Candlepower

Ad and marketing creatives

How Words Become Names (Part One)

When you're naming a business or a product, you look at words through a different lens than the novelist or historian. They think in sentences, paragraphs, chapters, or even volumes; you must think in single-word nuggets of meaning. Your job is to distill the essence -- and even the unknown future -- of your product or company in one, or sometimes two, perfectly suited words.

One way to impose order on the task is to think of product and company names in categories. There are legal categories (generic, descriptive, fanciful, and so on) and linguistic ones (language of origin, number of syllables, and other criteria). But the categories I propose here require very little specialized knowledge to understand or to master. They're based on the way in which letters and sounds make the leap from glossary to commerce -- the way in which words become "household words" -- that is, trademarkable names.

In this installment, I look at three common methods for creating business names; next month I'll examine three more.

Personal names. The names of founders (or their muses) are among the oldest and most familiar sources for business names. From Joe's Burgers down the street to McDonald's and Lloyd's of London around the world, first names and surnames have long lent their personal signature to businesses and products. There really were brothers named Warner behind Warner Brothers Studio. There was no real "Betty Crocker," but her invented image and story were as effective as any actual person's could be.

Today, the personal-name category is still viable, especially outside of technology fields. You'll find founders' names in small businesses with a strong personal angle such as restaurants and lingerie stores. Two large-business examples -- Jo-Ann Fabric & Craft and Michaels, The Arts & Crafts Store, both of which have stores throughout the United States -- cater to individual hobbyists. Celebrities may lend their name power to brands such as Newman's Own (Paul Newman's food label).

You also see personal names in very traditional industries such as law and accounting. Many advertising agencies are still named for their founders, but the largest and most global-- like Publicis, Interpublic, and Omnicom -- follow different naming rules.

If you want to convey a distinctive personality in your business name, consider combining it with another word. For example, Fireball International Services Corporation, in Reno, Nevada, provides information services for use in emergencies -- including wildfires. The company founder's name is Tim Ball. Wrongwoods is a line of faux-bois ("false wood") furniture created by London designers Sebastian Wrong and Richard Woods -- who certainly found the right career path as well as the perfect business name. (The name of the company they work for, Established & Sons, is itself a playful poke at traditional naming practices.)

Compound words. "Wrongwoods" and "Fireball" are also examples of compounds, which are formed by connecting two full words. Facebook was an existing term, in use since at least the 1960s, for a catalog of student photos-a book of faces. As Facebook.com, it's the hugely popular social-networking website. LiveScribe, a new "paper-based computing platform," combines a familiar word, live, with an antiquated one, scribe, to create an interesting juxtaposition that's just descriptive enough. Compound words are popular among new technology companies: Wordpress and Typepad are blogging services, PageFlakes is a news aggregator, and TrenchMice offers "inside opinions on managers and companies."

The trick with compounds -- which often have the benefit of being available as domain names -- is to splice exactly the right two words. The association needs to be both unexpected (mice in the trenches?) and plausible (mice in the trenches!). The sounds need to flow naturally; an internal rhyme doesn't hurt. Test the name with friends, family, and colleagues to see whether you've succeeded.

Blends. A blend, also known as a portmanteau word, takes a compound and compresses it into a linguistic capsule that contains portions of each original word. In Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll blended "chuckle" and "snort" to create "chortle," a word we still use. In business, we have Zillow, a real-estate website, which combines "zillions" and "pillows"; the overlapped -- ill -- makes for a frictionless blend. Technorati, a website that tracks activity on millions of blogs, combines "technology" and "literati."

A successful blend is a delightful thing that seamlessly fuses two concepts. Yet creating one is more challenging than it seems. Compress a compound too tightly and you may end up with a meaningless, story-less phoneme that requires a lot of marketing to make it "stick." Or your creation may seem forced, hard to pronounce, or misleading.

(In the second installment of this article, I'll talk about the pros and cons of three other types of names: prefixed or suffixed words, invented words, and phrases.)


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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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Comments from our users:

Monday October 8th 2007, 3:07 PM
Comment by: Charles H.
I enjoyed Nancy's article very much. She exhibits a great deal of talent in finding the short version of things in order to spin an idea, company or product name successfully. I am looking forward to the second installment.
Saturday December 1st 2007, 7:26 AM
Comment by: mike M.
Nicely done Nancy. Excellent and most helpful advice.

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More of Nancy's insights into naming, part 1.
More of Nancy's insights into naming, part 2.
More of Nancy's insights into naming, part 3.
Nancy explains how name development works.
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