Candlepower

Ad and marketing creatives

The Namer's Bookshelf

As far as I know, no university has a Department of Nomenclature. I've never heard of an internship in brand naming. So what's an aspiring name developer — or even an inquiring civilian — to do?

Well, you could start by reading these books from my Namer's Bookshelf. While they're not a substitute for the Carnegie Hall method — practice, practice, practice — they do share plenty of wisdom (and amusing anecdotes) about name history and name construction. Need I add — now that we're in the official gift-giving season — that any of them would make an excellent present?

From Altoids to Zima: The Surprising Stories Behind 125 Famous Brand Names. If Steve Jobs had prevailed, the Macintosh computer would have been called the Apple Bicycle. (It's "a bicycle for the mind," Jobs insisted.) Don Fisher wanted to call his clothing store Pants and Discs; his wife convinced him that The Gap (short for "the generation gap") was better. And Twinkies? Their inventor caught sight of a billboard for Twinkle Toe Shoes on his way to a meeting with his boss. Author Evan Morris, the creator of the Word Detective website, covers the odd, the commonplace, and the inscrutable (no one knows where "Oreo" came from) in this dandy little book, organized alphabetically by product category.

The Making of a Name: The Inside Story of the Brands We Buy. For a deeper investigation into the origins of brand names, read this book by Steve Rivkin and Fraser Sutherland. Rivkin, a name developer, includes many examples in his survey of name typologies, ¬†global naming challenges, and trademark regulations. He even has a section on naming specialists ("An Unlikely Profession") and the name-development process. I have a few quibbles — the legend about the Chevrolet Nova being rejected in Latin America because "no va" means "no go" has been thoroughly debunked — but overall this is a riveting read.

Wordcraft: The Art of Turning Little Words into Big Business. Journalist Alex Frankel spent some time as a name developer about a decade ago and turned his dual interests into this book, a combination of diligent research and first-person narrative. (Disclosure: I worked on a few naming projects with Frankel, and I know several of the namers he interviewed.) Frankel travels to Stuttgart to find out why Porsche named its sport-utility vehicle the Cayenne, talks to client and agency spokespeople about the naming of the BlackBerry (originally called PocketLink), and devotes a chapter to pharmaceutical naming: his case study is Viagra, possibly the most successful drug name ever. By the way, the book's cover design is an ingenious puzzle: each letter in "Wordcraft" is taken from a famous brand's logo. How many can you identify?

Predicting New Words: The Secrets of Their Success. While it's not exclusively about brand names, this wry and informative book does reveal why some words soar and others sink. And no, filling a gap in the language doesn't seem to matter; if it did, we'd long ago have solved the indeterminate pronoun problem. (He? S/he? They?) In a chapter on brand names, military operations, and scientific terms, author Allan Metcalf warns against excess cleverness. He should know: Metcalf is the executive secretary of the American Dialect Society, which has been selecting Words of the Year since 1990; the overall winner that first year was bushlips, "insincere political rhetoric." It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

Powerlines: Words That Sell Brands, Grip Fans, and Sometimes Change History. According to marketing veteran Steve Cone, a "powerline" is "a unique brand signature" that sells its product or service more effectively than competitors' lines. His book tells why some slogans last for decades — Coca-Cola's "The Pause That Refreshes," De Beers's "A Diamond Is Forever" — while others are lost in a sea of soundalikes. (Does anyone remember Bob Dole's presidential slogan, "The Better Man for a Better America"?) Here's what Cone has to say about Bank of America's "Higher Standards" tagline: "There is no shortage of bad taglines in financial services, and Bank of America wins the award for the most generic and least-cared-about line among the major banks." Ouch!

The Language of Names: What We Call Ourselves and Why It Matters. This book isn't about brands at all; it's about personal names and their relationship to identity, class, and character. But what brand is more important to each of us than the one our own name represents? A chapter on baby naming over the decades includes a review of baby-name books; "New Names, New Identities" looks at the peculiarly American penchant for reinvention through renaming. Co-authors (and spouses) Justin Kaplan and Anne Bernays are thorough researchers and graceful writers, and The Language of Names is a delight to read. My only wish is that the book — published in 1997 — be updated to reflect the impact of the Internet on naming practices. Side note: Anne Bernays is the daughter of the late Edward Bernays, widely regarded as the father of public relations, and Doris Fleischman, who kept her maiden name throughout her marriage — at her husband's insistence. He thought it would make for good PR. He was right.


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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 November 23rd 2009, 5:49 AM
Comment by: Alina Wheeler (Philadelphia, PA)
This is an extraordinary list of resources.Thank you. Naming is a complex, creative, and iterative process that requires experience in linguistics, marketing, research, and trademark law. It is so natural to want to fall in love with a name, but the bottom line is that meaning and association are built over time. The process is not for the faint-hearted: In Designing Brand Identity, Danny Altman, creative director of A Hundred Monkeys, says, "Naming is 20% creative and 80% political."

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