“Our name can say anything. All that matters is that it stands out in market.”

“Our name should sound catchy and cool. That will make people want to be a part of what we’re doing.”

“Our name just needs to be associated with nice, positive things. It doesn’t really matter what they are as long as they make people feel good.”

“The name just needs to ‘fit’ with the rest of our products. As long as it doesn’t stick out it’ll get the job done.”


Over my 20 years as a professional naming expert, I’ve worked with all kinds of businesses. Big, small, startup, SMB, individual creator-led. And the statements above are extremely common.

A lot of people think great names happen by accident. Or evolve from something haphazard into something highly impactful over time. And this certainly can happen.

Amazon’s fortunate twist of fate.

Take Amazon – arguably one of the most successful businesses ever created. Amazon originally incorporated under the name Cadabra – a truncation of “abracadabra”. A reference to “magic” presumably intended to reflect the spellbinding nature of the relatively new internet and foreshadow the seamless experience of shopping at an online book store found within its realm.

However, Bezos’s lawyer at that time advised him that the reference to magic was too obscure and that the word sounded too much like “cadaver” (a prime example of assuming one’s own subjective reaction would necessarily extend to the rest of the marketplace).  So, Bezos changed course. He started looking through dictionaries because he wanted a name that started with A (website listings were alphabetized at this time). When he came across the word “Amazon” he connected the idea of the largest river on the planet with building the biggest bookstore on Earth. And presto – Amazon was born.

A neat anecdote? Sure. But if you read closely, Bezos selected a name intended to say “this is a really large bookstore”.  Not exactly the most ownable or irresistible message. However, given Amazon’s dramatic evolution into what it is today, the name Amazon has come to symbolize a whole lot more than that. Things like the endless diversity and abundance shoppers can find on the site. An exhaustive store that has everything from “A to Z” (an idea cleverly highlighted in the company’s logo). And a vast place where you can discover amazing things you didn’t even know existed.

The metaphorical nature of “Amazon” gave it the flexibility to stand for this broader, more appealing set of ideas (and kudos to Bezos for perhaps realizing the potential of a symbolic, vs. a literal, name to better maintain narrative relevance as his company grew and evolved). But this multi-dimensional meaning is almost certainly not what originally inspired the name.  

With all that said, it’s really, really important to remember that just because a name selected using a hurried and uncalculated process can luck into an ability to support a productive story doesn’t mean it will. And in fact, it usually won’t.

Unless a name reflects something relevant and meaningful – something valuable for people to know and helpful in terms of their decision-making process – the name will most likely be “outed” as insubstantial.

Because it is insubstantial. And in that set of circumstances something without substance has been attached to your brand, business or product in the most prominent way possible – opening the door to questions about its significance and reliability.   

Probably not what you’re shooting for.

So, how do you make sure you select a name with substance? The easiest way is to go through the exercise of clarifying your offering’s key value propositions. And then use them as the foundation to mine for language that tells their story while also meeting any other necessary criteria.

What is a value proposition?

In the simplest sense, a value proposition is what makes your offering uniquely attractive to potential users. Given all the things they can choose from to meet a need, solve a problem or fulfill a desire, what makes the option you’ve made singularly compelling.

At a minimum, most offerings have three types of value propositions: functional, emotional and experiential.

Functional value propositions are about outcomes and performance. They highlight the specific, tangible utility an offering provides. Instant access. Deep hydration. Fresh taste. Fast delivery. Innovative insights. They are the “things” an offering delivers and they complete the sentence “This offering exists to give people ___________.”

Emotional value propositions are about good feelings. They bring specificity to the positive headspace that surfaces when someone uses an offering. Happy. Motivated. Accepted. Proud. Focused. They are the mind states an offering enables and they complete the sentence “Wow! This makes me feel so _________.”

Experiential value propositions are about satisfying encounters. They celebrate the defining characteristics of interacting with an offering. Simple. Knowledgeable. Inspiring. Comprehensive. Honest. Friendly. Supportive. They are the central qualities of an offering’s manner, presentation or behavior and they complete the sentence “Wow! This is so _______.”

Great names are built on value propositions.

Crisply defined key value propositions are enormously valuable as they form the basis of a thoughtful and defensible positioning strategy. With that in place, a business is well equipped to guide all workstreams – communications and otherwise – using the same north star. This makes marketplace expressions more targeted and meaningful, commercial activities more focused and efficient, and resources more productively and effectively deployed.

Thus, establishing clear and sustainable value propositions will produce significant organizational value both within and beyond the scope of finding a great name. So, while it may seem like a time-saver to let distinctiveness, ease of assimilation, or a general “feel good” factor drive the selection of a name, it’s not. In fact, this approach increases inefficiency and introduces risk around how your offering may be perceived down the road. That’s not to say great names don’t grab attention, work within pre-existing systems of language or bring positive ideas to mind. They do! But how the name achieves those goals, the messages and story it conveys while meeting those objectives, is of critical importance.  

– By Tanya Gustafson