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AI: a lesson in brand naming from an industry doing it right

Having spent a decade working with brands – as an early-stage VC and co-founder of a brand strategy agency – I’ve noticed one sector putting others to shame when it comes to naming habits: artificial intelligence. So why are AI start-ups consistently nailing their naming, and how do we learn from it?

Regardless of industry, brand names tend to fall within set categories. For example, you have geographical names like Arizona Tile, eponymous names like Boeing and Tesla, and acronyms like IKEA, IBM and ABC. Specific to the technology companies, four exciting categories of names have emerged.

1. Category: Descriptive

Descriptive brand names convey the service or product on offer. By nature they’re typically functional and utilitarian (General Motors). However, AI products have injected excitement into an otherwise unremarkable category.

Trend: Robot Love

As engineer-driven businesses, many AI companies opt for descriptive names based on popular industry terms — think “ “Robot”, “Deep” and “Data”. Take DataRobot, an enterprise AI for developing and deploying Machine Learning who have stuck to the naming script and raised over $430M in the process. Then there are more straightforward company names such as DeepAI, DeepLearning, Deep Genomics – all literal. Are traditional descriptive names boring? Yes. Are robots boring? No. Therefore AI companies are at a distinct advantage.  

2. Category: Evocative

On the opposite side of the creative spectrum you’ll find evocative names—names based on metaphors that evoke the kind of feelings, experiences, ideals or other qualities a company wants associated with its brand. In AI, evocative names such as Cruise, Vicarious or my favorite AI-driven game AI Dungeon, are layered and complex in their meaning, providing a rich platform upon which a company can develop a brand that’s larger than the sum of its services.

A useful and often underappreciated upside of the evocative category is the ease—and cost-effectiveness—with which trademarks can often be secured. The downside is the lack of immediate association with industry vocabulary, meaning brand recognition will depend heavily on the amount of marketing investment. The .ai domain extension, however, gives the startups freedom to be evocative that doesn’t exist in other industries, as it turns any brand name into an AI centric one.

Trend: Humanisation

When I own a robot I’ll call him George or Fred, not X Æ A-Xii. Major AI companies think along the same lines: names such as Watson, Alexa and Siri humanize technology and serve as prototypes for AI-inspired movies like Her; a recent Vox article noted a similar trend for banking and money apps.

Trend: Misspelling

Misspelled names have been popular for years, the trend was covered by TechCrunch in 2017 and four years prior to that by The Next Web’ in “why the trend for misspelled words won’t go away” (maybe it never will?). So why is this approach seemingly evergreen? It’s simple – there are just not that many words and free domains out there. Switching vowels or consonants with similar sounding alternatives can help a startup obtain a short, familiar domain without breaking the bank. The AI space is no stranger to the misspelling trend, and many in the industry embrace it.

A few examples are companies like AI-powered end-to-end data analytics platform Alteryx, or our client the API for Conversational Intelligence called Symbl, whose name alludes to their capacity to analyze conversations.

3. Category: Lexical

Lexical names rely on wordplay for memorability and are defined by puns, compound words, clever alliteration or usage of foreign words. The downside of lexical names is they can come off as “too salesy”. One of the most famous examples of such a name is Playboy, successfully renamed from Stag Party last minute.

Trend: Traditional Lexical Names are Back

Long after the frenzied ads of the Mad Men era, AI startups are bringing Lexical names back, adding an overtone of humble humor to the coldness of the technology space. An old dog of the AI world, SoundHound (cheap pun intended), is part of the lexical revival, using cliched naming characteristics (simple rhyme, symmetrical wording) to sell a complex technology. The result is a brand that feels whimsical, relatable and trustworthy –  and even better it directly relates to their service as an audio recognition company. CloudMinds and DeepMind (with its gorgeous website) are two other AI companies whose names add romanticism to their technical offering; and then there’s Sift Science who recently acquired an extremely desirable domain and can now be found at sift.com.

Trend: Hiding in plain sight

“Ai” can be included within a plethora of words making it a word players paradise. Adapting real words to include “ai” adds new meaning to a seemingly ordinary name and this clever approach deserves a special mention. Ladies and gentlemen, please bow to the likes of Open.ai (open eye), Aeye (a-i), and Clarifai (clarify).

4. Category: Invented

Whenever I heard Xerox as a child the name conjured up images of fantasy legends and mythological times. It turns out I was confusing it with Xerxes, a Persian king – the printing wizards made this name up. When this was pointed out my embarrassment was comparable to that of Xerxes after his failed Greek invasion in 480BC.

Many invented names are modified from Greek or Latin words. Kodak, Xerox and Verizon are all examples of invented brand names that have gained so much traction they are now considered real words.

The upside of invented names is simple: trademarks are easy to come by and domains are typically a breeze to secure. Additionally copycats are simple to spot.

The downsides are similar to those of evocative names: invented words require investment. To build a genuine connection between name and company, time and money need to be spent forging a clear association and giving your brand name a meaning consumers can relate to. The AI industry has taken the invented category one step further by adding a new dimension, numbers, into the mix.

Trend: Numbers

Who if not the tech-driven AI leaders (and Elon Musk) could lead the charge in using numbers in names, setting trends and making domain sourcing simpler in the process? Check out the wisely named H20.ai (aiming at making AI as popular as water), Deep6 AI (saving people from drowning in data) and the straightforward but no less impressive Oculus360.

Trend: (un)popular letters

As a rule of thumb companies prefer names that start with earlier letters in the alphabet (it optimizes discovery as they appear higher on lists and presentations): Alphabet, AirBNB, Agora, Affirm etc. Yet in the sea of A’s, B’s and C’s, names that start with the last letter of the alphabet shine just as bright. Unsurprisingly the AI industry has been quick to capitalize on this opportunity – step forward Zoox and Zymergen, two large AI businesses who have raised $950M and $574M respectively.

Naming trends must be heeded – who knows when a seemingly fleeting approach may become an instant classic – but not necessarily followed. When naming your own business, turn to AI company names for inspiration. The industry has no problem adapting existing trends and in some cases breaking the rules entirely.

In doing so, new standards are set and brands developed that are both different and authentic. Naming a business is an overwhelming process, but the hardest part is knowing where to start. Before diving into the abyss take a look at these must follow rules – stick to them and, who knows, maybe you’ll come up with the new Backrub, these days known as Google.

FAQS

How do vision and mission statements impact a company's long-term direction?

Effective vision and mission statements should ideally constitute important tools in formulating a company’s strategy. They should largely remain unchanged through the years, though a significant pivot may bring about new vision and mission statements. Together, they work to define the focus of the business and how it impacts the world. 

The vision statement is a representation of your company’s view of a better world. The mission statement reflects how it sets about to achieve this vision. They work together to create internal alignment and help with strategic decision making. When planning for the future, developing new products, or experimenting with new strategies, teams can perform a quick check against the vision and mission statements to ensure that these initiatives are aligned with the essence of the brand. 

In short, the vision and mission statements are powerful tools which can and should impact decisions across the organizations, making them important factors in a company’s long-term direction.

How does brand strategy influence the overall success of a business?

Your brand strategy reflects how your brand sees the world and its role within it. It is the framework that, ideally, should guide all your communications (both external and internal) and audience touchpoints, i.e. each interaction an audience member has with your business. 

Having standardized communication across all channels and touchpoints makes business processes smoother and positively influences your client relationships, ensuring you develop strong, long-term connections with your customers. It also simplifies strategic decision-making and aligns your team. All these factors are vital to the success of a business.

How do messaging frameworks help communicate your brand message effectively?

Messaging frameworks are structured guides that outline the core messages, value propositions, and differentiators of a brand. They ensure consistency across all communications, from marketing materials and social media posts to customer service interactions. By defining key messages that resonate with the brand's target audiences, messaging frameworks help ensure that a brand’s communications are clear and memorable. 

They also help organizations stay aligned internally and ensure that each member, regardless of their role, understands what the brand’s key message is and how to communicate it effectively. This internal alignment is crucial for presenting a unified brand image to the outside world.

What specific elements contribute to a brand's verbal identity?

A brand’s verbal identity should align your team on how your brand communicates and how this communication changes depending on the situation. It defines a specific and recognizable language through which your brand can deliver its message to your audience or audiences.

Typically, a verbal identity includes some, or all, of the following elements:

Brand personality: This captures the human traits or characteristics that your brand embodies, such as being adventurous, sophisticated, or reliable, which help shape how your brand is perceived.

Brand voice: The brand voice reflects how your brand reflects its personality across all communication channels.

Brand tone: While the brand voice remains consistent, the brand tone can change depending on the context of the message and the audience being addressed, ranging from formal and professional to informal and friendly.

Messaging frameworks: These are strategic tools that outline the key messages your brand intends to communicate to its different target audiences, ensuring that all messaging is aligned with your brand's mission, vision, and value propositions.

Messaging examples: These provide specific examples of how your brand's messaging might be applied in various scenarios.

Style and grammar guidelines: These outline your preferred spelling, grammar, and style, ensuring that your communication is consistent across the board. 

What are some key considerations when developing a tone of voice for a brand?

The first and most important consideration is the brand’s personality. While businesses are functional, they still communicate with people – and people primarily connect with stories and personas. Your brand’s personality will define a set of human characteristics which reflect how it sees itself in the world. By giving your brand these human attributes, you are making it both distinctive and easier to identify with. The tone of voice should reflect your brand’s personality.

It’s also important to consider your target market and your audience’s expectations. While having a distinctive tone of voice is important for memorability, there is such a thing as being too different. If all brands in your segment adopt a serious, professional tone, and you would like to be fun and playful, there is certainly space for that, but consider very carefully why you are doing it.

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FAQS

How does competitive benchmarking influence the development of a visual identity?
Competitive benchmarking is important in developing a brand's visual identity as it provides insights into the market environment. By examining the competition, a brand can better understand its unique value proposition and strengths. This understanding is crucial in identifying what sets the brand apart from others.With this knowledge, a brand can lean into its unique strengths when crafting its visual language. This approach ensures that the visual identity not only looks appealing but also reinforces the brand’s distinct point of view and competitive edge.
How does visual identity differ across industries, and how can a brand ensure it stands out while remaining authentic?
Visual identity varies significantly across industries, shaped by both the industry norms and the unique aspects of each brand. Understanding where your brand stands in the competitive market is essential when crafting a visual identity that both stands out and remains authentic.Industries have distinct visual trends that are often expected by consumers. For instance, financial services brands typically adopt a reserved, traditional look with a color palette dominated by blues and greys. In contrast, skincare brands often go for a lighter, more colorful approach with pastels. Being aware of these industry-specific trends is important because it helps to decide how much your brand should differentiate itself from these norms. This differentiation should be based on your audience's expectations and your brand's unique value propositions.For example, a financial services brand that emphasizes its use of innovative technologies might choose a more digital-oriented visual language. Similarly, a skincare brand that focuses on scientific innovation might benefit from a more science-based visual language.
What are the key considerations when creating visual concepts for a brand?
The visual identity of a brand should quickly and clearly reflect its strategic positioning. Designers begin the process of creating visual concepts by immersing themselves in the brand’s strategy to extract key narrative themes. These themes are then translated into a visual language that employs both emotional and aesthetic elements to communicate the brand's messages. This translation is crucial as it shapes how the audience perceives and interacts with the brand.When developing visual concepts, it's important to make sure they align with the brand's strategy and fit well within the competitive landscape: demonstrating key differentiators, but still fitting into the industry at large. The visuals should also be suitable for the mediums they will be used in. Whether for digital, print, or physical applications, the choice of medium can greatly influence how the visual concepts are designed.
How does visual identity contribute to brand recognition and trustworthiness?
Visual identity is key to boosting brand recognition and trustworthiness, especially in busy markets. When a company maintains a consistent visual brand across different platforms, it becomes easier for customers to recognize and remember it. This consistency is crucial for standing out among competitors.Having a consistent visual identity also shows professionalism and attention to detail. These qualities make customers more likely to trust a brand. When a brand looks the same across all touchpoints, from websites to products and ads, it tells customers the brand is reliable and serious. This builds trust and makes customers more likely to pick this brand over others that may not look as professional or consistent.
How do brand guidelines ensure consistency in visual identity across different platforms?
Brand guidelines are a key tool for maintaining a consistent visual presentation across various platforms. These guidelines typically outline the main use cases where the brand's visual identity will appear and provide comprehensive rules and standards. The guidelines include detailed instructions on how to use the brand’s assets, such as logos, color palettes, typography, and imagery. This ensures that anyone using these assets, whether they're designers, marketers, or external partners, can apply them correctly and consistently. It’s crucial that the entire team is familiar with these guidelines. It’s important to get team buy-in on the visual identity and ensure that the guidelines are easily accessible. When the whole team understands and follows the guidelines, the brand's visual identity remains unified across all touchpoints, enhancing brand recognition and trust.

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