How to create a brand name that sticks: A review of ‘Hello My Name is Awesome’ by Alexandra Watkins

Date Posted: May 24, 2016

Alexandra Watkins had me at ‘Hello.’ As a working brand manager and practicing creative, I am constantly trolling Google for inspiration, advice and, at times, divine intervention. In the throes of rebranding and renaming our own company I had hit the proverbial ‘wall’ and that’s when I came across Alexandra’s website, which lead me to her book Hello My Name is Awesome. Let’s just say I found the divine intervention I was looking for.

Name Labels

“You are nuts to name your company or product without consulting this book first.”

That’s the quote on the front cover from Dan Heath, author of the New York Times bestsellers Made to Stick, Switch and Decisive. And I couldn’t agree more. At 76 pages, Alexandra’s book will only take a couple hours of your time and in return you’ll receive a cornucopia of insight and practical, up-to-date advice that will even have you rethinking the name you gave your dog. In this review, I will highlight the sections of Alexandra’s book that best represent her philosophy and gave me a couple of ‘ah-ha’ moments.

Consumers like brand names that resonate with them emotionally. They have to like it and they have to get it.

I was born Andrea Odelia Grubisic. How’s that for a mouthful? People have always had trouble with my name. When I was growing up, 90210 was HUGE and being called ‘ON-DREE-AH’ was super annoying because that wasn’t my name. My first name was ‘ON-DRAY-AH’. And don’t even get me started on my middle or last names. By the end of high school my name organically shortened to Drea. Thanks to Dr. Dre I was gangsta cool. Thanks to Drea DeMateo my name went mainstream.

So take this same scenario and apply it to your brand name. Is it difficult to spell? (Eukanuba) Difficult to pronounce? (Xobni) Hard for people to remember? (Saucony) These are examples of real brands that have managed to accomplish what Alexandra calls the “trifecta of trouble” with brands today. So what’s in a name? A lot. In this current hypercompetitive, digital world, you have to stand out. But in trying to be clever (Flickr) you spend more time correcting—or worse, apologizing for—your name than you spend actually engaging the people you want to attract. Being “remember-able” is vital to becoming a buzz-worthy brand.

It all begins with knowing the difference between a smile and a scratch.

At the heart of Alexandra’s book is learning how to objectively evaluate names using the SMILE and SCRATCH tests. These are checklists based on Alexandra’s philosophy that “a name should make you smile instead of scratch your head.” Alexandra does a great job of not only giving you the checklist but giving real world examples throughout to make sure you get it. I printed out these checklists and taped them to the wall during our renaming efforts and they really helped us stay out of the weeds, especially during the final review of potential names.

If there is one gold nugget of knowledge to take away from this book, this would be it:

SMILE: The 5 Qualities of a Super-sticky Name

Suggestive: evokes something about your brand
Meaningful: resonates with your audience
Imagery: is visually evocative to and in memory
Legs: lends itself to a theme for extended mileage
Emotional: moves people

SCRATCH: The 7 Deadly Sins

Spelling challenged: looks like a typo
Copycat: is similar to a competitor’s name
Restrictive: limits future growth
Annoying: is forced or frustrates customers
Tame: is flat, descriptive, uninspired
Curse of knowledge: makes sense only to insiders
Hard to pronounce: is not obvious or is inappropriate

Don’t let ‘domain desperation’ prevent you from using your common sense.

Countless potentially great names are dismissed because an exact domain match isn’t available or is parked for thousands of dollars. Worse, bad names like SQURL, TAKKLE, LOUD3R and SHYP are created because the URL is available. Alexandra offers a lot of advice to prevent domain disasters like these, including “5 Silly Ideas to Steer Clear Of” and her enlightening “5 Domain Secrets.” Got a great name but no URL? These three strategies can open up a world of domain name possibilities:

STRATEGY 1: Add another word or two to turn your domain name into a call to action like or

STRATEGY 2: Use a creative phase name that can reinforce your brand, aid in SEO and make people smile like as the URL for Peanut Butter & Co.

STRATEGY 3: Get a .net or .biz extension. Not so long ago we ran out of 1-800 numbers and transitioned to 1-888 numbers. No one will think you aren’t legit because you don’t have a .com extension.

Alexandra also delves into the biggest misconception about URLs (one that I have frequently heard from our own clients): “But they won’t be able to find us on Google.” The fact is, your domain does not need to exactly match your name. Google no longer favours keywords used in domain names (like because it doesn’t identify the source of the product or service. If you really want to attract strangers to your site you need to make sure it is rich in real, relevant content, and written for humans first and search engines second. Want to know more about how SEO has changed? Check out SEO Then and Now, written by our own SEO master, Frank Levert.

Before you brainstorm you need to define exactly what your brand is (and isn’t) and what you want your name to communicate.

When it comes to the naming process, everyone in the organization needs to be on the same page. If you can’t agree on who you are, what you do and, most importantly, why you do it, you’ll never be able to agree on a name.

Many agencies use a creative brief to reach consensus on these items and Alexandra shares the creative brief she uses with her own clients. It’s pretty standard as far as creative briefs go, including sections like brand positioning, consumer insights, identifying your competitors and brand personality. Her sample brief, filled in for a fictitious client, makes creating your own brief much easier. Even if you’re planning to work with an agency, a creative brief is always a good internal starting point so you’re bringing the right information to the process.

How to create brand names that stick

We created our own creative brief for our renaming project and we referred to it constantly throughout the process. Most importantly, we ran the brief by the entire team before presenting our new name and visual identity. Because the team had been involved and approved the brief, the new name didn’t come as a shock. Instead, it felt right for our new brand.

The ideal way to brainstorm name ideas? One person in front of a computer. This is not a name-by-committee endeavour.

Alexandra firmly states that brainstorming in a group will end in a mediocre name at best. “But why?” you ask. “Aren’t two or more heads better than one?” In this case, no. Crafting a name can’t be done in a boardroom. As Alexandra explains, within a group there is an inability to be truly objective. Most often a desire to be diplomatic or come up with something the boss will like turns opportunities to be bold and brave into names that are meek and mild.

The right way to brainstorm? According to Alexandra, it’s one person and a computer. And it all starts with a spark.

“Start with at least a dozen words related to your brand or brand experience to ‘spark’ ideas in your search.”

Pick one word, go online and start getting ideas and inspiration. Do this for every one of your words. Rinse. Repeat. Rinse. Repeat. Alexandra explains that it all comes down to “keeping an open mind, writing it all down and having your creative brief handy.” She recommends the following brainstorming tools:

  1. The thesaurus
  2. Google images
  3. Glossaries of terms
  4. The dictionary, including definitions, phrases and idioms
  5. Clichés
  6. “Google-storming,” where you go online and travel to wherever it leads you
  7. Movies and music
  8. Book titles

Branding Ideas

And don’t forget: Rinse. Repeat. Rinse. Repeat.

You need consensus, not compromise, to find “the one.”

So, you’ve presumably come up with some potential names and now you need to review these with others. Cue the cold sweat. Alexandra gives 12 very specific rules for reviewing your name concepts when there are multiple decision makers involved. These are the rules that really stood out to me:

RULE: Have people review the list of names independently instead of in a group to allow individuals to freely express what they think without pressure from the group or fear of the boss.

RULE: The essential question to ask yourself is not: “Do I like it?” That’s subjective thinking based on personal bias. Instead ask: “Is it right?”

RULE: Be brave enough to be different. Most brands you love, like Nike and Google, were once unfamiliar too—and look how they turned out.

RULE: Don’t fall in love with any name until you’ve done your due diligence with trademark searches.

RULE: Don’t use focus groups. I think this is the most important rule. You will always get that one dissenter that takes the focus away from the strongest idea and waters down choices to the safest (and weakest) names.

Tempted to be awesome? It ain’t gonna be easy. But baby, you’re worth it.

We knew before reading Alexandra’s book that we needed a new name. Our hunch was confirmed when Imagination Plus didn’t pass the SMILE test and was guilty of several of the SCRATCH deadly sins. We had changed since our inception over 20 years ago and we were ready to let our name do the talking. (Check out our rebranding announcement for more details.) Alexandra’s book came at the right time and was a useful reference during our renaming process.

‘Name-storming’ can be exhilarating but it’s definitely not easy. For our renaming project we went through hundreds, if not thousands, of words, phrases and images—and countless cups of coffee. It’s an investment of time, talent and money. Is it worth it? Do you need it? (Take our rebrand readiness quiz to find out.) Can you do it yourself?

If you own a business and are thinking about rethinking your brand or product name—or creating one from scratch (or should I say SMILE)—this book is a must-read. It’ll take you from “Hello” all the way to “My name is awesome.”

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