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Against Naming Contests

Naming contests rarely deliver—and risk irritating staff, too.

Almost always a bad idea, at least in the B2B world: Holding a naming contest with staff for a new product or brand. It’s surprising how often we still encounter this impulse. (Just last week we did so again, which is what prompted me to write this.) It’s born of well-intentioned but ill-considered supposition that such an activity will foster team goodwill—in addition to yielding a name. Two benefits for the price of one!

Except, not. First, contestants’ responses are highly unlikely to clear the strategic, creative and trademark thresholds a new name must hurdle. Start with the simple fact that so much of the so-called naming estate is already claimed by others. In many categories, the obvious candidates—the ones that pop up top of mind—are already owned. So, unless your contestants are inspired to go deeper, they’re unlikely to get past Naming Hurdle Number One.

What to do, then? Settle for the least worst submission from the naming contest, even if it hobbles the business or the brand? Or tell everyone, ‘Hey, thanks, but nothing you-all submitted was good enough so we’re going to farm out this process?’

So much for goodwill.

By all means, engage staff—and foster the goodwill and buy-in you’re after. But do so in a way that manages expectations, fits within a rigorous process, and increases the likelihood of a good outcome.

Two possibilities:

First, solicit input not as to what a good name might be but as to the key ideas or qualities a good name might express. This can might lead to truly useful guidance or creative inspiration. Chances are, at least a few useful insights will surface.

Second, ask staff to rank finalists in order of preference—maybe with an option to briefly explain the thinking behind their top pick. (This assumes the naming team can arrive at multiple finalist name candidates that are all acceptable.) Of course, in addition to the name candidates themselves, the naming team can also supply staff with a summary of team’s rationale behind each candidate. A more considered and bounded effort such as this can do a good job of engaging and building goodwill with minimal risk of a misfire. It can also help solve the persistent “last-mile problem” of naming: gaining the necessary confidence, intelligence, or buy-in to go ahead and pull the trigger.

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