name of this newsletter. The term “Designochology” communicates our firm’s design expertise in the medical space and suggests the psychology of design. And a significant benefit is that the name is truly unique — this newsletter is the only result that will be displayed if you search the term on Google. How often does that happen?

When creating new combined words, be careful with combinations that are descriptive in nature. You may find a prefix that you like because it defines the space you occupy. Cardio, or Endo, or Bio are examples that we’ve all seen. This technique does help the audience put you in the right category, but the danger is that yours will sound like other companies with similar names. For now, write them all down. Editing will come later.

• Consider intuitive misspellings. Replacing a “c” with a “k” is one thing, but don’t go overboard and don’t force it because this technique can cause more problems than it solves. You want to be different, but you also want people to be able to spell it when they hear it. For now, include everything on your list.

• Look for homophones, or words that sound the same but are spelled differently, for example: peek and peak. Using the alternate spelling can result in compelling names when the fit is right.

• Consider industry jargon. Each specialty has its unique collection of words and phrases. These can offer possibilities for exploration.

• A few words about initialisms and acronyms:

• Initialisms are a series of initials where the letters are pronounced but do not form a word (such as FBI). As a name, they say nothing about your product or company and convey no emotion. They’re a blank canvas to which you can apply meaning, but be careful of the linguistic issues that can be created by the initialisms. For example, let’s assume the name you were considering was “CPT”. If you hear the name without seeing it… there’s plenty of room for confusion — “Was that Seepitee? Sipiti? CTP? or CPP?” You don’t want every phone call to end with… “That’s C as in Cat, P as in Peter and T as in Tom.”

• Acronyms are words formed by the initial letters of a name (such as GEICO). They can work, but do not let the origin overrule the resulting name. That is, if the resulting word is not crisp and smart, don’t use it just because you like what the letters stand for. And you don’t need to backwards-engineer a good name to turn it into an acronym. If it’s a good name, it’s a good name. IKEA is a great name — its Scandanavian sound and simplicity work well to represent inexpensive, stylish furniture. It makes no difference that the name derived from the first letters in the founder’s name (Ingvar Kamprad) combined with the first letters of the property and village where he grew up (Elmtaryd Agunnaryd).

• My final caution about acronyms and intialisms — be aware of people’s laziness. If the name you choose consists of multiple words with multiple syllables, people will tend to shorten it for you. Be very careful. Not only do you need to be aware of what the acronym will be when they shorten it, you will have two names to brand instead of one — the full name and the abbreviated form. If you want to name your product or company with an acronym or initialism, do it from the start. Don’t let the marketplace do it to you.

2. Narrowing the Choices

You now have your list. Everyone has told you which is their favorite name, and you’re ready to start the process of narrowing the choices. The first thing you need to do is forget about favorites. It’s not helpful to fall in love with a name until you’ve completed your objective analysis.

Before I describe the process of elimination, I do want to say a word about subjectivity. I’m a designer by training, so I don’t disqualify subjective reasoning at all. But there’s a time and place for it, and in fact, I wrote about this topic in a recent blog, Banned from Branding. Keep in mind that you’re working on a name that can have a real impact on the success or failure of the product and business. Focus on what works before you focus on what you like.

Now let’s get to work paring down that list. Get out your pen and start crossing out names starting with:

Purely descriptive names
Names that simply describe what a product or company is, or does, will not be given registration status by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. And when naming your company or product, that’s a deal breaker. Some examples of descriptive names: Cervical Pillow Roll, Cardiovascular Guidewire, and Pediatric Cuffless Tracheostomy Tube. Not only will you be unable to register the name, but a name like Pediatric Cuffless Tracheostomy Tube will undoubtedly be shortened to PCTT, which brings us back to our discussion about acronyms and initialisms.

Names that use numerals or superscript
Sure there are brands like 3M and 7-Up that have been successful, but unless you have their marketing budget, why add barriers to recognition right out of the gate? Whether its not knowing where to find you in an alphabetical listing or just the uncertainty of how to treat the name when it’s heard, using numerals creates complications that are unnecessary. This is especially true of superscript numerals. Device companies are heavily populated with engineers — and engineers love equations. Superscripting a name (with a 2 for squared, for example) will make your life with your name miserable. Let’s say the name you chose is Cardio2 (pronounced Cardio Squared). More often than not, your name will appear as Cardio2. So, is your name Cardio Two? And when it’s heard and someone tries to find you, did they interpret it to be spelled Cardio Squared? Most device companies have limited touches with their audience. Choosing a name with these kinds of complications creates an unnecessary obstacle to clear communication.

Names that are inappropriate or have negative connotations
Naming of medical devices is loosening up. No longer do they all have to be Latin derivatives, but it’s still not like the consumer space. B2C companies have a bit more latitude to be irreverent or edgy. The nature of medical devices does require a degree of seriousness. It’s OK to name a job search website Monster, but I’m not sure it would be appropriate for a CT Scanner. You may also have some names which have passed the early tests, but which are just wrong for obvious reasons. They may have been submitted as a joke or they may just not be compatible with the company brand. Take this opportunity to cross those off the list.

Names that are similar to a competitors’ product or company name
This is a no-brainer, but it requires you to do some research. There is absolutely no point in considering a name that will be confused with a competitor. If there is any doubt, throw it out.

Your list should be getting smaller and it’s appropriate to start thinking about subjective tastes. You may still have names on your list which you could just not live with. These can now be eliminated. Your list should now include between 10 and 20 names.

Linguistically-challenged names
If it’s not easy to understand the name or spell the name, then get rid of it. This is not always easy to determine simply by looking at the names, so there are specific field tests that you can conduct. Feel free to use co-workers, family members or friends. A good name should pass, no matter who is taking the test. Have other members of your committee conduct the same tests with their own subjects — the more data you collect, the better.

• Spelling
Give your subject a clean piece of paper and say each word one time, using your a normal speaking voice. After each name, give your subject time to write it down, spelling it as they heard it. Performing this test over the phone is an even better indicator.

• NOTE: If you have misspelled a word intentionally for impact, you have to factor that in to your analysis. Simple misspellings can be overcome in the future as long as it’s simple and intuitive. For example, the name “KardioView” could easily be addressed in practice by saying the name and following with, “that’s Kardio with a K”. But if the name is a collection of misspellings, then it will become painful to live with, for example: “KardeoViu” sounds the same but will require you spell it out every time.

• Speaking
Provide your test subject with the names typed on a piece of paper and ask them to verbalize the names. This cannot be a test subject who took the spelling test described previously. Note any names that were mispronounced or that caused difficulty for the subject.

Forgettable names
Return to the test subjects from either of the linguistic tests on the following day and ask them to write down all the names that they remember from their test a day earlier. Do not tell them in advance that you intend to do this. We want to identify the names that stick with your audience without giving them time to prepare. Again, the more you test, the more confident you will be in the results. You will typically be able to identify several names that nobody remembered. These may be good candidates for removal from the list.

Problematic acronyms and intialisms
You may still have acronyms and initialisms on your list. We discussed some reservations about this approach earlier, but if some have still survived, check The Free Dictionary and The Acronym Guide to be sure that the acronym you are considering does not have any meanings that would be undesirable. Using these tools, and the earlier example of a the name “CPT”, I found dozens of uses of this initialism, including Certified Phlebotomy Technician, Chest Physical Therapy, Child-Pugh-Turcotte Score and the Communist Party of Tajikistan — good information to know before committing to that name.

Unavailable names
Your list should be getting quite manageable by now. Take the names that remain and do a Google search for each. Unless you have developed a name that’s extremely original, you may need to refine your search by combining the word with the category you’re in (for example endoscopy + catheter + “name”).

Now go to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Website and conduct a TESS (Trademark Electronic Search System) search of your remaining names. I searched my fictitious name CPT and found 74 listings. By clicking on each one, I can get a pretty good idea whether or not they are in a similar space as my company or product. This is not a guarantee of availability, but it does give you a sense of how likely it is you will have trouble obtaining registration status.

U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Network Solutions

A word about your Web domain
I left this to last because it’s typically an issue only for corporate naming and the results of your domain name search should not have to be a deal breaker. Naturally, it would be ideal to have yourname.com be available as a domain, and it’s an important consideration when choosing your top three candidates, but in the world of Google, it’s less important than it used to be, especially for B2B companies. Checking is simple. Go to any number of domain registration sites to perform a domain search, such as Network Solutions. I recommend sticking with the .com domain. You will find that some names are not available in .com but they will sell you .net or .us or .bz. Stick with .com — better to adjust your name a bit by adding “_inc” to the end than to go with these secondary domains.

Now that you have completed the screening process, you should have only a handful of names remaining. You can now reduce the list to the top three by preference. If you have done all of the steps listed above, the chances are very good that you have at least one name out of the three which will survive a comprehehsive trademark search.

3. Protecting the Name

The final step in the process is to submit your top three names for a trademark search with a reputable search firm. Thomson CompuMark has traditionally been the place to turn, but there are more and more search firms available online, which has thankfully driven the search costs down.

Before you choose a search firm, look closely at their services. Some provide legal counsel, others do not. Some provide word searches but not design mark (logo) searches. Some charge a flat fee, while others have fees scaled depending upon the number of search services required. Spend a little time educating yourself on the process — here is a good overview.

The first search should be a relatively inexpensive knockout search. This will identify any major concerns before investing in more comprehensive searches. The report that you receive will list every potential conflict placed in order of concern. That is, the first few that appear are generally those that are the most concerning. If you haven’t already involved your legal counsel, this is the time to bring them in. You will need their nod of approval before going further.

Many companies choose to stop here, but that can be just as dangerous as not searching at all. Search companies provide a wide range of services to ensure that you have a clear path for your new name. Global searches are highly recommended, at least in those countries where there is a likelihood of your product appearing. More than once I have worked with companies who failed to secure a name globally and regretted it later when the time came to expand into European and Asian markets.

Linguistic connotation services are available to make sure that your name does not have an undesirable meaning in another language or culture, and you can add on services specific to a particular industry, including medical devices.

Congratulations! You have successfully navigated the naming process and have chosen your new name.


This article is intended as a guideline for a simple, in-house naming process for a stand-alone product. If you have a catalog of products and are releasing new ones on a regular basis, you should consult a naming firm to develop a product architecture and naming convention that organizes your offerings and establishes guidelines for the naming of future products. In addition, naming firms will generally provide validation services such as naming reasearch, emotional mapping, etc., to insure that your efforts are successful.

About the Author

Carroll RayCreative Strategist

Subscribe to Designochology