interviews An Interview with Sten Lillieström: Part 2 Creating Effective Brand Names

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Sten Lillieström challenged some common assumptions about domain names and brands in the first part of the interview. This week, I ask him questions around the theme of how to create an effective and distinctive brand name.

Creating A Great Name

Let’s focus on how to create a great brand name. Late last year, you wrote “Business naming in general revolves around standing out. The name needs to be unique.” Can you help us see how you go about creating a strong and unique name that will be valuable to a business?

When we speak and express ourselves, we are not faceless machines. We employ all kinds of tricks and devices to catch and keep attention. And the way we consume this stream of information is also ingenious in that it ignores things that are not likely to affect the overall perception. If we valued all information equally, we would short-circuit.

Even when doing something as natural as reading a sentence, we don’t read every letter or even every word. We read the parts that we need to decipher to puzzle it together in our head. Brand names often work the same way, but in a more extreme way. I sometimes think they are like headlines in the extreme, for which the goal is to entice a reader to read the article, while not revealing the contents to an extent that would render it needless to read.

The peculiar thing about language, as opposed to the natural sciences, is that we study ourselves. There is a language device in each of our skulls, and it kind of works in the same way by design. This is why my blueprint is always going to be the way my own mind reacts to a prospective brand name.

In short, a name needs to adhere to English phonetic and prosodic principles. It is trying to be inherently distinctive, that is pretty much the gist of it.

Suggestive Names

While names seek to be distinctive and a brand vessel that can serve many types of businesses, does suggestion play a role in creating a brand name?

If it is trying to be suggestive, my favorite name-type, there are a number of different possible traits and features that need to be evaluated.

A Blueprint

While recognizing that creating a name is not as simple as following a rigid process, are there certain elements you consider?

My blueprint is meaning+form+novelty+application. Each of these layers has to be evaluated independently, but at the same time they all tie together, and it is only the overall concept that can provide a definite answer.

For instance, length plays a role, but not independently of meaning. Meaning plays a role, but not independently of novelty. Application is important in a final step. There can be concepts that have all the first traits, but that fail to have an explicit real world market.

Indirect Meaning

On Dec. 2, 2022 you wrote “The meaning needs to be indirect.” Can you explain what that means, please.

By indirect I mean that parts of words have meaning. I can’t go into the details because of length, but concepts like phonemes and morphemes provide guidance. One interesting study I looked at recently provides unequivocal evidence that at 18 months of age, we are primed to link a made-up word that starts with TR- to the picture of a train.

There is also the feature of metaphor that permeates our inner worlds. That is, when something is described in terms of something we already know. There are many other foundational figures of our imagination and features of language that we use all the time.

Words Don’t Come First. Ideas Do.

I really love the line you used one day: “Words don't come first, ideas do.” I think I understand what you mean, but how should it influence how we create names?

It ties into all that I have said. Language is a tool and tools evolve. The basic infrastructure may be the same, but the surface level is a never-ending flux. We dress our notions and ideas in words and expressions that underscore different uses and aspects. These notions and ideas are also a never-ending stream, sometimes novel, but often already existent.

A new expression can be brilliant or necessary or fill a void between idea and vocabulary without ever having existed before. In fact, that is the engine of the creation of new words and ways of expression. I sometimes think that this seems to be ignored when I hear folks talking about keywords, as if the words carried the value. The ideas are the real goldmine. Words can just animate that value by means of sharing. Not create it.

So What Is A Metaverse Domain Name?

It is easy to find references on NamePros or social media to Metaverse or NFT domains with the implication, for many, that they are domain names that contain those terms literally. But that is the wrong way to look at it? If someone asked for a metaverse domain name, what should it be?

It would have to be a process that takes a lot of things into account. One constant would be that the words NFT or Metaverse should not be options for a venture in that sphere.

I like Open Sea for instance. It is really descriptive in a non-literal way of the experience I imagine a user would have of that service. It’s a back door to being very meaningful whilst still not being literal. I say ‘process’ because the needs and preferences of end users may differ, and the available name space may set boundaries.

Overall, like any effective brand name, it should carry some pointer or reference, but not give the contents squarely away. It should click with current conceptualizations, and at the same time create an ‘aha’ moment that sparks a new connection. It’s the challenge of a lifetime, and the reason that I can’t give a formulaic answer is the same reason that I love that challenge.

Where Is This Name Now?

I like how you report names that you sold in the past that are now in use. You include the possible verticals you saw for the term. Could you share a few examples with readers?
  • Collexo I envisioned something to do with the word “Collect”. It is a fee collection company.
  • Curapath I envisioned a health company. It is a precision drug delivery company.
  • Couplify I envisioned a something to do with connecting. It is a dating site.
  • LifeAmor I envisioned a health or lifestyle brand. It is a work from anywhere company.
  • BoldPush I envisioned a marketing brand among other things. It is content and media marketing company.

Your Path To Domain Investing

I am always interested in how people got interested in domain investing, and how their previous activities and experience played a role.

I have been a radio journalist for the lion part of my working life. I have a bachelor's degree in journalism, and had been working for around 15 years, mostly as a news reporter for local and national radio, when domains grabbed my attention for a variety of reasons.

During the first pandemic year, 2019, I took a year off and took a vocational crash course in intellectual property, in the form of an "IP paralegal" education. At the same time, I worked hard at getting domain name sales to a sustainable level. Prior to journalism, I studied social anthropology and linguistics at university at a basic level. During my journalism studies I worked extra as a correctional officer at a prison.

I definitely have use for all these studies and experiences in my present work. I think my years of actual practice as a journalist are extremely valuable in many ways. The IP course led to a position as an acquisition broker for the Swedish domain management firm Dotkeeper, and has also been helpful in other ways.

Does Location Matter?

Many domain investors are based in USA. Do you feel there is an advantage or disadvantage in being in Europe, either in your outlook and linguistic richness, or in some other way?

I think that knowing several languages is, in general, something that can increase flexibility of expression. I would probably be out of my league in terms of English if the measure was anything else than creativity though, such as grammar or standard vocabulary. There is a big difference between mother tongue and language acquired later on. I do think that observing domain investing from afar in a way, has led to an opportunity to develop an alternate perspective.

The Most Important Things You Learned and Unlearned

I love reading what you write, since it makes me think deeper, and challenge ideas I have. Can you share with us what you personally found the most important idea or concept that you learned? Also, what was a key idea that you had to ‘unlearn’ in order to become a better domain name investor?

I started like any budding domain investor would have to, by learning from existing paradigm. The only resource available was, and still pretty much is, NamePros, which is why it's pretty cool to be interviewed and published here!

It still took me several years of trial and error before I dared to throw the prefab concepts that I consider not helpful for brand name selection and evaluation out the window, and started to trust myself and my ability instead. I used to refer to search data and keyword tools, like it was a God-given principle set in stone. The ten commandments. In my opinion it blocked my understanding of actual circumstance, and significantly delayed a profitable development.

I hope that this article can shift the legacy definition of ‘brandable’ away from ‘crap’ or ‘pigeon shit’, and towards a more balanced idea of which traits can benefit a brand name and how.

Don’t get me wrong. There is crap. And the potential to go wrong may be greater when you stray from the literal search keyword paradigm. But don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

Don’t believe the hype. It’s about the name. Never give up. Don’t take no for an answer. Ignore the noise. Those kinds of things.

I did not really have to unlearn much, or learn much. I just had to try, dig where I stood, and learn from the process. Trust myself!


Do you mainly sell at one venue?

I have tried many venues and setups, but I have gravitated towards using Squadhelp for a few years now. The reasons are both pragmatic and ideological. Pragmatic, in that portfolio management does become a hurdle when split across many marketplaces. Ideological, because I don't understand why clients that need a name and don't know where to start should be left with a square search box at a registrar or legacy marketplace.

Do Names Sell Themselves?

Sometimes investors talk about ‘names selling themselves.’ What is your take on that?

I often hear of strategies that amount to only waiting for buyers that are already set on a specific name, ‘Names that sell themselves’. Ring a bell? This is, to my mind, a quite exotic take in the context of business at large. It pretty much ignores the existence of things such as marketing, advertising, consulting, merchandising and in fact even sales.

It also ignores the fact that what a prospective buyer of a brand name domain wants to find at the end of a search is not the exact match of ‘Artificial Intelligence Consultant’ or ‘Financial Technology Business’ – but creative name identity suggestions that can capture and harbor these concepts without succumbing to the literal.


What advice would you offer to someone seeking to excel in domain name creation and investment?

Even though it may seem that the wheel was invented long ago, it only takes a brief look at history to see that the ideas we held 100 years ago, in a lot of respects, would be completely lacking by today’s standards. The same will hold true 100 years from now.

This means that the only thing you can do is to try to figure things out to the best of your ability. Believing that not much will change in the vertical of naming and our understanding of names is a mistake.

I read a lot. I try to keep tabs on the business world. I try to learn about language and the mind. I try to understand the legal aspects. I try to have fun and do what I do best.

Don’t copy something unless you know why and how it works. You would not be investing in your most valuable asset, which is knowledge.

Thank You

My sincere thanks to Sten for the time and effort he invested in responding to all of the questions, and for sharing his views and approaches. Also, thank you for engaging so fully and promptly with NamePros readers in the first part of this interview.

Those on Twitter will want to follow him there, at the handle BrandAlready. Here on NamePros, follow Sten at @trelgor.

His naming services site, Next Venture, has a blog section that has more in-depth commentary on many of the topics covered in this interview.

As last week, he is happy to answer questions and engage with NamePros readers through the comment section below.
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Overall, a great interview. I appreciate the integrity and deep thought that Sten brings to the naming process.

Thank you Bob and Sten
Very interesting!
Thank you very much Mr Bob.
Great Interview with many experiences to learn from.
Ty Mr. Bob.(y)
Season 9 Thank You GIF by The Office
Adding some additional general process theory on the name selection bit, since that was addressed with questions in Part 1.

Here's how I would recommend a beginner to start:

1. Remove literally anchored "names" that are merely literally descriptive of one single thing from the equation. Constructs with low versatility of use.

2. Internalize actual business names, primarily in tech and disruption-prone fields, and try to pay attention to their features without bias. Use resources on the internets.

3. Use the available host of drops and auctions as a training set for selection and spend hours every day selecting options, based on assessment of name features and qualities. Don't fool yourself into thinking it can be automated. Finding the obvious literal description is easy. This is not.

4. Develop an increasingly more formalized idea of what it is that you do, and try to be extremely hard on selection decisions.

5. Test and reiterate based on results.

For me, as noted, it is like language is. A complex host of high speed operations that are done almost completely subconsciously. You can call that "intuition" if you like, but in my opinion, "intuition" often gets unwarranted bad rep in a world where engineerability is the measure. There are cues and shapes to intuition. It's not "oh, that's "just intuition"". It's "what is this interesting intuition, and why?".

On the automation part. In my opinion, these things are already quite automated, deep in the mind, and it would probably take a model of the human brain to replicate it. A stale excel formula can't create selection output that is 100% meaningful. In this context, not even an AI can. It can approximate on data patterns in a brute force way, but that does not necessarily lead to useful theory.

What can be automated at this point may be a pre-selection that looks at name-features of priors in line with a brandable angle, basically length, syllables, and other formal features, and removes the obvious duds. Beyond that, mechanical automation will not be useful enough.

The meaning part needs to bounce off a human mind that is open to the possibility that it can assess the appeal of a concept as a name, by rejecting almost any unclear candidate, and accepting very few clear candidates. Without the conviction that this is possible, it's not going to work.

This idea is probably quite alien in domainer context, atleast that is my experience.

So you need to activate your head, and believe in it's ability for prediction and logic based on experience and the infrastructure of human thought pattern.
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@trelgor, you said you keep tabs on the business world. What are your favorite industries you focus on?
@trelgor, you said you keep tabs on the business world. What are your favorite industries you focus on?
I have had an eye on AI and automation for example, for a long time. That very recently started to move in terms of domain interest, as we can imagine. Besides new tech that I think is inevitable, I'm also attracted to the big unchallenged service sectors of Real Estate, Insurance, Legal, Finance, that are attractive to "disbundle" from a startup perspective. The main idea would be to stay away from shallow, limited and unlikely ideas, and the bigger the umbrella, the more room beneath it.
3. Use the available host of drops and auctions as a training set for selection and spend hours every day selecting options, based on assessment of name features and qualities. Don't fool yourself into thinking it can be automated.

Do you manually scan thousands of domains in various lists every day? Are there any special techniques you use for this?

Also, I think you underestimate the current AI-based systems developed on language processing.
Yes. My technique is to skim. I'm familiar with it's capabilities and limitations, and beg to differ. The tech is groundbreaking, and will change just about everything, but it should not by any means be confused with a human mind.