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How Words Become Names (Part Three)

In Part One and Part Two of this series I shared six tools that professional name developers use to turn words into business and product names. In this final installment I'll describe three more-advanced strategies. Don't worry: you don't need special training to use them. Just be aware that implementing them successfully is often trickier than you might think.

Numbers. Digits aren't just for phoning home: numerical names can tell distinctive, memorable stories. Consider Forever 21, a retail chain that sells stylish, inexpensive clothing to young women. The brand name is a form of wish fulfillment: for teenagers it's an aspiration, for their older sisters it's a statement about perpetual youth. Another online business, 1865 Company, "honors the African-American experience"-beginning with the name, which celebrates the year the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, abolishing slavery. In technology, 37 Signals builds "can't-live-without-it" web applications. The name comes from the number of radio waves we've received from space that scientists think may be signs of intelligent life.

Here's the caveat: there are numerical clichés just as there are verbal clichés. You may think "360" is the perfect expression of your company's all-around superiority, but guess what? Xbox 360, Vodka 360, 360 Technologies, and many other brands thought so, too. Ditto for 411, from the speed-dial number for "information." You'll find it in Fashion 411, Healthcare 411, WiFi 411, Campsites 411, and so on ad infinitum.

Metaphors. Once upon a time, technology companies had names like International Business Machines and Hewlett-Packard. Then along came Apple, and suddenly we thought of computers as fresh, exciting-even delicious. The right metaphor can do that for a brand: not just express its personality but change public perceptions. Think of Dove soap -- and Dove ice cream bars -- and you think of purity, softness, and bliss. In a very different vein, think of film director Spike Lee's production company, Forty Acres & a Mule Filmworks, whose name-a reference to post-Civil War slave reparations-makes a statement about ethnic pride and historical context. Twine, a new Semantic Web application, takes an esoteric, highly technical concept and makes it concrete by suggesting ruggedness and utility.

What's so challenging about using metaphors as names? It's really, really hard to find the right one: a word that both surprises and illuminates. And it takes courage and conviction to embrace a strong metaphor, especially if you're naturally attracted to literal descriptions.

Acronyms. If you're a government agency or a teen text-messager, go ahead and initialize to your heart's content. Everyone else: proceed with caution or you'll end up with alphabet soup. Can you say for sure which auto brands own RDX, QX, RX, or SRX? (Answer: Acura, Infiniti, Lexus, and Cadillac.)

It's the rare acronym that transcends its shorthand heritage to become a household word. The primary criterion for success is pronounceability, which means the acronym needs to be perceived as a word-real or made-up. One prominent example is IKEA, the global furniture brand. The "I" and "K" are founder Ingvar Kamprad's own initials; the "E" stands for Elmtaryd, the name of the farm where he grew up; and the "A" is for Agunnaryd, Kamprad's home village. As a word, IKEA is easy to pronounce in virtually any language; in English and many European languages it suggests "idea," a positive and appropriate association. NASCAR, whose full name is National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing, benefits from having "car" as an easy-to-remember element of the name. And in the not-for-profit world, EMILY's List stands out in a sea of confusing acronyms. Although the organization's mission is electing pro-choice Democratic women to office, there is no woman named Emily behind the scenes. Instead, EMILY is an acronym for "Early Money Is Like Yeast" -- it helps the "dough" rise!

There are, of course, many other tools for transforming words into names-some namers rely on phone books, others pick random dictionary pages, and there may even be a few people out there who've had success with automated name generators. But the nine methods I've described in this series are the ones we always come back to. Try them yourself. And let me know if you've discovered other routes to successful naming.


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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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