The New Rules for Naming Your Restaurant

Article originally published on QSR magazine, January 4, 2017

Many people rest their entire brands on how they do things. It's time to consider the "why."

Naming a new restaurant or beverage brand is a daunting task. Although it may not seem like it at first, the process can go a few different ways, but most leading to frustration. If you’re starting from scratch, the name is probably something you’ve had in your mind for a while. It came to you in a flash of brilliance, or it was something that happened while not thinking of a name at all. And there it was, the perfect name.

For a larger brand launching a new product or service, you’re probably sitting in a room with a committee throwing the proverbial spaghetti on the wall and hoping that something sticks. Design by committee usually ends in a frustratingly boring result. When you have to appease multiple personalities with varying opinions the common result is vanilla.

Confusion usually begins at the very thought of what a name should do. Some think it should describe the business factually and others think it should tell the whole story. Both ideas are simultaneously wrong and right. Understanding the true job of a name will help identify a good one. The most important thing to do before jumping into naming exercises is come into alignment on what the name has to accomplish.

The strongest brand names are bolstered by detailed, visceral meaning beyond product and service. In today’s world, “good product, good service,” are tablestakes and bottom line expectations. They’re not differentiators by any stretch. Despite this fact, many people rest their entire brands, and their brand names, on how they do things. Only a select few have built their brand ecosystem on the strongest possible platform: why they do things.

A great name is built upon a clear purpose—a “why.” The most important, singular job of a name in today’s world is to generate intrigue by alluding to that deeper meaning. One shouldn’t hear or encounter a name and immediately understand the full story. It should create interest and curiosity. It should make the consumer want to learn more. And when the story is unfurled it should connect emotionally.

Some people will have other checkboxes on what makes a name great. I’ve personally heard, “it has to be easy to read and pronounce.” Additionally, “it has to be understood on its own.” Both are misconceptions. Chipotle has become one of the most prominent food brands of this generation. Yet, I would venture a guess that half the people don’t know how to pronounce it. I often hear chi-POL-tee, from many folks in and out of the industry. We had a similar scenario with a small chain of restaurants we were charged with naming. The name created was GRYLT, a slang style abbreviated pronunciation of the word “grilled.” Despite the perceived simplicity of the word and pronunciation we’ve encountered many variations including “grill it” and “gr-eye-lled.” Pronunciation hiccups usually don’t prevent people from patronizing an establishment.

If that’s not enough proof in the flimsy rule of easy-to-pronounce names just jump over to Scotland and try reading and pronouncing some Scotch names like Laphroaig, or Bruichladdich. I know those are the names of areas or families, however; it brings to light an important element that connects with people today: having insider information that not many others have. People love to have the inside track, or exclusive knowledge. It plays to their vanity that they are the ones who know the right way to pronounce something, or know the true meaning behind a brand name. That emotion is a powerful one that helps brand grow while proliferating their story in the best way possible: word of mouth. If your name attempts, or succeeds, to tell your whole story, then it will either fail miserably, or your story is flat, boring, and shallow. Why a brand exists should be genuine and deeper than, “I like making burgers so I opened a burger restaurant.” It’s a nuanced tale that should have emotional roots that take a little longer to explain. How would a single word or phrase communicate something so vital and important? It can’t, and it won’t.

One final thing to remember about naming is this: it’s quite a rare occasion that a name will be experienced as black and white words on a page without context, whether it’s visual, aural, tactile, or a combination. There are advertisements, websites, physical spaces, and conversation that all add context and information. Trying to pack too much meaning into a name burns the bridge on the opportunity to start a conversation and tell your story. And that’s exactly when your brand can start to plant the seed for advocacy.