One of the most difficult life science marketing decisions: choosing a name

The choice of a name carries great emotional weight, generates an almost instantaneous response, and lasts a long time. For these and other reasons, the process of developing and choosing a name can be difficult.Few choices in life science marketing generate a response as instantaneous as a name. First impressions come quickly and can last a long time.

Few choices in life science marketing carry more emotional weight than selecting a name. After all, this new company (or product or service) is your new baby.

No choice in life science marketing lasts longer than the selection of a name.

With so much importance, so much emotional investment, and so visceral a response, the process of developing and choosing a name can be very difficult. For many companies, emotions rule the day, hijacking what should be a clear process based on carefully selected criteria. Because of this, it is important to bring insight and perspective to the task.

I’m going to outline a process for finding and selecting a name for your new life science organization, service or product. Having this outline in hand won’t necessarily reduce the emotional import of the decision, but hopefully it can assist you in guiding your team through a process that is fraught with pitfalls.

What the right name can accomplish

The right name can help your life science marketing efforts. It can differentiate you from your competitors. It can be memorable. It can encapsulate some portion of your uniqueness. It can engage your audiences, both external and internal. It can provide a source for marketing and advertising images.

While the right name can help, often it’s not the name itself that is significant, it’s what the name comes to represent—which can be a complex set of emotions and beliefs wrapped around a core idea, such as what the organization stands for, or the mission or vision of the organization. In other words, names are signifiers that eventually come to stand for much more than a simple collection of letters or phonemes.

Here are two examples that illustrate this point. First, think of any of the great brand names in consumer goods, such as Coke®, Apple®, Oreo® or Nike®. Hearing these or similar names brings to mind many attributes and/or associations. These are not inherent in the name itself, but come from our experiences—ones that we associate with these names.

Second, consider how parents go about naming a child. Parents can spend hours poring over books of names, trying out many different names. But before the birth, the names are not associated with any particular meaning

It is the name’s meaning that eventually becomes significant. But names accrue meaning over time. So choosing a name is difficult in part because the name doesn’t have any meaning yet.related to the child’s actions. But by the time a child gets into middle school, the name can carry multiple meanings, depending upon how it is verbalized.

These examples demonstrate that it is the name’s meaning that eventually becomes important to us. This meaning comes from the associations and attributes that we layer onto the name, not from the name itself. This meaning is more important than the collection of letters.

But when you first consider a collection of potential names, you’ll be selecting from choices that typically do not yet have any associations and attributes layered onto the name. You’re picking alternatives from simple collections of letters. The name choices you’re considering do not have any meaning embedded in them.

This “emptiness” makes it easy to reject names, because they don’t yet have the right meaning associated with them. But no new name will have the right meanings layered on, so it is vitally important to think about the criteria you plan to use as you select a name. And you should have a discussion about criteria before you begin the name selection process.

How not to choose a name for a life science company, product or service

The failure I most often see in selecting a name is that of neglecting to have a serious discussion about criteria at the earliest stages of the process. Without criteria, and without weighted criteria (where some are more important than others) the process will be subject to the whims and vagaries of everyone’s personal preference or emotion.

Imagine if children’s names were chosen by a large committee. You’d end up with a watered down compromise that pleased no one. So why do companies choose names this way?

Another failure is to weight too heavily the need to “get buy-in from all stakeholders.” While this can be an admirable goal, the result is usually the creation of a large name selection committee. Imagine if children’s names were chosen this way—by a committee of all the neighbors, aunts, uncles and cousins. You’d end up with a watered down compromise that pleases no one.

Criteria for choosing a name in the life sciences

Here is a list of criteria for selecting a name. Each company will weight these criteria differently, and the weighting might change throughout the process, but the criteria listed here should form the basis for any successful life science naming effort.

Unique – Your name should be unique. To be more accurate, your name needs to be unique in your sector. Otherwise life gets very confusing.

Sound – Every name will need to be spoken, by native English speakers as well as speakers of other languages. The inability to pronounce a name is a significant impediment to its widespread adoption. (Though if you have a gigantic budget, you can overcome a lot.)

Many names have been prevented from being successful by inadvertent meanings. Be sure to check the possible meanings of your new name, particularly in foreign languages. This is one of the most powerful reasons to use a professional naming service. Meaning – Names can have meaning before you even begin to add your own story. Some names can describe “what” you do (e.g., Life Technologies® makes technology to do with the life sciences). Some names take a different direction, and describe “how” you do it (Whatever it is that Agilent® does, and the name doesn’t say, the name communicates that they don’t do it in a plodding way). There are many other types of names, which I’ll cover a little bit later. For now, I’ll just note that communicating “what” you do in something short and easy to pronounce is easier that communicating “how” you do it. But communicating “how” you do what you do can be much more distinguishing—that is, unique.

In addition, names can have inadvertent meaning. This often happens with other languages. The International Business Times reports that Ford introduced the Pinto car in 1971. In English, a pinto is a horse with a coat spotted with white and other colors. But in Brazilian Portuguese, pinto is slang for male genitals. Consequently, sales of the Pinto were not very high in Brazil. There are many other examples of names that have inadvertent meanings, so caution is advised.

Appearance – What does the name look like? While the choice of font, color and other design factors can make a significant difference, some names are more pleasing to look at than others.

Length – in general, shorter is better. Enough said.

Imagery – your name might imply one or more images. Apple®, Amazon® and Yahoo® are all examples of this.

Availability – your name should be available. There are many aspects to this, most notably legal availability and url (web address) availability. Your name must be able to be trademarked in your specific life science sector, and ideally your name must have a url that is available. To check legal availability, you can start with the United States Patent and Trademark Office website: Select “Trademark Search” and you’ll be guided through the steps necessary to perform a preliminary check. Just because you find some search results covering the name you’ve chosen doesn’t mean you can’t still obtain coverage. Trademarks expire and the trademark is only applicable to a particular market sector, which would allow two different companies to trademark the same name in two different business sectors. Of course, you’ll want to get a lawyer involved to ensure that the name you choose really is available, but you can do some preliminary checking yourself.

You’ll also want to ensure that your name has a url available. The best way to check the name’s availability is to use a domain registration provider, like Network Solutions, Dotster, or any of the many other companies that offer this service. There is one thing you should know about these services: they typically publish all searches performed, which means that if you search for a name, that name is then published. This has made it very easy for enterprising individuals to check the list daily, and obtain the available urls themselves in an attempt to “squat” on the address, hoping to sell it back to you at an inflated price later. So, if you find a url that is available, go ahead and reserve it right then. Don’t wait, even for a day; you risk losing the address to a squatter. Given the low price of url registration these days, a one year registration is a cheap investment in the future of your organization.

In addition to the seven listed above, there are other criteria that you might use to guide selection of a name – energy, warmth, depth, staying power,etc. – but these are the main ones to rely on.

Using naming services

There are many firms that will create names for you, and these are easy to find using a search engine. The cost for these services can range from moderate to expensive, and cost is one of the main reasons to avoid using them. However, when you consider the amount of time, effort, and budget you will put into teaching your life science audiences the attributes and associations you want your name to have, the cost of a professional name service starts to look reasonably small in comparison.

If you are considering using this type of service, I suggest you discuss your needs with several such firms, as this will quickly clarify the differences between their approaches. Look for a firm with extensive experience in the types of names you want to create, for example: naming reagents, or naming scientific instruments.

The naming process in the life sciences

What methodology should you follow if you decide to develop a new name yourself? Here is an eight-step life science naming process. (Even if you work with an outside firm, most of these steps should still be on your to-do list.)

The most important thing you can do early in the naming process is to decide on the criteria you will use to select a name.1. Assign roles and responsibilities. It is important to keep your naming committee small, as a large committee will tend to develop a name that is a compromise, barely acceptable to all, and pleasing to none. As you assign roles and responsibilities, make it clear how the decision will be reached: who will get to provide input into the selection process, and who can veto the selection. It is also important to set a timeline for the name selection process, in order to help your team continue their momentum. As I’ll describe later, skipping this step is a sure invitation to allow a small group of employees to completely derail the process at the very end.

2. Define your criteria. Select the criteria that you want your name to meet. If possible, weight the criteria, so you understand which criteria are most important to your organization. Do not even consider any potential names until this step in completed.

3. Competitive analysis. Determine what names your competitors are using and then analyze them using your list of criteria. This serves two purposes. First, you become familiar with the types of names and the specific names your competitors are using. Second, you will get some practice in using your list of criteria to sort through a list of names, a skill that will come in handy in one of the subsequent steps.

4. Clearly define your marketing position—your strategy. I have written extensively about the importance of positioning. You can find links here The Importance of Positioning for Life Science Companies and here Crafting a Clear, Effective Positioning Statement for Your Life Science Brand. Your position should clearly define why you’re different, and why you’re better. Your naming strategy and the name you ultimately choose should support your positioning strategy. Your name choice will communicate with your audience in a subtle but significant, way. Given the need for consistency across all touchpoints (read more here), you should choose a name that will reinforce your positioning strategy, rather than one that ignores it, or worse, acts in opposition.

5. Develop different candidate names. At this point, the goal is to develop as many names as possible; it is a good idea to cast a wide net. Don’t worry about whether the names are good or not, just develop names, lots of names.

If you sit down to develop a list of names, it won’t take long before you run dry. It happens to everyone, so this is a good time to get help. Ask others in your organization to give you names. You can use contests to encourage others to contribute entries, or bring small groups together to brainstorm.

The process of developing name candidates is at heart a creative process, and the creative process works best when it is unfettered by constraints. As Stephen Pressfield says in his book Do the Work:

“Let’s talk about the actual process—the writing/composing/idea generation process.

It progresses in two states: action and reflection.

Act, reflect. Act, reflect.

NEVER act and reflect at the same time.”


Do not try to narrow the list (reflect) as you build it (act). You should first build as long a list as you can, adding every name you possibly can, no matter how trivial or stupid you may find it at the time. Do not reflect. Act. Build a long list. Then make it longer. The goal here is not quality, but quantity.

Never act and reflect at the same time. Don’t try to edit your list of names while you’re building it.One way to extend your list is to use naming websites. There are many different types; some websites will produce name candidates by asking you for root words, which they then truncate and combine. It used to be that only professional (and expensive) naming firms that invested in creating this type of software could have access to these programs. Now they are available to everyone. To find them, use phrases like “name generation software” or “generate business names” in your favorite search engine. Some of these tools will also check the availability of internet domains at the same time. Before you use these, read the caution in the section on Availability above.

6. Narrow your choices by measuring each name against your list of criteria. Now it’s time to stop acting and start reflecting. Refer to your list of criteria and sort the master list of names according to how well they meet all the criteria. This step can take quite a bit of time, particularly as you check availability.

You should finish this step with no more than a dozen viable candidates, though it is not unusual to have fewer than five on the final list.

7. Test the final candidates with the audience. For serious name generation efforts, now it is time to decouple yourself from the process and find out what your audiences think. This is not about letting the audience make final decision—the risk in doing that is ending up with a name that’s a compromise; offensive to only a few, and not really pleasing to almost everyone. The goals in this step are to run a disaster check and to gather one last set of opinions from people with money to spend (i.e., customers).

There are many ways to test names, from casual “what do you think” tests to more formal qualitative and quantitative research. You can read more on conducting research here.

The usual research caveats apply when testing names: choose the right audience, don’t be afraid of the answers you might receive, and write your questions carefully. Specifically, the question: “Which name do you like?” is a poor one, because it is too vague, subjective and personal. A better question would be: “In your opinion, which of the following names best conveys (fill in the blank)?” where the blank is an attribute that represents something from your list of criteria, such as professionalism, agility, or precision.

8. Select your name. Once you’ve assigned roles and responsibilities, defined your criteria, conducted competitive analysis, clearly defined your position, developed a long list of name candidates, narrowed your choices, and tested the final candidates with your audiences, it’s time to select your name.

At this point, some organizations are reluctant to make a decision. This typically appears in the following way: a few employees remain dissatisfied with the choice favored by the majority. These employees are typically vocal holdouts who continue to lobby for their favorite candidate.

If this happens, there are three basic choices:

  • Let the vocal minority hijack the process and “veto” the majority choice, causing the group to select the minority’s favorite name
  • Start the process all over again
  • Choose a name anyway

This situation highlights the importance of assigning roles and responsibilities at the very beginning of the process. It is important to note that any one choice will not please everyone. This is when clearly defined roles and some organizational courage help the process reach a successful conclusion.

Different types of names

There are many different types of names, and many different ways to categorize them. I’ll list a few common options here.

Real words. Examples: Quintiles®, Concert Pharmaceuticals®, Jounce Therapeutics®

Pros: These names are often short, easily understandable and can have multiple associations already “built-in.” Cons: Availability will typically be difficult. The url will typically be expensive to obtain. Trademarking can be difficult as well.

Compound words. Example: EastCoast Bio®, Bio-Concept Laboratories®

These are two or more words chained together. This is a simple way to create a “new” word. Pros: It is easy to create a unique word, one with interesting meanings. Cons: These types of names are very common; even if the one you select is “unique,” there is often a sameness in feel that causes audiences to ignore them or to think they’ve heard that name before.

Blends. Example: Digilab®, GenSyn Technologies®, Microtest®

These names are created by linking two or more partial, but recognizable, words. Pros: These can be short and have multiple associations or meanings. Cons: Blends can be awkward, and can have unintended connotations.

Tweaked words. Example: Idexx Laboratories®, SeqLL®

These are deliberately misspelled names. Pros: You can achieve rich meaning and uniqueness. Cons: Recognition can be a problem; some of these can be gimmicky; they can make it harder for audiences to find you through search engines.

Invented names. Oreo? Kleenex?

These names are typically short and are completely fabricated. Pros: They can be short and distinctive. You can usually apply whatever meaning you want to them (within certain limits). Cons: These don’t have much meaning associated with them.

People’s names. Schrodinger®, Perkin Elmer®

These are named after a person, either real or made up. Pros: These names can be distinctive and can offer great personality. Cons: Availability and meaning can be a challenge.

Acronyms and initials. TEI Biosciences®, PPD®

Pros: These can be short. Cons: These can be meaningless.

In addition to these categories, there are other ways to classify names, including:

  • Functional/Descriptive names
  • Names with Greek and Latin roots
  • Experiential names
  • Evocative names

Choosing a name for a new company, product or service in the life sciences can be fraught with difficulty, as the choice lasts a long time, generates a strong first impression, and carries much emotion with it. With all this baggage, managing the process is very important, and is the key to success.

[i] Pressfield, Steven Do the Work! Overcome Resistance and get out of your own way The Domino Project, Do You Zoom, Inc. 2011. Pg 41.