You’re launching a hot new product.  You want a name that packs the wallop of your Vision, the gravitational mass of a trendsetter.  You want a name full of extraordinary meaning.  You want a name that will be on everyone’s tongue.  Except that the name you choose ensures that it isn’t.

Some words are rich in nuance and context, we love to turn over their meaning in our minds … and these usually make lousy names for products.  A word that overflows with abstract meaning from another sphere is too rich to take seriously as the everyday name for an object, too heavy for the daily matter-of-fact function the word requires.

Ideally, a product name is always invoked for the object it refers to.  An object you can see, touch, carry – the ‘it’ in “Where is it?” “I put it over there.“  “I’m using it.”   Successful new names for objects like this are special in their ordinariness.

Take Nokia’s phone name ‘Intrigue’ or Samsung’s ‘Galaxy’.  Intuitively “Where’s my Galaxy?” sounds off;  the natural tendency is to revert to “Where’s my phone?”  One the other hand, “Gimme your iPhone” sounds just right.   Samsung may think it snagged an important branding opportunity for itself in light of the wallflower ‘iPhone’.  Yet ‘iPhone’ (and ‘iPod’) wins hands down as a word we’d actually use for the object.  Unwieldy names are everywhere.  Honda’s ‘Insight’ bogs us down.  “Where’d you park the Insight?” … Probably not.  Toyota’s newly coined word –  ‘Prius’ – is a smart choice.  Folks are in fact likely to say “Where’d you park the Prius?”  ‘Prius’ doesn’t bring the baggage of too-rich meaning inappropriate for a mundane context.

On the other hand, highly contentful abstract words can make for excellent business names precisely because they don’t need to pass the ordinary usage test.  Take, for example, Bliss Salon, evoking the experience with the service.   But the same word ‘bliss’ would likely fail as a usable name for, say, ice cream.  “Can I have another scoop of Bliss?”  It’s funny as a pointed tongue-in-cheek but not something that would work its way into everyday speech.

When it comes to meaning, creating a usable name for a product requires an important balance of not-too-heavy-just-right.  If you don’t supply a name that can be used in everyday talk, people will revert to a generic word.  You’ve lost the opportunity to create an emotional connection to your brand – consumers can live without your brand because any other brand name can fill in the ‘it’.   Apple got it right.  What people thought they needed was a phone.  What Apple got them to need is an iPhone.