Successful naming demands focus, linguistic alchemy, and midnight oil
When I tell people at parties what I do, they’re always curious. “You’re a namer-of-things? That sounds like fun. Tell me more,” they say, seemingly surprised that it’s an actual job.
In fact, the profession has grown in the last 15 years or so with the explosion of entrepreneurs and startups that need to name everything from products and services to websites and apps. “Verbal identity” is at the core of every product launch and includes not just names but slogans and taglines.
I’m a naming consultant hired by branding agencies to tackle projects for clients that have included a faith-based financial institution, an online investment service, and wine marketed to women. I’ve coined quite a few cute names. For example, City Block™ is a note cube with a city map printed on its side. Then there’s HandJive™—fashion gloves designed for cyclists.
When I get hired to name a product, the branding agency provides me with a briefing document that outlines the client’s business strategy, identifies the competition, and suggests preferred directions, themes or language. Then I go to town. I get into a naming zone. I start with a walk for fresh air and ideas. I stop at the neighborhood newsstand and scan the magazine covers. I window-shop and note clever taglines (like the Gap’s “Fall into our sale.”)
I’m often one of several namers working on a tight deadline—anywhere from just 24 hours to a few days—to generate as many as 200 names. With luck and persistence, a short list of top contenders is presented to the client.
The tools of my trade go beyond Roget’s Thesaurus. I peruse foreign-language dictionaries, as well as a rhyming dictionary, Visual Thesaurus, and the Oxford English Dictionary to study a word’s historical origins. If I’m looking for a three-letter word, I can search ScrabbleFinder.com.
Successful naming demands focus, linguistic alchemy, and midnight oil. The creative process of naming is always tempered by legal scrutiny to ensure that a name doesn’t already exist. My clients—mostly small businesses and startups—hire trademark attorneys to register and protect the names that I’ve come up with for them.
Research is easier than when I started thanks to companies that allow you to search and register domain names. But it can be difficult to find a name that hasn’t already been claimed. One common solution to this problem is to leave out a letter: See Flickr or Tumblr.
My parents tell me I was born for this occupation. As a little kid, I was verbal, inquisitive, and imaginative. Even then, I paid attention to the names of beauty products. I blushed when my mom revealed she was wearing Revlon’s “Naked Pink” nail polish to a PTA meeting. Today, nail polish manufacturer OPI has cornered the market with its quirky, clever names. My top pick for a pedicure is their “I’m Not Really a Waitress” red. Rule #1 of my profession: A name should be memorable.
In 1990, I jumped at the chance to tap into my inner-child and took a job as packaging copywriter for toy manufacturer Mattel. Over more than 15 years, I produced countless descriptions and taglines, and hundreds of names, for toys.
I worked at Mattel in a team with a graphic designer and a structural engineer. We met with product designers who made preliminary drawings, engineers who created prototypes, and marketing mavens who called the business shots. In our brainstorms—or as we called them “name-storms”—we entertained dozens of ideas. The work wasn’t always fun and games and required many levels of approval. But the rewards were big: What could be more exciting than to hear a little one ask for Baby Ah-Choo™ at Toys “R” Us?
Rule #2: A name must be easy to pronounce. Some of my favorites: Stack-tivity™: a set of building blocks, each with a playful activity on it. A child could draw on the blank face of the What’s Her Face™ doll. There were plenty of names that I loved that were nixed by a higher authority. For example, Paw-Pets was the perfect name for a set of animal finger puppets. Rule #3: Never fall in love with a name—and never take rejection personally.
In so many words, a good name is memorable, meaningful, and distinctive. You know it when you see it. Even more importantly, you know it when you hear it.
I recently bought a pair of men’s cashmere socks, despite the hefty price tag, because the name blended playfulness and luxury. I knew that the recipient of my gift would appreciate it, too: Ovadafut. The spelling may look exotic, but say it out loud.
If you say it out loud and you smile: bingo. That’s the game of the name.
Ellen Lutwak wrote this piece for Zocalo Public Square, a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.
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