How to do B2B brand or product naming research

How to do B2B brand or product naming research

Why you need strong brand and product names in B2B

How research can inform B2B brand and product naming

Best practices for B2B brand and product naming



Why you need strong brand and product names in B2B

“When people use your brand name as a verb, that is remarkable.”

That’s according to Meg Whitman, former CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise and eBay – not all companies want their names to become verbs, but this exemplifies how strong ones can have powerful effects.

Federal Express capitalized on the success of its nickname, changing its official brand name after people started saying they’d FedEx packages rather than send them.

Using a brand or product name as a verb suggests that the business in question is the number one choice. Bing had hoped its brand name would be used as a verb – instead, Google has that honor today.

A strong name boosts word-of-mouth marketing, free of charge if your satisfied customers become advocates and tell others about you. 

However, the impact decreases if your name is clunky, confusing, or hard to remember. If someone says “I found a great product you should use – can’t remember its name though…” then you may have just lost a sale.

Names are an important part of your overall brand development. A brand and product are, of course, much more than just their names – brand identity is the sum of your customer perceptions, both conscious and subconscious.

Yet for many customers, your name will be their first impression of your brand. Most – 71% – of those looking for B2B products start with a broad online search. In the search results, if they find you, the first thing they’ll see is your brand or product name and perhaps a brief description.

They’ll see your name, but in most cases, they won’t see your logo. They may not go to your website either, so they’ll miss out on the rest of your intended online brand experience.

That’s why your brand and product names matter in B2B. Business benefits of strong names include:

  • Capturing attention
  • Staying top-of-mind
  • Differentiating from competitors
  • Reflecting your brand identity quickly and succinctly
  • Removing undesired associations from previous names

How research can inform B2B brand and product naming

Naming is a highly creative process, but that doesn’t mean it’s a pure art form. Some creativity is crucial for a name to stand out from the crowd, but usually, a strong one is based on a mix of art and science.

Research insights will improve the chances of your name:

  • Standing the test of time – no matter how your business evolves in the coming years, it’ll make things much easier if your brand or product name still fits well
  • Fitting in with your brand positioning and supporting wider brand development practices
  • Cutting through the noise in the competitive landscape
  • Being appropriate for your target audience, so they know you’re relevant and credible
  • Being suitable in other markets and languages, without risk of causing controversy or offense

Using bespoke B2B research means you can make informed naming decisions, based on insights and data, to complement the creative process. It’s important to find the right balance though.

These are some of the different ways you can inform your naming decisions by using market research:

  • Ensuring naming compatibility with your optimal brand architecture
  • Generating name ideas with the jobs-to-be-done framework
  • Exploring naming principles indirectly with customers
  • Sense-checking the final name with your target audience
  • Identifying the right visual for your name

You don’t necessarily need to use research to achieve every goal. But where needed, qualitative research can give you a deep understanding of how naming impacts customers, while quantitative research helps validate the steps you take with robust data.

Looking at each of these in turn:

#1 Ensuring naming compatibility with your optimal brand architecture

Unless you’re a fresh startup, a new brand or product name will form a part of your existing brand architecture.

Internally, beginning with a review of the current status quo is a useful first step. Current brand architecture may include names at a:

  • Corporate level – e.g. Alphabet or Google
  • Business unit/subsidiary level – e.g. Google Search
  • Product group level – e.g. Google Pixel
  • Individual product level – e.g. Google Pixel 7

For companies managing multiple brands, there may also be different brand architecture models to take into account.

As an example, Google uses a hybrid approach. Many products or subsidiaries mention the master brand e.g. Google Search or Google Ads. However, some of them don’t – e.g. YouTube or Waze.

If you’re planning to make changes to brand architecture, any new product naming will play a part. Qualitative research can help you identify the optimal brand architecture, by exploring current perceptions and evaluating the impact of any proposed alterations.

However, if the brand architecture isn’t changing anytime soon, your considerations are relatively much more straightforward when planning to include a new product name.

Look inside-out. Leverage existing knowledge and expertise internally, to decide where the product ‘sits’ in your brand architecture and if that has any naming implications. For example, should the product name refer to the master brand, or present itself as a more standalone offering?

If you’re introducing a new product group or renaming one, you may need to agree on some parameters to ensure the creative process takes into account other existing architecture.

Naturally, renaming at a business unit or corporate level is more complicated and has implications for all subsidiaries or products that sit beneath. Again, research can explore this.

#2 Generating name ideas with the jobs-to-be-done framework

Continuing to look inside-out, a new name should also factor in desired brand characteristics that your colleagues buy into. That should be the case regardless of whether they work in senior management, marketing, or customer-facing roles.

The jobs-to-be-done (JTBD) framework can help you to find a strong, suggestive name that reflects your ideal brand or product positioning, rather than a name that’s too generic.

Suggestive and generic are official terminology in name trademarking. When the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) evaluates copyright applications, they use a sliding scale to determine whether a name is registrable and protectable.

Leaving aside the trademark process itself, the USPTO’s five terms below are useful ways of thinking about different approaches to brand or product naming.

In their words, unacceptable trademarks include names that are just:

  • Generic: The common name for your goods – for example, a SaaS company cannot register its name as “SaaS”
  • Descriptive: Only very distinctive descriptive names can be trademarked in some circumstances, otherwise they are too weak – i.e. exists, but you’re unlikely to find a company called “Reserve-a-Room”

In contrast, acceptable and unique trademark names are:

  • Suggestive: These names allude to brand or product qualities, without stating them outright – for example, ServiceNow
  • Arbitrary: They work well because they’re used in an unusual context – Apple would not be a memorable name for an orchard, but it’s very distinctive for technology 
  • Fanciful: These are invented words – for example, Google

Analyzing the JTBD can help you find suggestive brand or product names. In some cases, it may also point you in the direction of a strong arbitrary, or fanciful name.

To use the JTBD framework:

  • Map out the ‘jobs’ customers need to be done: These are outcomes, not features – they can be functional, emotional, or related jobs
  • Identify the opportunity: Prioritize the most important, frequent, and unique jobs – based on your target audience’s needs but also the competitive landscape

Qualitative research can help with the first two steps – for example, a segmentation or persona exploration study for step 1; ethnographies, in-depth interviews, or ideation workshops for step 2. 

If there are lots of jobs to prioritize at step 3, you can use quantitative research, as well as secondary research to review competitor names and offerings.

Ideas for a suggestive name could be based on the key jobs, or the biggest opportunity, for your brand or products. Alternatively, ideas for an arbitrary or fanciful name may arise by linking the opportunity to a symbol, or a brand story you want to tell customers. 

#3 Exploring naming principles indirectly with customers

Speaking to your customers is the way to research naming from an outside-in perspective. The previous two methods ensure that existing internal knowledge and expertise play a key part in the naming process – the next two both factor in your target market’s perceptions.

Exploratory qualitative research sheds light on how customers or prospects think about brands they interact with or products they use. It reveals their functional and emotional influences, their ideal attributes, and the benefits arising from positive outcomes.

This gives you the principles or values behind ideal brands and products – and you can feed these into the naming creative process.

For this research exercise, indirect questioning works better than direct questioning. For a ‘soft’ concept like describing an identity, people don’t always know what they think, or they can’t always articulate it.

Enabling or projective techniques, to explore subconscious preferences, include presenting respondents with:

  • Hypothetical scenarios – e.g. describing a dinner party, but with brands or products
  • Inversion – e.g. giving examples of bad brands or products 
  • Analogy or personification exercises

Otherwise, respondents tend to over-rationalize if they try directly describing values and principles that matter to them.

#4 Sense-checking the final name with your target audience

When you’ve reached a consensus internally on a new name, you may want to check that it resonates with your target audience. 

Qualitatively, it gives you a chance to get your target audience’s initial impressions or see if they have any questions you’ll need to prepare answers for. At this point, you could also think about testing marcomms materials that tie in with a new brand or product launch.

Quantitatively, if you need statistics to justify your naming decision internally, you could validate it via an online survey. Including an open-end text box will collect brief reactions too.

Either option also lets you double-check that there aren’t any previously unforeseen red flags that force you to reconsider a new brand or product name.

However, this shouldn’t be an exercise where you put the name to a public vote, or give customers a choice between two or three leading name ideas. Assuming you’ve based the naming process so far on a range of brand considerations, respondents won’t have all the facts and wouldn’t be able to choose fairly between names.

#5 Identifying the right visual for your name

Ultimately, your name will also have a logo or visual identity. Both name and visual should work well together.

Thinking back to brand architecture, if the new name will be part of an already established overall identity, it should be straightforward to work out any visuals you need.

For example, if everything else in the brand architecture uses the same color or font, you don’t have a decision to make here (unless you’re changing the architecture soon).

However, if that’s not the case and your name also needs a new and unique visual identity, market research will help you identify it. You can test concepts with the target audience – if needed, you can then make revisions and test again.

Best practices for B2B brand and product naming

#1 Let your naming objectives shape the research process

There are many ways research can inform B2B brand or product naming. At the same time, a lack of clarity about what you’re trying to achieve specifically may make the research less effective.

If you’re creating a name for a new brand or product, that will need much more exploratory research. On the other hand, if you’re replacing an old name with a new one, it’s worth including questions that compare and contrast both.

The reasoning behind needing a new name will impact the research methodology type and questions to ask.

#2 Don’t kill creativity with over-rationalized research

Both qualitative and quantitative research inform naming decisions, but it’s best to avoid a line of questioning that encourages respondents to over-rationalize what’s important.

As mentioned, don’t fall into a trap of using research as a public vote. Indirect questioning is a good way to explore customers’ subconscious, natural reactions rather than what they say matters most in a brand or product name.

Also, remember there’s only so much you can say about your brand in a short name. You may get strong feedback on several messages, but don’t try to cram in multiple references to them or your name will be too descriptive, and not distinctive.

The rest of your brand positioning and marketing materials can support your name in conveying your desired messages. Over time, you can track brand health to make sure these are having the right impact.

#3 Make sure stakeholders are well informed – carefully

Customers will need to embrace the new name, but your colleagues must too. Some will do so better than others – ultimately, naming is subjective and can be emotive, so there will always be a proportion who disagree with the direction.

However, you can improve acceptance and excitement for new names internally by taking stakeholders on the journey. Avoid design by committee, but don’t leave people in the dark.

Ask stakeholders for input at the start of any research study, then update them at the key milestones – and in particular, before sharing the final results.

When the final name has been approved, be careful about how you share it with colleagues. You’re more likely to secure buy-in by sharing the narrative behind the new name first, rather than revealing it at the outset and then explaining the reasoning afterward.

Similarly, share the results from any research you’ve conducted, to show that the name has been informed by a logical, robust process. Some people may not like it, but it will be much harder to argue if the name fits brand guidelines and is based on relevant feedback.

#4 Don’t overlook your name’s connotations in international markets

If you’re already in or planning to enter new markets then ensure you test any new names there first.

A name that works well in the majority of markets may not in others – depending on the local context, culture, or translations.

It may not convey the brand elements you’re aiming for and in some cases, a name can be controversial when used in another language.

A multi-market research study is a robust way to find out how naming perceptions will differ internationally.



Why you need strong brand and product names in B2B

These are some of the benefits of a strong name: capturing attention; staying top-of-mind; differentiating from competitors; reflecting your brand identity quickly and succinctly; removing undesired associations from previous names.

How research can inform B2B brand and product naming

There are several ways you can use research to inform name decisions: ensuring naming compatibility with your optimal brand architecture; generating name ideas with the jobs-to-be-done framework; exploring naming principles indirectly with customers; sense-checking the final name with your target audience; identifying the right visual for your name.

Best practices for B2B brand and product naming

When starting B2B naming research, we recommend that you: let your naming objectives shape the research process; don’t kill creativity with over-rationalized research; make sure stakeholders are well informed – carefully; don’t overlook your name’s connotations in international markets.

Chris Wells

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