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Thinking outside the thesaurus: Creativity in Naming

Every creative task requires a willingness to open one’s mind up to the unexpected. But naming is a very particular craft. Creating your story in its shortest form can be quite a challenge—especially when the goal is to differentiate your brand from the competition while staying true to the values it holds dear.

A well-built creative brief gives us a platform to launch from, but an extensive naming process can require brainstorming hundreds of names—then methodically sorting through them to find the right one. And since there are also legal and linguistic hurdles to navigate, the more creativity you can exercise at the beginning of the process, the more names you’ll have to work from.

Cracking open the thesaurus may be a good start, but how can you generate countless names if your creative journey is limited to a path of synonyms? It’s about figuring out how to expand your thinking beyond the expected.

When it comes to brainstorming names, there are some tried-and-true techniques: mind mapping, sketching out images related to a creative territory, and even developing a ladder of abstraction (in which you jump from the “what?” to the “how?” in order to expand on an idea). All are sound methods. But let’s say we’ve already mapped out every connection, sketched out countless images, and even considered all the whats and hows related to a concept—yet the same ideas keep coming to mind.

We need to break through these existing thought patterns to guide our minds along an unexplored path.

Start with a story

Let’s say you want to explore “empowerment” as a creative territory for your name. Rather than brainstorming every synonym or metaphor for the word, try remembering a movie, TV show, or book that triggers this idea. What was the title? What words would you use to describe how the main character overcame an obstacle? If you’re a music lover, consider a song that speaks to this theme.

When using this approach to explore “empowerment” for a recent client, one of the movies that came to mind was the Bradley Cooper thriller “Limitless”—a story about a struggling writer who finds a nootropic drug that allows him to expand the capabilities of his mind. Once tapped into this narrative, the thoughts started pouring out—all of which led to some very distinct and unexpected avenues for name generation. We explored various activities related to overcoming writer’s block, words used to denote different parts of the brain, and even metaphors for mind-enhancing drugs. This revealed different facets of the concept that allowed us to hone in on what “empowerment” meant to the client and their audiences. Sometimes all you need is a familiar story to steer you onto an unexplored creative path.

Work back from the worst

Another approach to creative naming involves turning the process on its head. Interbrand’s Senior Director of Verbal Identity, Penelope Davis, reveals one of her more unorthodox methods: “Try starting from the opposite end of the spectrum and writing down the worst possible names you can think of for a particular product or company,” she advises. “Then identify the specific words or themes that make those names unacceptable and work backward to see if you can extract any viable elements from them.”

Let’s say our client is looking to name a new sports car. To put this method into practice, we may start with something like “Reckless”—a name that’s completely absurd, from a seller’s standpoint. But if we work backward from that idea, extracting concepts that might be associated with “reckless” driving (e.g., excessive speed, a wild sense of adventure, the freedom to take on dangerous terrain), we can begin to see why the idea strikes a chord, and come up with disruptive names that are likely to catch the eye of brand reps and their audiences.

Fade to black 

Sensory deprivation has been explored in pop culture categories such as music and fine dining—but what about naming in the dark? When we deprive our sense of sight, our minds overcompensate for the loss by creating louder and more vivid thoughts. This enhanced thinking can lead to rich, unforeseen (no pun intended) creativity that may not surface during a regular brainstorm.

While naming is inherently a collaborative process, sometimes a little solo time in the dark is all you need to release your mind from cyclical thought patterns and the expectations of others. This can allow you to bring fresh ideas to the table—ones that lead you down less predictable routes.

These are just a few ways to think outside the thesaurus when it comes to naming. No one method is better than the rest, and every individual has his or her best techniques. But it’s important to capture all of these ideas, as one that seems like too much of a stretch may lead to a more concrete word or metaphor in the future. So explore everything. Restrain nothing. Aim for the sky. Just know when to pull yourself back down to the ground.

Is there a name in your future? Let’s talk, email us at


Chief Strategy Officer, Interbrand Austraila
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