When it comes to companies and products, names matter. A slick name makes a company sound trendy and cool, while a terrible name can have customers running into the arms of the competition. Unsurprisingly, many companies take the process very seriously, hiring outside naming consultants who either work within creative agencies or at agencies devoted entirely to naming. We got a few to give us the scoop on how their job really works.
1. IT’S NOT JUST A CREATIVE TASK.
“The notion that namers are hippies and poets jotting down names on cocktail napkins couldn’t be farther from the truth,” says Mark Skoultchi, a partner at Catchword, the agency that named the Fitbit Flex and Force and Starbucks’s Refreshers line.
The stakes are just too high for naming to be a purely creative project, because a bad name can break a product. Consider, for example, the major slump in sales ISIS chocolates experienced in 2014 when people began to associate their name with the Islamic State. (The company rebranded itself to Libeert.) And when the AIDS crisis hit in the 1980s, the diet candy company Ayds chose not to change its name, eventually suffering the consequences. (When asked about it, an official from its parent company, Jeffrey Martin, famously snapped, “Let the disease change its name.”) By 1988, the company conceded that the name was hurting sales, and changed it to Diet Ayds. But the product was soon pulled from shelves altogether.
“When you’re naming your kid or nicknaming your car it’s more creative. There aren’t as many consequences,” says Nina Beckhardt, founder and CEO of The Naming Group, a consultancy that works with Chevrolet, Kohler, and Capital One. “But when you’re brand naming, the name you select has to be strategically impeccable. It has to make sense and at least not offend millions of people around the globe.”
2. NAMES CAN’T JUST SOUND GOOD.
Naming isn’t just a subjective choice—really liking a name doesn’t mean it’s a good fit for your company. “People want to get more subjective with it,” Beckhardt says. “They’ll say that name reminds me of my cat or rhymes with such and such. That observation is so enormously unimportant compared with the fact that the name successfully checks all the boxes we created at the beginning.” The point is to find a name that gets across what the company wants to convey, rather than one that every person involved in the naming process loves.
For example, when The Naming Group was working with Capital One to develop their first brand-name rewards credit card, the company had to consider who they were trying to target—travelers. The result was the Venture card, a name with a connotation of adventure and exploration that’s “not right on the nose.”
3. IT HELPS TO HAVE A BACKGROUND IN LINGUISTICS—OR TRADEMARK LAW.
Though naming is essentially an exercise in corporate strategy, naming agencies don’t just employ people with backgrounds in branding and marketing. They also need linguistics experts to help generate names that make sense, have positive connotations in modern usage (i.e. nothing that might have a negative slang meaning), and inspire the associations the company wants to elicit.
Coming up with a name also involves some legal legwork. You can’t name your company or product after something that’s already trademarked. And if you want to expand internationally, the name needs to be available to trademark in other countries as well. That means naming agencies are often looking for people with a background in trademark law.
4. YOU HAVE TO COME UP WITH HUNDREDS OF NAMES, IF NOT THOUSANDS.
“Naming is a game of numbers,” Beckhardt says. “You have to have a lot of options.” Even if the potential names sound great, many are bound to run into trademark conflicts or not work in another language.
So before namers get together to present feasible ideas to the clients they’re working with, they come up with hundreds, if not thousands, of potential options. “At Catchword, 200 names is scratching the surface,” Skoultchi says.
5. BUT THE CLIENT WON’T SEE THEM ALL.
When faced with too many options to choose from, people tend to freeze up in what psychologists call “choice overload” [PDF]. Whether you’re talking about choosing between similar items at the grocery store or an endless array of potential product names, it’s overwhelming to consider all the possibilities. Namers take their initial 200 or 1000 ideas and whittle them down to present only the best (and most feasible) options. At Catchword, that means about 50 names.
But namers can also face the opposite challenge. If a client gets too set on a single idea, it blinds them to what might be better options still out there. “For each project I will get and try to get the client attached to a number of different names,” Beckhardt says, rather than looking for “the prince charming” of names.
6. A NAME CAN BE TOO ORIGINAL
The amount of meaning a name communicates lies along a continuum. On the one end, there’s an overly descriptive name. On the other end, there’s so-called “empty vessel” names, which are so far removed from actual words that they come off as meaningless. The ideal name falls somewhere in the middle, but if you end up too far toward the “empty vessel” side, your name will be a target for mockery.
Consider Tribune Publishing, the media company that owns the Chicago Tribune. In 2016, it rebranded as “tronc,” a name derived from the phrase “Tribune online content.” The move was widely mocked, for good reason. In The New York Times, a branding expert said the name “creates an ugliness.” The new name became a black eye for the company rather than a sign of its forward-thinking vision.
Empty vessel names are particularly common in the tech world, but played right, it can work. Google could be considered an empty vessel name, but it does have an origin, albeit one that most people aren’t familiar with. A googol is a huge number—10100—which makes sense within the context of the search engine’s ability to aggregate results from a near-infinite number of sources online.
7. A NAME CAN’T JUST SOUND GOOD IN ENGLISH.
One reason naming agencies need linguists is that unless a company is only marketing its products domestically, the name needs to work in multiple languages. If your product sounds slick in English but means something dirty in Norwegian, you’ve got a problem.
Plenty of companies have found this out the hard way. The Honda Fit was almost the Honda Fitta, but the company changed the name when it realized that “fitta” was slang for female genitalia in Swedish. The company later started calling it the Honda Jazz outside of North America.
Different languages also pronounce certain letters differently, which gets awkward if you’re not careful. “When we’re developing names we have to prepare for those mispronunciations to make sure that isn’t going to affect how people understand the product,” Beckhardt says. In Germany, Vicks sells its products under the name Wick, because the German pronunciation of the original brand name (in which a “v” is pronounced like an “f”) sounds like a slang word for sex.
Even if the name isn’t vulgar, it might have connotations in another language that you don’t want people associating with your product. In Mandarin, Microsoft’s Bing has to go by a different name, because “bing” means disease. Part of the naming process, according to Beckhardt, is “making sure that if we’re naming a skin care product, it doesn’t mean acne in Japanese.” She adds that at one point, while working on a rebranding project, The Naming Group came up with a name that ended up meaning “pubic hair” in another language. (Obviously, that one didn't get presented to the client.)
8. IF YOU DON’T COME UP WITH A FOREIGN NAME, CUSTOMERS MIGHT DO IT FOR YOU.
Famously, when Coca-Cola first started selling its products in China in 1927, it didn’t immediately come up with a new name that made sense in Chinese characters. Instead, shopkeepers transliterated the name Coca-Cola phonetically on their signage, leading to odd meanings like “bite the wax tadpole.” In 1928, Coke registered a Chinese trademark for the Mandarin 可口可乐 (K'o K'ou K'o Lê), which the company translates as “to permit mouth to be able to rejoice.”
9. COMING UP WITH A CHINESE NAME IS ESPECIALLY COMPLICATED.
Foreign companies are eager to expand into China’s growing market, but it’s not as easy as transliterating an American name, like LinkedIn, to Chinese characters. In some cases, companies use Chinese names that sound somewhat like their English equivalent, but in others, they go by names that don’t sound similar at all. “It’s this crazy art form of balancing phonetic similarity and actual meaning,” Beckhardt says.
Labbrand, a consultancy founded in Shanghai, helps American companies come up with names that work for Chinese markets. For LinkedIn’s Chinese name, Labbrand was able to come up with a name that both sounded a bit like the original and still had a meaning in line with the company’s purpose. 领英 (lǐng yīng) means “leading elite.” For other companies, though, it makes more sense to come up with a name that sounds nothing like the American brand, yet has a strategic meaning. For Trip Advisor, Labbrand came up with “猫途鹰 (māo tú yīng)," a combination of the characters for "owl" and "journey"—a reference to the company’s owl logo and its role as a travel site.
Some names, however, are just straight translations. Microsoft is 微软 (weiruan), two characters that literally mean “micro” and “soft.”
10. THERE ISN'T USUALLY AN ‘A-HA’ MOMENT.
“Oftentimes, clients are expecting epiphany, to have an ‘a-ha!’ moment, but those moments are more rare than you think,” Skoultchi says. “It’s not because the name ideas aren't great, it’s because most people have trouble imagining” what the names will sound like in the real world. “Context, visual identity, taglines, copy, and other factors influence our perception of a name and how appealing it is. Imagine just about any modern blockbuster brand, and now imagine it’s just a word on a page, in Helvetica, with little to no marketing support.”
To help customers understand how a name might look in real-world settings, Catchword gives it a slightly jazzier graphic design that’s more representative of what it would look like in the market, adding in potential taglines and ad copy to make it look more realistic.
11. YOU’RE NOT JUST NAMING ONE THING.
The Naming Group, for example, has worked with Capital One, Kohler, and Reebok to come up with names for multiple products, and they've also worked to establish parameters for future names. That's because what you call one product could have implications for your future products—and ideally, the names of different products across a company should work together.
Take the example of Fitbit. The company has a naming style that involves single-syllable, simple English words that are designed to convey something unique about the product. They also had to fit the tiny devices themselves, so length mattered. The name “Flex” went to the first wristband tracker, and the most advanced tracker became “Force.” Later, the first tracker that measured heart rate would become "Charge," and the one designed for high-intensity athletes, "Blaze." All the names have a similar vibe while managing to convey something about the specific device.
As a cautionary tale, imagine a world in which Steve Jobs was allowed to use his preferred name for the iMac, “MacMan.” (Luckily, an ad agency creative director talked him out of it.) Given how the “i” in iMac influenced Apple’s future naming conventions, would there later have been a PodMan and PhoneMan? Choosing the iMac led to a larger branding scheme—the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad—that's instantly recognizable. “The PhoneMan” just wouldn’t have the same ring.
12. COMPANIES OFTEN WAIT UNTIL THE LAST MINUTE.
There’s a perception that naming should come from within a company—that if you build a product, you automatically know the best thing to call it. But that’s often not the case. Companies usually don’t employ professional namers on staff and don’t have any set guidelines on how to come up with new names. And it’s often not until the last minute that they realize they need outside help to decide on a great moniker. “It can be so emotional,” Beckhardt explains. “Companies come to you pulling their hair out, [saying] ‘We just can’t decide; we haven’t found it yet.’”
13. IT ONLY TAKES A FEW WEEKS.
Naming something usually doesn’t involve a lightning bolt of inspiration, but neither do companies slave over names for months. According to Beckhardt, the process takes anywhere from four to six weeks, though they can expedite the process if they really need to.