Ad and marketing creatives

Think Like a Name Developer

So you have a new product, service or company that's a winner. Now what do you call it? How can you come up with a name as memorable as Amazon, Google, or BlackBerry? Professional namers like me help clients create names that tell strong, credible stories... But if you'd like to try your own hand at naming -- or just understand how this mysterious world works -- here are some tips to help you think like a professional name developer.

First, I recommend that you educate yourself by reading about the craft and practice of naming. My own bookshelf includes Alex Frankel's Wordcraft: The Art of Turning Little Words into Big Business; Evan Morris's From Altoids to Zima: The Surprising Stories Behind 125 Famous Brand Names; and Steve Rivkin's The Making of a Name: The Inside Story of the Brands We Buy. Read all three to learn how names are constructed, why some names succeed and others fail, and what kind of people become namers (Frankel and Rivkin are especially good on the last subject).

I also recommend reading naming blogs to keep current with trends and controversies. I'm enjoying a newish blog, The Name Inspector, written by a linguist with an interest in brand names. Qwerky focuses with humor and intelligence on "the weirdest Web 2.0 names." Strategic Name Development and Thingnamer report naming news and discuss trademark and other issues.

But you can read all about it and still come up blank when push comes to shove. The very best namers-people who generate 200 to 250 names (or more) per assignment and understand the difference between a clever name and a brandable one-have a combination of attributes that's hard to pigeonhole yet easy to appreciate.

Here's my take on what it takes:

Word lust. Maybe you're a really good Scrabble player or crossword solver. Perhaps you write song lyrics or limericks. You've probably won a spelling bee or two. You see words as puzzle parts and you love hearing the "click" as they fall into place; you know something about rhyme (internal and external), meter, and alliteration. You can't create names unless you're truly besotted with words. But lust is not enough.

Perfect pitch. Brand names are more than words on a page; they're spoken on the telephone, sung in advertising jingles, repeated in keynote speeches. Good namers have a well-developed ear for the sound of language: they're tuned in to the way certain letters explode and others murmur; they understand why some sounds make us giggle and others make us straighten our spines. You can acquire some of this understanding by studying linguistics (knowing a few languages other than your native one helps a lot), but simply being a good listener counts for a lot as well.

A specialty. Good namers are generalists who have one or two obsessions. And those obsessions come with vocabularies. History, science fiction, medieval literature, architecture, asteroids, the stock market-if you know a lot about it, you've got a lexicon to draw from. Warning: don't obsess too much.

Nuts and bolts. If you're a hopeless speller, don't know an infix from an ingress, and think etymology is all about beetles and grasshoppers, you're going to have an uphill slog as a name developer. Naming isn't all magic and instinct; the more you know about how words are derived, spelled, and constructed the more tools you'll have for your craft. I get my linguistics updates from the American Dialect Society e-mail list (free), Language Log (an outstanding blog whose contributors are some of the most prominent linguists in the U.S.), and books such as The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left and When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It.

Brand smarts. Smart namers can answer these questions: What's a brand? What's a brand extension? What's a logo? What makes a name "right" for Microsoft and "wrong" for Apple? What's hot right now in perfume names, pet-food names, internet telephony names? If you don't read the business press, start right now. And stay on the sofa during the TV commercials: they're required viewing. I even study the ad inserts in the Sunday paper-I don't clip the coupons, but I do take note of interesting (and awful) new names.

Story savvy. Persuasive naming requires storytelling skills. How does the name express the company's personality? What does the name say about the product's benefits? Where does the name come from, what does it mean, what can it stand for over time?

Persistence. This may be the toughest skill of all to master. Developing names means pushing through blocks, discovering unexpected angles, and practicing techniques that, as the Reader's Digest would say, "increase your word power." It requires an idiosyncratic combination of detachment (you can't afford to fall in love with one name on the list if it's a name the client rejects) and commitment (there is a solution to this challenge). If you're lucky enough, as I was, to serve an apprenticeship at a first-class branding agency where you're taught practical brainstorming techniques, you're well ahead of the game. If not, you can read about some naming techniques here. And practice, practice, practice. Name your kid's soccer team, or the neighborhood newsletter, or a friend's business-and don't quit after two or three names. Try for at least fifty, and work up from there. Keep name lists by your bed, in the car, at your desk.

Most important of all, have fun! Those of us who name things for a living do it because we enjoy it-the wordplay, the puzzle solving, the satisfaction of defining something that had been only a question mark. If it isn't fun for you, give one of us a call. We'll get you back on track and smiling again!

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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 March 5th 2007, 6:35 AM
Comment by: Noël P.
As a copywriter for a med-sized B2B ad/marketing agency, I'm definitely appreciating the site and book recommendations.

Any possibility of an article on guiding clients to participate the naming decision process productively? In my experience, there's often a lot of gut reaction based on no particular understanding of naming significance. This may be more of a B2B issue, since many such clients automatically distrust the marketing and advertising guidance they so desperately need!
Monday March 5th 2007, 9:54 AM
Comment by: Don L. H. (Carpinteria, CA)
Solid insights are the best; let us have more of the same.
Monday March 5th 2007, 8:58 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Noel--Thanks for the comment and suggestion. I'll certainly consider writing an article on "how to be a good naming client"--either here or in my blog. Great idea!

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