The Craft Business Name Game

As the craft beer and spirits category grows larger, it’s getting harder to select a unique, marketable name for a new beer or spirit. The shelves are bursting with beer brands bearing catchy names like Brew Free! Or Die IPA, Smooth Hoperator, Sexual Chocolate Imperial Stout, and Dead Guy Ale.

Names are chosen for fun and shock value or because of a connection with trivia, colorful stories, cultural references, or history. When the Hanson Brothers decided to launch their own beer brand, they named it Mmmhops in homage to their MMMBop hit song. Reaching backwards in time, the Dogfish Head Brewery chose Midas Touch as the name for the first ale in their Ancient Ale series. The inspiration? Midas Touch contains ingredients detected in King Midas’ chalice.

On the spirits side of the aisle, there’s also a plethora of noteworthy names. Drawing attention with their memorable names are Better Days Bourbon, Three Sheets Rum, Rebellious Rye Whiskey, and Pisa Liqueur—an Italian nut liqueur encased in a tall, leaning bottle reminiscent of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Don’t Be Different, Like Everyone Else

Phil Davis, the founder of Tungsten Branding, is keenly familiar with the delights, challenges, and potential roadblocks associated with naming craft beverages. Davis said that creating a truly unique name for a beer or spirit is a lot more difficult than it appears.

“There’s more groupthink than people are aware. When you think you’re being extremely unique, you’re probably following a trend. It’s like the classic lament of teenagers who say, ‘I want to be different—— just like my friends.’ ”

Davis said that although names may differ, there are usually trends in cadence, sound, and style. Lately, he’s noticed a trend in names with ampersands. If you want to select a truly disruptive name, you’ve got to be first and move fast.

“If it’s brash and in your face and one or two people do it, then it’s really disruptive. But, if all of the names are brash and disruptive, then it’s a trend.”

To find the right fit for concept, Davis said it’s important to ask the right questions: What is the essence of the brand message that you are trying to communicate? Is the name easy to see, say, and remember?

“What’s important from a branding perspective is the big picture. Where I see people getting messed up is where they have five or six things that they want their brand to do and then they’ll use a minor priority to drive the decision—like it needs to have a matching or it needs to start with certain letters.”

Davis warns craft beverage producers against making these common naming mistakes:

• Selecting a name that doesn’t language well or communicate easily and nobody gets it.

• Assuming that a name is unique because it’s odd or quirky.

• Naming a beer after a city instead of highlighting a regional aspect that hints of the region.

• Opting for a safer choice over riskier, edgier choices because you are afraid of offending people. A neutral, bland name will not offend anyone but it will surely go unnoticed.

• Selecting a name that doesn’t mesh with a branding strategy simply because it sounds cool.

• Selecting a name that is difficult to spell or pronounce.

• Forgetting to pay attention to trademark issues. Davis warns that the craft beer category is one of the most competitive trademark product categories.

A Hundred Monkeys Play The Name Game

“We have had an instance where a client who was starting a brewery had decided on the name he loved the most and then there was a potential trademark conflict,” said Rose Linke, the director of client services at A Hundred Monkeys. Linke cautions craft beer and spirits producers to perform trademark searches to make certain that their selected name isn’t already taken.

“The interesting thing about naming a beer is that in terms of the trademark classes it includes wine, spirits, and other classes. Even if there isn’t a beer with that name, there might be a wine with that name or a distillery, beer store, or beer bars with that name. All of that is considered part of the same trademark category.”

The naming process at A Hundred Monkeys begins by brainstorming hundreds of potential names. Then, a general trademark screening on about a hundred names is performed. Those names are edited down to four or five names that are then presented to the client.

“The goal is not to have the client fall in love with one name because you want to have options at the end of the process.”

Linke believes that the most important factor to consider before choosing a name is this one: “Names are the start of the conversation you want to have with your audience. We think that names are particularly effective when they are evocative and make someone curious to learn more.”

Creativity on Tap

Alexandra Watkins is the founder of Eat My Words, a consulting and naming firm. Watkins, who works at a diner booth desk, reported that naming craft beers is growing increasingly more challenging because the marketplace is getting crowded. “Most of the obvious names are taken,” said Watkins.

For fun, I asked Watkins to quickly brainstorm a few names for an artisan beer targeting a high-fashion crowd. To fuel her brainstorming process, Watkins referred to a glossary of fashion terms. “Glossaries are great ways to find unexpected words,” explained Watkins.

Within seconds, she’d brainstormed two names: Hop Couture (inspired by the fashion phrase “haute-couture”) and Hop-Up Shop (a play on the phrase “pop-up shops”).

Usually, Watkins prefers to surf over to Google images, online glossaries and other sources of Internet inspiration versus using brainstorming tools such as white boards. “You have a computer in front of you with the deepest, richest access to anything in the world,” explained Watkins.

Watkins said that a good beer can overcome a bad name but a great beer with a great name translates into branding magic, especially if it inspires an emotional connection.

“Think about how many times you’ve bought a bottle of wine just because you like the name. Any name that can make you smile forms an emotional connection. Those love at first sight names are so powerful because that’s what we’re craving. Those are the names that people take pictures of, they get tweeted, and people talk about them.”

Although there are few naming taboos, Watkins warns against selecting a name like “Joyride” because it implies drinking and driving. Beer and spirits producers should also steer clear of any names that could be perceived as targeting teens and preteens.

Who Brainstorms Those Fun and Fabulous Names?

The staff at Eat My Words is compromised of namers from diverse backgrounds, including a mother who drives a mini van, an investment banker, and a software engineer. Watkins says that although naming experts come from all walks of life, the best namers are advertising copywriters, creative writers, novelists, and improv performers.

“Improv performers are great namers because they can put two completely unrelated concepts together.”

Passion for an assigned product category is mandatory. For a beer naming project, Watkins hired four recent male graduates from the University of California, Berkeley. They were all beer drinkers. As Watkins explained, “We always put people on a project who are either in the target market or who would be excited to work on it.”

Top Shelf Naming Tips

Watkins says the main distinction between naming a beer and naming a liquor product is that beer producers are more open to considering playful names because beer is a less expensive product. Since spirits are more expensive by the bottle, she suggests a classier, yet playful, approach.

“Look at the names of mixed drinks or go to a bar and see the fun and clever cocktail names and you can see that people like to have fun, especially when they are drinking. Who would have thought that Grey Goose Vodka would be this premium high-end vodka?”

Since spirits producers lean towards names that are sophisticated or classy, Watkins suggested that they stir up renewed interest by creating new cocktails bearing fun names.

Ultimately, Watkins said that the main consideration that beer and spirits producers need to consider before choosing a name is the answer to a singular question: “Does it sound like something that people would want to put in their mouth?”

Rachelle can be reached at




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