Ad and marketing creatives

How to Name Anything

Everyone's been a name developer at least once. You, for example, may have named a child, a kitten, or a wireless network. But I'm guessing you haven't named many things with which you had no personal connection. Year after year. For money.

"Naming things with which I have no personal connection" is my job. The description often surprises people who hadn't known such a job existed. Then I get questions: Is it fun? Is it hard? Can it be learned? Do I use brainstorming? Algorithms? Magic?

The disappointing news first: Magic is not involved; brainstorming and algorithms are bit players. But yes, the name-development process is fun and hard, and it can be learned. Here's my ten-minute tutorial.

Like a writing project, a naming project begins with research. (This is true, by the way, even if you're naming something with which you are personally connected.) In Phase 1 you ask journalist-style questions. What is being named — a company, a product, a feature, a program? Why was the company founded or the product invented? What does the name need to communicate — playfulness, security, speed, luxury, practicality? What's the competitive namescape — that is, what do rivals and partners call themselves? Who is the customer or audience — hospital managers, software developers, single parents, international travelers? Where will the name appear — website, magazine ads, T-shirts, trade-show booths, packaging? Will you require an Internet domain? Trademark protection?

Then define the personality of the company or brand. Big and serious, like a global cybersecurity company? Cute and friendly, like a children's clothing boutique? If the business is new, ask about the founders. Are they professors, gourmands, rock-climbers? What makes them tick and what turns them off? Do they share an interesting connection? I once was hired to name a startup whose founders were five brothers; "five," "brother," and "family" gave me lots of ideas for an initial round of creative work.

This part of the process is similar to the writer's search for an appropriate voice, tone, and point of view. In fact, it may be helpful to frame the questions as if you were planning a writing project: What genre will this name fall into? What emotions should it stir? Who's talking, and who's listening?

In Phase 2, synthesize everything you've learned in Phase 1 into a naming brief: a written document that details everything you've learned in your research. Make it clear and comprehensive: It will serve as a road map for the creative phase and as a checklist for the analysis phase.

Phase 3, the creative work, is what most people focus on when they think about naming. "Creative" here does not equal "freewheeling" — remember, we're following the objectives set out in the naming brief. But it does involve lateral thinking, a concept credited to the physician and author Edward de Bono, who coined the term in 1967. Lateral thinking is the converse of critical (or literal) thinking: it breaks away from predictable associations and descriptions. A typical lateral-thinking exercise involves picking a dictionary word at random and forcing yourself to create associations with the product you're naming. Or play with Scrabble tiles, rearranging them until a plausible word takes shape. I often take field trips: I'll walk down an unfamiliar street or ride a bus, writing down words and sights I encounter. The Visual Thesaurus tool is an excellent lateral-thinking aid if you don't stop with the first word constellation you generate but keep extending into new vocabulary.

During this list-making phase, I broaden and blur my field of vision to harness the power of serendipity. It can be surprisingly effective. A famous American snack cake got its name by chance, when  its inventor spotted a billboard advertising Twinkle Toe Shoes. He tweaked the Twinkle until it became Twinkies.

The objective of Phase 3 is not to generate a name but to generate many names. ("The best way to have a good idea," said the Nobel Prize—winning chemist Linus Pauling, "is to have a lot of ideas.") Fifty names is a modest start; professional name developers often create lists of hundreds or even thousands of names. If that seems daunting, break the exercise into objectives: 25 names for each of the attributes of the company or product. Or try name styles: 25 descriptive names, 25 coined (made-up) words, 25 compound names (like my company name, Wordworking), and 25 metaphorical names. Or use the five senses: how does the product look, sound, smell, feel, taste? Or divide the task according to trademark categories: generic, descriptive, suggestive, arbitrary, and fanciful. (Here's a clear explanation of trademark categories.) A naming partner or two can be a big help; I prefer to work independently until we're ready to share our lists and build on each other's ideas.

Now that you have a long list of names, it's time for Phase 4: analysis and elimination. This is where you put on your critical-thinking hat and pull out that naming brief. Which names best match the objectives? Which names fit the company or product personality? You'll start checking trademark at this point, knowing that you'll later hire a trademark lawyer to perform a thorough search. If you need an Internet domain, now is the time to start that search, too (I use Instant Domain Search), but don't be discouraged by a "taken" domain. Many domains are for sale and others can be obtained by modifying the name — by adding "company" or another word.

If you've been diligent and prolific, you should now have between 12 and 20 strong name candidates. Time for Phase 4: the presentation. For each name, write a page (or slide) about meaning, origin, appropriateness, and availability. Guide your client through all the names, selling the strengths of each one, answering questions, managing the discussion. For a corporate assignment, your goal is to whittle the list down to four or five names that will be thoroughly screened for trademark availability. You want one of those names — more if things go really well — to pass the test.

And that's the name-development process: equal parts journalism, creativity, science, and sales. If there's magic in naming, it's in that formula — a stimulating blend of skills that challenges every part of the brain. And the best part? It's a brand-new challenge every time.

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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:

Friday January 18th 2013, 11:26 PM
Comment by: William H Y. (Clovis, CA)
I kept thinking about Thomas Henry Huxley and his personal moniker "agnostic," which I think he coined rather spontaneously at one of the organizational meetings for the Metaphysical Society in London in 1969.
Sunday January 20th 2013, 2:17 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
As a twist on this theme, I'm involved in a project for which I must make up words for objects that are known now, but were not so named in days prehistoric, the days that concern me.

I try to keep the word recognizable enough to a potential audience, yet have it fit the time and place.

It's an interesting challenge.
Sunday January 20th 2013, 4:59 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Jane B.: You might enjoy the Ten Hundred Words of Science Tumblr, in which research scientists describe their work using only the 1,000 most-used words in English. It was inspired by this xkcd cartoon about the "Up Goer Five."

William H.Y.: I'm always a little skeptical about claims of "spontaneous" coinages. It often turns out that the coiner had been immersed in the subject for some time and had experimented with other names. Huxley, for example, had for some time been considering and discarding other labels: "atheist," "pantheist," "freethinker," and so on. He landed on "agnostic" because it was "suggestively antithetic to the 'gnostic' of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant." ( Source.) In other words, Huxley approached his personal naming challenge pretty much the way I approach my professional ones: through research, list-making, lateral thinking, and analysis.

(Huxley's "brainstorm" arrived in 1869, not 1969--I'm sure it was just a typo!)
Sunday January 20th 2013, 5:19 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Nancy, thank you for that! You just don't know how close that is to what I'm doing! But I do have to think of some names for things, like there wasn't an 'eclipse'. The moon just kept biting at the sun. That sort of thing.

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