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The Mysteries of Naming, Part 3

Naming can seem mysterious because it's ridden with myths. And when a name-seeker approaches the naming process armed with myth rather than truth, the myth inevitably gets in the way. So let's take a few minutes to examine ten common myths about name development.

  1. All the good names are taken. It often seems so, but it simply isn't true. As the linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum has said, "If you have an original thought, the English language will not let you down." English gives us access to a very large toolbox: portmanteau words like TiVo (from "TV" and "vote") and Rolodex (from "rolling" and "index"); compounds like YouTube and SecondLife, which combine common words in unexpected ways; and real words applied arbitrarily, like Song (for an airline) or Dove (for soap or ice-cream bar). And there are coined words (Kodak), words borrowed from other languages (Zima), and word snips (Expedia, Flickr). Hey--I'm just getting warmed up!
  2. We're smart; we can name it ourselves. Sure, you're smart. But do you have three to eight weeks to dedicate to the naming process? Do you know how to break through a creative block and generate hundreds or even thousands of names--not just a dozen? Can you manage the decision making process so that everyone feels acknowledged and respected?
  3. Professional namers are expensive. Some are: It's rumored that Microsoft paid $150,000 for "Zune," the name of its new MP3 player. Some aren't: You may be able to find a professional namer who will create a list of 150 or so names?without trademark or domain clearance?for as little as $1,500. (If you go to the Wordlab Wordboard discussion forum, you can even ask a community of amateur namers to name your product or company gratis. You may get some useful ideas -- or even a usable name.) The important thing is to consider the definition of "expensive." How much value will you attach to this name? How long do you expect it to last? In how many places will the name be seen and heard? Calculate the cost of professional naming services as an investment in value rather than as a loss against revenue, and you may view the expense differently.
  4. The name has to start with an "A." Or a "Z." Or a "K." To which I respond: Says who? Sometimes there's a legitimate reason for a specific letter or sound at the beginning of a word, but often the preference is arbitrary and based on false assumptions. Let's work together to discover the name that sounds and looks best for the company or product you're naming--not for a hypothetical category-buster.
  5. The best names are short names. There are plenty of exceptions to this mythical rule. Technocrati: ten letters, four syllables, and at the top of every blogger's chart. Habitat for Humanity: eighteen letters, eight syllables, and usually pronounced in full. The short-name fixation (or myth) was born during the early years of the web-domain gold rush, when it was assumed that dim-bulb consumers with fat fingers wouldn't be able to (a) remember or (b) type URLs of more than five letters. We all know better now.
  6. The best name would be "Microsoft." I always ask naming clients what brand names appeal to them, and "Microsoft" usually tops the list. "I see," I reply, sounding thoughtful. "So you want a name that means 'small' and 'limp'--is that right?" It's not the name "Microsoft" that appeals; it's the equity of the brand--its meaning to consumers. As a name, "Microsoft"--or "Micro-Soft," as it was originally known--seemed pedestrian even in the 1970s ("Altair" sounded much cooler). Persistence and success turned the name into a brand worth envying. Are you willing to invest what it takes to turn your new name into a brand star?
  7. If you're really good, you can deliver a name in a week. I can certainly deliver a name--heck, even a list of 200 names--in a week. But I can't deliver good names unless we've taken the time to determine your naming objectives and criteria. And I can't deliver usable names unless I have to time to thoroughly check them. To do all that, I need a bare minimum of three weeks. Six to eight weeks is safer, especially if we run into legal obstacles.
  8. We don't need/can't afford international linguistic checks. In The Making of a Name, authors Steve Rivkin and Fraser Sutherland tell the story of a Landor Associates naming project that resulted in the corporate name Telemon. "It was wonderful," said the head of Landor's naming division, "unti we went to Thailand, where it means 'intercourse with your mother.'" If you're doing business internationally, you'll want to know what your name means in your overseas market. It's another cost/value assessment that can save you money--and face--in the long term.
  9. We don't need to bring the CEO (or COO, or VP of marketing) in on this. Unless you're creating a name waaaay down on the branding chain -- a sub-brand in an existing nomenclature system -- you bet your top executives need to sit around the table when we discuss what the name should or shouldn't be. If someone in your organization is likely to veto a final name choice, that person needs to be involved in the process from the beginning. (With BlackBerry turned off, please.)
  10. If the domain is taken, we can't use the name. Not so fast. If a domain isn't in active use, it may be buyable. (It's easier than you may think.) And there are plenty of ways to fine-tune a URL to create an available domain name. Focus more on trademark availability -- a trademark challenge can cost you serious money -- and worry less about the WWW.

Nancy Friedman is chief wordworker at Wordworking, an Oakland, California-based verbal-branding consultancy, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Away With Words. She 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.


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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:

Tuesday December 19th 2006, 6:26 AM
Comment by: JIM (PUEBLO WEST, CO)
THANK YOU FOR THIS ARTICLE. THE WORD (SCRIPTURE) THAT I READ SAYS THERE IS LIFE AND DEATH IN THE WORDS ONE SPEAKS. GLORY--JAMES
Tuesday December 26th 2006, 8:07 PM
Comment by: Bilal Yasin El-Amin
Wow! A whole new world! 100,000 things to do!

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