What Makes a Bad Name Bad?

It gives me no pleasure to discover brands with bad names. I believe every company and product deserves a distinctive, memorable name — and no company deserves a name that’s embarrassing or awkward.

What makes a bad name bad? Well, unlike Tolstoy’s unhappy families, each bad name is not bad in its own unique way. Rather, badness follows trends, and bad names beget copycat bad names. Here are the badness patterns I see most frequently.

Counterintuitive spelling. A coined name like Nyoombl needs to be pronounced phonetically (if at all), but it isn’t — not by a long shot. Reasonable assumptions about English pronunciation dictate that Virgance be pronounced with a hard G, but it wasn’t. We look at Brayola and mentally rhyme it with Crayola, but that’s not what the company wants us to do. Moral: Don’t make us work this hard. It’s a name, not a cryptography test.

Inappropriate connotation. If you know nothing about what Infegy actually does, you might deduce that it had something to do with “infamy,” “effigy,” or “infect.” It’s hard to look at Konsus without seeing “cons us.” FlubIt suggests failure (or a touch of influenza). GloSmart evokes furniture polish. And those interpretations have nothing to do with the companies in question. (Don’t even get me started on Analtech.) Moral: Consult several dictionaries, not just one. Make one of them a slang dictionary. Then get some advice from someone who understands language.

Awkwardness. These are the names that put the em-PHA-sis on the wrong syl-LA-ble or force incompatible sounds to cohabit. They’re a frequent consequence of machine-generated names, most of which simply fuse word parts into artificial blends without considering logic or ease of pronunciation. But humans create awkward names, too: consider Herdict, Mathnasium, Tronc, and AbbVie. Moral: If the name flunks the telephone test, it’s not going to inspire positive word-of-mouth.

The bandwagon effect. So many startup names end in -ly. So many retail names follow the X + Y formula. Remember, a name needs to be distinctive and memorable, and you won’t achieve those goals by doing what all the other brands are doing. Moral: Do some research into naming trends. And get a professional opinion.

What about cross-cultural naming gaffes, you may be wondering. Contrary to widespread belief, they are relatively rare. That story about the Chevy Nova doing poorly in Spanish-speaking countries? It’s a myth.

If you’re taking your company or product global, you should certainly invest in a linguistic screen to rule out a major blunder. But, as we’ve seen, people can accept a brand name that means “cease and desist” in Swahili (Hulu) or one that suggests “oral sex” in Russian (Mondelez). The bad names I see — and I do see a lot of them — are making mischief in English, not Swahili or Thai or Malay.

Writer, name developer, brand consultant, idea-ist. Find me on Twitter and Instagram (@fritinancy) and in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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