The Do’s and Don’ts of Naming with Emily Grubman

December 14, 2022

Podcast Episode 27: The Do’s and Don’ts of Naming with Emily Grubman

Emily Grubman approaches naming with big-picture brand strategy thinking, the linguistic lust of a writer, and the sober practicality of a trademark lawyer (although she’s the first to tell you she’s definitely not a lawyer). 

She partners with early-stage startups and “solopreneurs” to name and launch their vision. But it’s not just about naming a business. As you get more visible as a thought leader and go-to voice, you may be naming new offers in your offer suite, marketing campaigns and webinars, podcasts, books, and more. 

So, join us by the Campfire Circle today as Emily does a deep dive into naming strategy, providing practical advice on what to focus on and what to avoid.

“The thing you’re naming is new, but thinking as far ahead as possible helps you understand how you want it to grow and expand. You want to give it that longevity to flex as needed to encompass all the things you want to achieve with it.” – Emily Grubman

Highlights from the podcast episode: 

We discussed:

[02:00] How Emily became the naming guide she is today

I used to work at a branding agency called Red Antler, I was a strategist and copywriter and naming fell under that as one of the responsibilities of the role. That was never the main thing I did, or that the other strategists on the team did. So, it was always exciting when a startup would come to us, and they didn’t have a name, or they needed a new name because we would have to brainstorm something for that. We would get the whole team together and even if it wasn’t your direct client, you’d still be in the brainstorm. Whether it was my client or someone else’s client, I just started to be the person whose names kept bubbling up to the top, so I came to be considered, very informally, the naming specialist at Red Antler. 

The beginning of 2019 is when I left Red Antler and went independent. I was figuring stuff out, but I was like, “Okay, I can continue making money doing what I already do but freelance.” So, I took on strategy projects, copywriting projects, and naming projects, which were the rarest, but those were always the thing that I liked the most and enjoyed the most. 

After about three years of doing all those different types of projects on my own, I finally realized that the only thing that I actually really enjoyed was naming. So, in early 2022, I decided to go all in on naming and take the leap and see if I could build a business that’s just naming, even though it’s not the type of client that’s going to come back because if you do your job well, they never have to rename. I did that and now I’m operating under Title Case, the name of my naming consultancy, and now when people ask me if I also do strategy or copywriting I say “No, I’m just naming.”

[04:47] The art and the science of naming

Naming is definitely a puzzle, which I love, and I think it’s really fun. I consider it an art and a science. There’s obviously the creative side, which is coming up with something interesting, that when you hear you can kind of guess what that company or brand might be about. But the science part of it is thinking about “Can we get this name? Is it available? Can we get the URL? Can we get a trademark? Are we going to be able to legally call this company ‘fill in the blank’?” This part is like the guardrails of the puzzle and the framework that you have to work within. You have to come up with something fun and creative, but you have to come up with something fun and creative that no one else has ever come up with before and beat them to the trademark punch.

What I also like about it is that it’s more objective than subjective. Brand strategy and copywriting are great, but I no longer enjoy that. I think I got a little bit burnt out, but I think it’s also partially because with those there’s always the idea of “Well, what if we did it this way? Or what if we wrote it that way? Or what if we said it this way?” So, you could endlessly iterate brand strategy or copywriting, and people do that all the time, they’re always refreshing their website, and changing packaging, copy, and all that. But with naming, there’s less room for that because there are yeses and noes, for example: “Well, what about this one?” It’s like “Nope, we can’t get it like that.” and it closes the door on that. So, it’s a puzzle and there are answers to be found, as opposed to just an endless hamster wheel of brainstorming, which is what burnt me out, the endless revisions, the “let’s try it this way” and “let’s try it that way”, and the “will it ever be good enough?” Whereas in naming, there is a subjectivity to it, but there are more definitive answers and yeses and noes.

[07:30] Getting into a naming mindset and what you should focus on

With any naming endeavor, whether it’s a trademarkable brand name, or just the name of a product or a book, that doesn’t necessarily need a trademark, I think it’s always important to start with naming criteria. That really helps keep the process as objective and strategic as possible, as opposed to “What about this?” and “What about that?”, like a battle of opinions. 

So first, we start with “Okay, what’s the naming criteria?” Generally, if we are going to be dealing with trademarks down the road, think of “What trademark class does this have to be in?” Then we talk about, “What vibe do we want?”, “Should this feel aspirational or really accessible?”, “Who’s the target audience?”, “What do we want them to feel like?”

This is where the brand strategy piece comes in. I couldn’t really escape from brand strategy, but it comes in at the start to understand the ultimate vision of what you’re creating right now and therefore naming and understanding that holistically to get a sense of: “What does the name need to achieve?”, “Who does it need to speak to?”, “How does it need to feel?”, “What instances does it need to work in”. 

That can be something like: if you know that you’re going to have this line of products coming out in the future, you might want to consider that as you name the brand above it. Then you can start to think about when you’ll do that, and you can establish this framework for all those little products based on this name. This gives us a runway and that’s sometimes what gets discussed in the presentation of names. Sometimes there are those easy avenues out of a brand name into a future product name. So, we can talk about “Oh, if you go with this, that lends itself really easily to this product and that product and you can make a whole naming convention out of this thing.” 

So, getting really clear about what the objectives are for the name is key. It can sometimes be hard to think so far in the future when you’re starting, because, usually, when you’re naming, the thing you’re naming is new. Thinking as far ahead as possible to understand “How do we want this to grow and expand?” and “What do we need it to encompass?” is important as you’re naming the thing itself, because you want to give it that longevity to be able to expand, hold and flex as needed to encompass all the things you want to achieve with it.

[12:25] Naming as a pre-launch startup or independent consultant 

Typically, I tend to work with a lot of pre-launch startups. Usually, maybe 60% of the time, they have no name, which is nice, there’s a blank slate. But about 40% of the time, they have a placeholder name, or they’ve had a name and hadn’t looked into it yet, but were like “Oh, it feels right” and then when they realize they’ll never be able to move forward with it, they’re coming to me. So, there is an emotional attachment to that name, which is hard, but I think it’s important to focus on just the practicality of “you can’t get this, so we have to move on, unfortunately.” It’s always harder to rename than to name, mostly because of that emotional attachment. That original name is what everything is going to be compared to. So, yes, the emotional connection and disappointment with a name that’s not available are really big. 

In my process, I want to minimize heartbreak as much as possible. You were describing the process after you realize that that first name wasn’t going to work, then you were coming up with lists and everything was unavailable, and it was like, “oh my god, how am I ever going to find something?”. That’s the process that I take on for the clients. 

I do all the brainstorming and researching, and I don’t show anything to my client unless I have confirmed that it looks good. I can’t guarantee anything because I’m not working for the trademark office, but I can see what red flags are there, what obstacles we’ll never get over, and stuff like that. So, I end up presenting a much smaller list, but it’s this curated list that meets the naming criteria we have established, checks all the boxes, and there’s a very high likelihood that you can actually get this. I find that that really helps and keeps the process more objective and strategic and level-headed than the emotional roller coaster of heartbreak and “oh, we really loved this”, which I think can happen in other naming processes where, for example, first, we show you 50 names, and then we narrow it down. It just feels messy to me, to show a name that you might not ever be able to get feels like a risk I would rather not take. So, I like to focus things on what we can actually work with and have these five names. They’re all different and they all have their pros and cons, but we can get them all, so they’re all great choices. Afterward, it’s just a matter of branding, thinking about what levers we need to pull with design and messaging all of which balance out whatever the name ends up being.

There are two ways you can work with me: I have a full-service option, which I have been describing to you and then I have more of a DIY, or as I call it Name-it-Yourself Launchpad, option. The differences are mostly my creative brainstorming involvement and budget considerations. 

With the full-service option: :

1. I have clients fill out an intake form to really give me all those brand strategy questions, like “Who’s the target audience?”, “What do you want them to feel?”, “What’s the problem you’re solving?”, “What do you want to be known for?” and all of that so that I’m up to speed on the business. 

2. When we kick off, I walk them through the principles of naming and everything for them to understand what a name can and cannot do, because it can’t do everything. The name is not your whole brand, it’s just a piece of your brand.

3. We talk about the naming criteria and get clear on what we want this name to achieve and what objectives we need to hit. That’s a very collaborative process, as we get clear on that and make sure everyone feels good about it. Those criteria then become the rubric for moving forward. 

4. So, I take that and do my creative brainstorming, where I try to go really wide and see what different territories we can explore, that will get a name that hits these various checkboxes on the naming criteria. I also go deep, and the depth comes from when I’m coming up with names, and then I’m checking them and 98% of them are coming back unavailable. 

That process is like “Okay, I really liked that name, it was such a good metaphor or symbol or whatever.” Not available. “Okay, but what is another way that we can still communicate that idea and get that?” So, it’s just a back-and-forth until one brilliant solution pops out and it’s “this type of name.” 

It’s a short list, but I want them to be varied. So, one name might be a little bit more serious, one might be a little bit more playful, one might be symbolic, whereas another is more evocative. I want there to be variety, so it’s not just going to be five different species of trees that all stand for strength or whatever.

5. Then I present these and give the stories behind the names, how I got there and what this could represent, and we talk through what the branding implications for those names are. For example, say there is one that’s maybe a bit more serious, then maybe the brand visuals are more playful and vice versa; or say that there’s a more feminine name, let’s butch it up with a more serious and sober brand style. I think because I’ve worked at a branding agency with designers and understand the translation from brand strategy to visuals, I can speak to and reassure clients that the designer knows that. Last year, I worked on a company, and we named them Pisces. I made it very clear that there will be no fish in this, and there will be no astrology symbols in this brand. The designers know to stay away from that because that would be too obvious and expected and they will know how to balance out whatever name you come to them with. 

So that’s something that we talk about a lot in that first kickoff meeting, understanding what a name can do and what a name can’t do, and what we should expect of a name and what we can’t expect of a name. It’s more about having somewhat of a blank canvas that you can build meaning into, and build a brand upon. Rather than hoping for a name that’s going to jump off the page, kiss you on the cheek and tell you it loves you, it’s a much more calm and objective process to consider “what are the pros and cons and strengths and weaknesses of this name?” “How will this lend itself to our future endeavors?”, and “how do we feel about using this name moving forward?” Opinions obviously matter and I want everyone I’m working with to like the name they’re going to get, but I think sometimes you grow to love it because you realize how strategic and well it works for what you’re doing and what you need it for.

The second option to work with me, the Name-it-Yourself Launchpad, is at a much lower price point, and it is more for founders like you and me, where it’s a (independent consultant) business of one. I was a freelancer and now I’m considering myself an entrepreneur and leveling up a bit. The Strategic Naming Sprint is more often used for startups that have some money, but regardless of budget, I want people to be able to name their company in a smart and strategic way. So, the Name-it-Yourself Launchpad gives people the tools and the framework that I use, but they’re basically doing the brainstorming on their own. ​​It’s a 90-minute workshop, where:

1. We are basically doing a lot of that upfront activity, like the principles of naming and establishing the naming criteria together. 

2. Then, we have a little brainstorming activity where we start to think about what types of names we want to represent this company. 

3. We do an exercise to start generating names quickly to get them to understand that, and I don’t want to say it’s a numbers game, but you do have to have a lot of volume of ideas because the odds are that someone else has already thought of that first in your trademark category. So, it helps with getting over the perfectionism of “oh, I have to write the best name right now.” It’s a little bit of strategic word vomit, where it’s like “okay, just get the ideas out”. That’ll help you snowball and then you’ll get to something and one of them will work. 

Along with the workshop, I’m able to do the trademark search for up to five names. Maybe at the end of that meeting, there’s one or two that sound exciting and we want to research, so we do that right away, or maybe they want to spend some more time brainstorming and really take their time and come back to me with the ones they want to research. After that, I’m happy to continue researching names, but it’s at a nominal fee after those first five. 

Then, because there just always are roadblocks and obstacles in the naming journey, there’s also the option to add on 30-minute regroups with me. So, if they keep getting trademark reports back that are saying “No”, and they’re just hitting a wall creatively and want to have a regroup with an outside party, I’m happy to spend some time brainstorming more or strategizing other areas they might want to explore. 

I’m offering my support, my tools, and my strategy to them, but you really are naming it yourself, and I’m happy to offer feedback. Some people feel like “your business is your baby” and they want to feel like they named it, and they came up with that. So, I think, budget aside, some people just prefer to do that to be able to feel more connected to that naming process.

[26:54] Emily’s process for naming her own consultancy, Title Case

Originally, when I first went independent, I didn’t have an LLC. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I was like, “maybe I’ll get a full-time job somewhere, who knows?” So, I just didn’t feel like I needed one, and I didn’t get one. 

Two or three years in, I was finally like, “Okay, let me just formalize this.” and that was still when I was doing strategy, copywriting, and naming altogether. I just needed an LLC and I needed to name it something. The work I’ve gotten and clients I’ve gotten have largely been through my network of past Red Antler employees that I worked with there, and everyone knew me there as “Em G”, so I named my LLC, “OH EM G LLC.” It’s kind of annoying to spell over the phone to people, which is part of the naming do no harm thing, but it was just something that I needed to do, so whatever. 

When I decided that I was going to go all in on naming, I was like “okay, if I’m going to be a naming consultant, I need to have a pretty good name.” So, I was doing naming research for one of my projects, and I think I had been thinking about “what would my name be?” I was working on that on the side, but very loosely, and there were definitely a few things off the top of my head that as I would come up with them, I would also look to see if I could get that. I wish I had a better story, but I don’t remember exactly what led me in the thought process to Title Case. I liked it for a lot of reasons, such as: 

1. Title Case is the typography case you would write a title in, so names appear in title case.

2. I also like that it has what I’ve been talking about, which is this idea of the science, and the making an argument for the names and considering “does it check all these boxes?”, “Is it going to work?” more than “Do love it?” because yes, you should love it, but that’s at the bottom of the checklist. So, it’s like I’m making a case for the titles of these companies. 

I looked it up and it was free, and I was just like “Amazing! It’s free. I’m going to do that.” and that was the story of how Title Case came about. It ended up being a much easier process than the whole “cobbler has no shoes” mishap.

[30:10] The “do no harm” aspect of naming

I’m very much in the belief that if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. So, I think if you’re going to change the name of something, there should be a very good reason to change it. I’ve written about this a bit where I turn people away from working with me all the time because I don’t think that they need to spend money hiring someone to give them a new name, when they have a perfectly fine name, and maybe it’s more of a rebranding exercise that they need more so than the name.

I had a call like this a couple of weeks ago, and they were like “Well, you know, we have this name and it’s available. We’re just not sure. We do like it, there’s a lot of meaning.” and on the phone, I was like “Well, yeah. I think it’s short, it’s pretty easy to spell, you can get it, you like it, and there’s a story behind it. I don’t think you need to hire me because it sounds like you have a name and you can build a lot of meaning and story into this.” 

Usually, when people do need to rename it’s often an availability conflict. The biggest thing that gets people to understand this is that they cannot move forward with this name without being sued. 

Other reasons people might need to rename get into the “do no harm” aspect of naming, which are

1. Maybe you’ve sort of pivoted and the name that you once launched with doesn’t really make as much sense, for example, MailChimp. They had to do a campaign to show that “we’re more than just mail”, and “it’s more than just email.” If you’re always having to explain what you do, or the name is misleading, that might be a sign to change your name.

2. Another naming “do no harm” is that the name should be easy to hear, say, and spell. Title Case is now a DBA for “OH EM G LLC” and I had to call the New York State business department to do that, and over the phone, I’m like “It’s OH, space, EM, space, G, space, LLC.” That’s not a fun thing to have to do. So, if you’re constantly like “oh, it’s ‘Dalmatyan’, but there’s a ‘y’ instead of an ‘i’” and you’re always explaining. Or it’s like “it’s ‘bubble’ with no vowels” and you’re always explaining what your name is and spelling it that’s a reason to maybe look for something else.

In the names that I present, I always try to avoid those typical millennial startup misspelling names. They chose those names for a reason: they’re easy to get because of the availability or the lack of availability conflicts with a weird, jumbled letter name, but then you end up having to explain like “oh, it’s Grindr with no E” and that’s a successful brand so that’s fine. 

As the number of trademarks grows, the number of name conflicts grows and you may feel forced to create some weird jumble of letters, but there are ways around that. You just have to get creative to see what is an easy-to-hear, say, and spell name that can still work within the confines that we need it to.

3. The other thing with “do no harm” is maybe a bit more obvious and it’s that the name shouldn’t mean anything bad. Like, we’re not naming anything Hitler. It also shouldn’t be a bad word in another language.

So, just doing due diligence to make sure because we do not want to be doing harm in any way. There was a project when I was at Red Antler that we had to rename something like this. It was kid’s healthy Lunchables, like pre-packed lunches for kids and if you googled the name that they originally had and went to the website, it was a Russian porn site. So, check what pops up on Google and such. 

Everyone is going to have connotations with every type of word and name. For example, when you think about when people are naming their kids, it’s like “oh, we’re going to name our kid Emily” and you tell someone, and they’re like “oh, I knew an Emily in third grade, and she was such a bitch. You shouldn’t name her that.” Or, like I said “dalmatian” earlier, but if someone doesn’t like a dalmatian that’s less of an issue than using the name Hitler.

[36:55] Emily’s big, dreamy vision

I have two visions. 

There’s the vision I have for the people I work with. I obviously care about naming and think naming is important, but I want people to understand that naming isn’t everything, it’s just one piece of the grand puzzle and you don’t have to put so much weight on it. I think sometimes the expectations of a name can be a bottleneck. There’s so much potentially unnecessary weight sometimes put on the name, but it’s not the name, it’s the brand that people remember.

I always ask my clients “what are some of your favorite brand names, from any category?” Sometimes people answer in the way that I am asking the question, for instance, Staples the office supply store, which is really cool, it’s “staples” for paper, but it’s also the “staples”, the necessity and that’s an example of a brand name. As opposed to when people come back to me and answer Goldman Sachs, that’s a really strong brand, but you’re talking about the brand, not the name, the name is just two last names. 

So, I think my vision would be to just take some of the pressure off names and understand that it’s more about a blank canvas and “do no harm” than this amazing thing that stands all on its own. In general, that ladders up to a vision for less perfectionism in the world, less needing things to be so, so, so amazing and better than anyone else, and less competitiveness. We should all just think about “It works. It’s good. Yeah, we can move forward with this. It’s great in its own way.” 

My vision for myself is connected to that last thing. I just want to have a peaceful, happy life. That’s why I decided to focus on naming, even though it was scary, and there aren’t that many people who need naming help. I didn’t want to do the things that I was doing that I didn’t enjoy anymore. I wanted to just not hate my work and not dread it but actually enjoy it, and I want that for every aspect of my life. So, I want to do work I enjoy and think is fun, and live somewhere I enjoy and take advantage of it. I’m about to embark on a European adventure to see where I should live in the world. 

So, my vision is just more peaceful, calm, and relaxed days for everyone.

Resources from this episode:

14 LinkedIn Content Prompts: Build your personal brand and thought leadership, show up for your target audience, and grow your know-like-trust factor with your professional audience on LinkedIn.

Connect with Emily Grubman : 

Consultancy: titlecasenaming.com

Personal Website: emilygrubman.com

LinkedIn: Emily Grubman

Connect with Tania Bhattacharyya:

LinkedIn: Tania Bhattacharyya

Instagram: @taniabhat

Website: lumosmarketing.co

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