Editor's note: Lisa Bertelsen is the principal and founder of Answered, Inc., a market research, brand strategy and CX firm. This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared under the title, “Why it’s important to use fact-based research to test brand names.” 

The last two months feel like wasted time. Your advertising agency developed 20 names for your blockbuster product. However, half didn’t make it through trademark clearance. The remaining names can’t muster enough enthusiasm from the executive team. No one feels confident about the result. Despite this, the product is launching in eight weeks.

This scenario is far from unusual. Unfortunately, the methods commonly used for testing names are virtually worthless.


Name research should not be used to identify a winning name or to ask consumers which names they like best. Scoring names is equally problematic. One name may convey quality, but it says nothing about value. Another may convey quality, value and innovation. That doesn’t necessarily make the second name better. Instead, companies must identify how well the name differentiates, elevates the brand and maintains elasticity. 

Why likeability and fit don’t matter

Asking consumers whether they like a name can be dangerously misleading. Dozens of studies have shown that people have an instinctual aversion to things that are surprising, unusual or unpredictable because they contradict our preconceived world view.

That means that innovative, bold names like Yahoo! and Urban Decay (cosmetics) consistently score poorly when tested. If you evaluate brand names based on likeability, you’ll end up with a bland, inoffensive name that no one hates – but no one really loves either.

The importance of sound

Another important consideration is what the name sounds like and what that implies about the product. Basically, marketers want the sound of the word to reflect the brand attributes they’re trying to convey. This what I call auditory resonance. Consider a long o (as in omega) and a short a (as in America). These sounds convey size. The reason has to do with human physiology. When pronouncing those letters, the mouth and voice box are at their widest positions – an association that most people are unconscious of. Letter sounds can have a very real impact on human perception.


A brand name must be evaluated within a specific context. What does the word convey, at face value? Once it is part of a product category, what does the name say about the product, the company that manufactures it or the people who buy that product? To answer these questions, I use an approach called the phased reveal.

Phase I: Understand the thoughts, feelings and experiences that people associate with a word. 

The quantity and diversity of associations are what I call dimensionality. Greater dimensionality is an early indicator of a name’s ability to differentiate, be memorable and engage consumers at an emotional level. As an example, take the word juju. Associations consumers have with this word are wide-ranging and rich in meaning: groovy, hip, taboo, mysterious, exotic, witchcraft, confidence, luck, illicit and powerful – to name a few. Juju had more dimensionality (range and diversity of associations) than another name I tested – canopy. Dimensionality is a measure of the flexibility or extensibility of a brand name. Juju gives a brand manager far more creative latitude than a name like canopy.

Phase II: Understand how associations change once the product category is introduced.

If a company wanted to test a gasoline called Eco-First, I wouldn’t introduce it to consumers as gasoline because many would have preconceived notions surrounding the petroleum industry. Instead, I might introduce Eco-First as a skin care product and ask whether it conveys cleanliness, purity or gentleness? After I’m finished with the red herring category, I’ll introduce Eco-First within its actual context – gasoline.

Phase III: Introduce the corporate brand

This is important to determine credibility. Consumers might be attracted to a product like Eco-First based on the implied benefit. But what happens when you introduce the parent brand – Eco-First, brought to you by British Petroleum? Suddenly consumers dislike the name because BP’s history of oil spills undermines the credibility of this claim. So what the name says about the product is important – but who is saying it is just as important.

Providing insight 

While it requires an investment of time and money, name research can mediate the costlier internal debates that can thwart a product launch. But before name research begins, it is critical to understand what it can (and cannot) achieve. The intention is not to pick a winning name or determine how likeable it is. If done well, name research can provide insight into the minds of consumers, how they respond to particular words and what impact this can have on their relationship to your product and brand.