Your climate startup name doesn’t need to include the words ‘green’ or ‘eco’
By Scott Quill
The first naming project I led for Google went horribly awry. I mismanaged the process and landed on a name that never saw the light of day.
More mistakes and the occasional success have helped me develop a good naming process. I’ve learned that finding a name that fits your brand just right can even be fun.
Whether you’re excited or terrified by the prospect of naming your company or product, there are a few pitfalls to avoid and plenty of resources to help you get it right.
Editor’s note: This post focuses on environmental brand names, but the naming principles apply to any industry.
A case study in naming
At large companies, naming decisions, like all decisions, often involve many competing voices and other complexities. Take GE, for example. Last week the conglomerate announced the output of a six-month naming process.
The three companies that will result from its split are GE HealthCare, GE Aerospace, and GE Vernova. These names aren’t particularly interesting. So why examine them?
The announcement of GE Vernova, which represents GE’s energy portfolio, offers lessons for anyone interested in naming a company or product in the environmental, climate tech, or sustainability space.
I asked Jay Jurisich, founder of the naming agency Zinzin, for his take. “‘Vernova’ is about as ‘new’ (nova!) as using a green color (verde!) to denote “eco-friendly,” Jurisich said.
We’re not going to Monday-morning quarterback GE’s names; we don’t have access to all of the information that went into their decision-making process. Still, there are lessons to glean here.
How to stand out
If you have a startup or product to name, below are a few things to consider.
1. There are naming resources available
As the naming agency PS212 puts it: Your name is the first word of your story. You want to get it right.
If you have a naming decision ahead of you and can afford it, hire a good agency to help name your brand. A naming partner with a rigorous process can help you avoid common mistakes.
If you plan to do it yourself, check out Zinzin’s free naming resources.
2. Names that blend in tell the world you’re not unique
The first step in every naming project is to map out all of your competitor brand names. Jurisich calls this a “competitive namescape,” and Zinzin offers a process and template on their website to try it yourself.
“Most companies (and even agencies, oddly enough), don’t take this crucial step of thoroughly understanding their competition in terms of brand names, so they don’t see the pitfalls of plunging into the same kinds of traps that 80% or so of their competitors have fallen into,” Jurisich says.
This leads to a sea of names that sound alike and are impossible to differentiate or remember. An unremarkable name also means you’ll likely spend more time and money in the long run trying to convince the world of your uniqueness.
3. The climate space is saturated with words like green, eco, terra and re-
GE wanted to say “green” without using the usual descriptive words, so they went with an invented name. “Vernova is not terrible as an invented name,” says Jurisich, but there are a couple issues:
First, the GE prefix makes it sound like a product rather than a company. Given GE’s brand equity, they just couldn’t allow themselves to drop the GE, even though we’re talking about separate companies here, not divisions or products.
Second, GE had to explain the name in their press release.
“[GE Vernova] is a “combination of ‘ver,’ derived from ‘verde’ and ‘verdant,’ to signal the greens and blues of Earth, and ‘nova,’ from the Latin ‘novus,’ or ‘new,’ reflecting a new and innovative era of lower-carbon energy that GE Vernova will help deliver.” (GE.com)
“Whenever a company has to explain a name, they are mistaking the concept of a name having meaning with a name that is meaningful for their audience,” says Jurisich. “Just because we get it, doesn’t mean we won’t then just forget it.”
This is not to suggest you shouldn’t share the story behind your name. Great names offer layers of meaning to tell your brand story. The point is, your audience shouldn’t need to dig through all those layers just to make sense of your name.
4. Distinctive climate brand names offer inspiration
Let’s look at a few environmental/climate/sustainability brands that set themselves apart with their brand names
Climate journalist Emily Atkin’s Heated is “a newsletter for people who are pissed off about the climate crisis.” The name sets a tone for the publication (fired up!), and the domain name (heated.world) communicates the central issue (a warming planet).
Lonely Whale tells the story of 52 Blue, the world’s loneliest whale. Once positioned as a creative agency, this nonprofit is focused on preventing plastic waste from entering the ocean. Its name tells a poignant story that relays its brand purpose.
The household name Patagonia brings to mind vivid associations with the mountainous region in South America. This evocative name alludes to what sets the cause-based brand apart: its environmental commitment and spirit of exploration.(Related: 11 eco-friendly brands that put the planet first)
5. Naming is a process
If you follow a naming process and come up with a brilliant name or two, congrats! But unless you’re a solopreneur, you’re not done. You also need a decision-making process to choose the winning name.
This is where I really feel for the team at GE, which likely had to balance competing directives and input from execs and focus groups. If you’re at a smaller org or startup, limiting the number of decision makers will save you time and yield better names.
A few tips on decision making:
- Define the decision makers: Identify who needs to be involved in the decision from the start, and involve them at every stage of the project.
- Align on naming criteria: This helps avoid subjectivity from taking over entirely. Here’s my base criteria: A name should be meaningful (it should map to what sets you apart), memorable (so people talk about it), and ownable (it stands out and you can legally own the name and domain).
- Test it: If there are a couple ownable names that sound and feel good to your team, see what lands with your intended audience.
- Look for patterns in the data: When choosing a name, data points are helpful. Which names inspire creative ideas for your logo designer? What excites you and scares you? What words do people associate with the names? These are all data points.
- Go back to your positioning: Before making a decision, consider your brand once again—which name will best help you build the brand you’ve defined?
Don’t decide based solely on what one person thinks, and definitely don’t make a decision based on fear. Make a decision that’s informed by the data and feels exciting.
If you’re an entrepreneur with a brand or product to name, consider hiring a naming partner. Spending a little time and money upfront is better than paying later to explain your name or differentiate your brand from similar-sounding companies.
If you need to come up with a brand name on your own, assess the names in your category and note the words you see again and again. In every space, there are overused words that companies tend to use in their name. By avoiding this trap, you’ll have a much better chance of standing out.