13 Secrets of Professional Naming Consultants

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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.

10 Secrets of Victoria’s Secret Employees

A Victoria's Secret retail store in an airport mall
A Victoria's Secret retail store in an airport mall
studioportosabbia/iStock via Getty Images

Victoria’s Secret was born out of an awkward shopping experience. Roy Raymond didn’t feel comfortable browsing for underwear for his wife at a department store, and he wanted to create a more upscale lingerie destination that was welcoming to both men and women. The first Victoria’s Secret location opened in Palo Alto, California, in 1977.

In the 40-plus years since, Victoria’s Secret has changed the fashion industry, launched the careers of supermodels, and made shopping for bras slightly less awkward for the people who don’t wear them. Behind the company’s success are the sales associates responsible for keeping panties neatly folded and finding customers bras that fit correctly. Employees may confess they don't really know what Victoria’s secret is, but they can tell you how to get them to let you shop in peace, where to go if they don’t have your size, and more insider information. We spoke with a couple of former employees to discover their most revealing insights.

1. Victoria’s Secret employees are trained to fit all body types.

The clientele of Victoria’s Secret is diverse, and employees are trained to help every person who comes into the store find a bra that fits them. According to Andrea, who worked at Victoria's Secret from 2015 to 2019, bra fitting specialists undergo about six weeks of training to prepare for almost every possible scenario.

“Whether you’re somebody who’s had a mastectomy, or somebody who’s transitioning, or somebody who’s getting a bra for the first time, that’s what we’re there for and that’s why we do our jobs,” she tells Mental Floss. “Let’s say you have somebody who had a mastectomy. You always measure for the breast that is there. That even goes for people who have uneven breasts. So if one breast is a B-cup and the other is a C-cup, we always measure to the C-cup. Also, if you’ve just had your breasts done, like a breast lift or implants, we would measure differently for that too because the bras are going to sit differently on your chest [compared to typical fitting]."

2. Victoria’s Secret employees are allowed to suggest other stores.

There are some scenarios where the only option employees have is to admit they can’t help a customer. Victoria’s Secret only carries sizes 30A to 40DDD, and if someone comes in looking for a bigger size than what’s available, associates are allowed to send them elsewhere. Andrea says she would recommend Torrid or Soma to people in need of larger bras. “We did give other bra places business because we feel like everyone should feel good in their bra, even if it doesn’t come from us," she says.

3. At least in the past, being conventionally attractive helped you get hired at Victoria’s Secret.

The Victoria’s Secret image is synonymous with ultra-thin supermodels strutting down a runway in lingerie and high heels. The company has struggled with sales in recent years, and some industry experts blame that in part on the brand’s limited view of what's considered “sexy." Victoria’s Secret is trying to combat this by experimenting with marketing featuring more diverse body types, but when Rita (not her real name) worked there roughly a decade ago, the old beauty standards were still enforced. The former sales associate tells Mental Floss, “They would hire someone pretty over someone smart or capable. It was definitely part of the ‘fantasy.’”

4. If you're shopping for your partner, Victoria's Secret employees might recommend something other than lingerie.

When people come into Victoria’s Secret looking for a gift for their romantic partner, they rarely have all the information they need. “For boyfriends, they usually never know their girlfriend’s size. Like, ever,” Andrea says.

Even a professional bra fitting specialist can’t guess someone’s exact size based on sight alone. That’s why employees might recommend skipping the intimates altogether and considering alternative gifts if you’re shopping for someone else at Victoria’s Secret. “For dudes shopping for their ladies, unless you know for a fact what their size is, do not buy them lingerie,” Rita says. She suggests gift cards, lotions, and body sprays as safer options. And if you’re absolutely set on getting your significant other something they can wear, Andrea recommends panties and bralettes, which tend to be more forgiving in the size department than underwire garments.

5. The people who work at Victoria’s Secret see more than they want to.

Employees at the chain want their customers to feel comfortable, but in some cases, guests can get too comfortable. Rita recalls a woman who shared a little too much when shopping for intimate wear. “She'd just reconnected with her high school sweetheart—she was probably in her forties/fifties—and she made a point to mention her recent boob job. Then all of a sudden she basically flashes me in the front of the store. ... It was definitely not a normal customer interaction.”

Some stories of unusual customer behavior are not for the squeamish. Andrea recounts one such example: “I had a woman come up to me and say, ‘Do you have a cup?’ And I was like ‘No ma’am, I’m sorry, I don’t have a cup. What do you need it for?’" The woman replied that she really needed to urinate. "And I was like, ‘Ma’am!’”

On a different occasion, a customer of Andrea's found a creative use for one of the pink bows used to decorate the bras. “She takes it and she flossed her teeth with it in front of me. I was like ‘No!’ It’s so gross.”

6. Victoria’s Secret employees get sweet perks.

If they’re willing to deal with the occasional gross encounter, Victoria’s Secret employees can take advantage of benefits many retail workers don’t get. One of them is paid time off. “Even though I was only a part-time associate, because I worked so many hours, they did give me paid time off,” Andrea says. “Most places I’ve worked for, you only get paid time off if you’ve been there for a year or are a full-time associate, so being a part-time associate and being able to have paid time off without being there for a year is really rare and something that we really appreciated as associates.”

The pay is also competitive compared to similar businesses. According to Andrea, “Victoria’s Secret has a yearly raise, and I went from making $11.50 to $22.14 when I left [after four years].”

7. The holidays at Victoria’s Secret are as crazy as you’d expect.

Victoria’s Secret has been known to ring in the holiday season with deals designed to lure customers into stores. For shoppers, this means cheap bras, but for associates, it means congestion, disorganized displays, and the rare scuffle. “Holiday time is crazy,” Andrea says. “I’ve literally seen grandmas punch each other in the face.”

8. There’s a trick to getting Victoria’s Secret employees to leave you alone.

To shy shoppers, or those just craving a bit of peace, there are no worse words in the English language than “What brings you in today?” If the thought of getting this question from a Victoria’s Secret employee fills you with dread, know that it isn’t their goal to harass you. “It’s not that we want to bother you, that’s what we’re supposed to do,” Andrea says. “And most likely we don’t want to come up to you as much as you don’t want us to come up.”

But if you ever do get over-eager sales associates, Andrea has an insider’s tip for getting them off your back. “A good trick if you don’t want help is to remember the name of the person who you’re introduced to. So if the first person is like ‘Hi, my name is Stephanie,’ and then two or three more people come and say ‘Do you need more help?’ just say ‘Stephanie’s helping me, thank you,’ and they will leave you alone.”

9. Victoria’s Secret smells like body spray for a reason.

If you’d rather shop for lingerie without walking through a cloud of perfume, too bad: Spritzing the store with the brand’s latest scent is part of the job for sales associates. Rita says, “If we were working the front rooms, we had to wear ‘beauty belts’ with the latest body spray in them to spray around the room (cue the headache) and carry around the newest bra." And in case the constant spraying wasn’t aggressive enough already, Rita was also instructed to pitch it to customers—along with apparel and the Victoria’s Secret credit card. “We basically had to accost anyone who walked in with ‘Have you seen the new bra? Have you smelled the new perfume? Do you have the angel card? Why not? Don't you want exclusive offers? Blah blah blah blah,’ and it scared a lot of people off.”

10. Victoria’s Secrets ends up with items it can’t sell.

Victoria’s Secret has a generous policy when it comes to returns: Stores offer a full refund for items brought back within 90 days of purchase as long as you have a receipt (without a receipt, the policy may vary). According to Rita, some customers take advantage of this policy by bringing back garments that are clearly not fit to be resold. “People will try to return anything, claiming they just bought it last week and it ‘just didn't work out’ when it's clearly not a bra we even carry anymore and it's super worn and gross.”

Some customers ruin clothing without buying it first. “The worst part was having to damage out [retail slang for swapping out an irreparable item] underwear that girls had tried on without leaving their own underwear on," Rita says. "Happened all the time. It was absolutely disgusting.”

13 Secrets of Halloween Costume Designers

vadimguzhva/iStock via Getty Images
vadimguzhva/iStock via Getty Images

For consumers, Halloween may be all about scares, but for businesses, it’s all about profits. According to the National Retail Federation, consumers will spend $8.8 billion this year on spooky goods, including $3.2 billion on costumes. “It’s an opportunity to be something you’re not the other 364 days of the year,” Jonathan Weeks, founder of Costumeish.com, tells Mental Floss. “It feels like anything goes.”

To get a better sense of what goes into those lurid, funny, and occasionally outrageous disguises, we spoke to a number of designers who are constantly trying to react to an evolving seasonal market. Here’s what we learned about what sells, what doesn’t, and why adding a “sexy” adjective to a Halloween costume doesn’t always work.

1. Some Halloween costumes are just too outrageous for retail

For kids, Halloween is a time to look adorable in exchange for candy. For adults, it’s a time to push the envelope. Sometimes that means provocative, revealing costumes; other times, it means going for shock value. “You get looks at a party dressed as an Ebola worker,” Weeks says. “We have pregnant nun costumes, baby cigarette costumes.” The catch: You won’t be finding these at Walmart. “They’re meant for online, not Spencer’s or Party City.”

2. … but there are some lines Halloween costume designers won’t cross.

Although Halloween is the one day of the year people can deploy a dark sense of humor without inviting personal or professional disaster, some costume makers draw their own line when it comes to how far to exceed the boundaries of good taste. “We’ve never done a child pimp costume, but someone else has,” says Robert Berman, co-founder of Rasta Imposta. Weeks says some questionable ideas that have been brought to the discussion table have stayed there. “There’s no toddler KKK costume or baby Nazi costume,” he says. “There is a line.”

3. Designers can produce a Halloween costume in a matter of days.

A lot of costume interest comes from what’s been making headlines in the fall: Costumers have to be ready to meet that demand. “We’re pretty good at being able to react quickly,” says Pilar Quintana, vice-president of merchandising for Yandy.com. “Something happening in April may not be strong enough to stick around for Halloween.”

Because the mail-order site has in-house models and isn’t beholden to approval from big box vendors, Quintana can design and photograph a costume so it’s available within 72 hours. If it's more elaborate, it can take a little longer: Both Yandy and Weeks had costumes inspired by the Cecil the Lion story that broke in July 2015 (in which a trophy hunter from Minnesota killed an African lion) on their sites in a matter of weeks.

4. Beyonce can help move stale inventory.

Extravagant custom tailoring jobs aside, Halloween costumes are a business of instant demand and instant gratification—inventory needs to be plentiful in order to fill the deluge of orders that come in a short frame of time. If a business miscalculates the popularity of a given theme, they might be stuck with overstock until they can find a better idea to hang on it. “[In 2016] we had 400 or 500 Zorro costumes that we couldn’t sell for $10,” Weeks says. “It had a big black hat that came with it, and I thought, ‘That looks familiar.’ It turned out it looked a lot like the one Beyonce wore in her ‘Lemonade’ video.” Remarketed as a "Formation" hat for Beyonce cosplayers, Weeks moved his stock.

5. Women don’t usually wear masks as part of their Halloween costumes.

Curiously, there’s a large gender gap when it comes to the sculpted latex monster masks offered by Halloween vendors: They’re sold almost exclusively to men. “There just aren’t a lot of masks with female characters,” Weeks says. “I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s because men in general like gory, scary costumes.” One exception: Hillary Clinton masks, which were all the rage in 2016.

6. Food costumes are always a hit for Halloween.

At Rasta Imposta, Berman says political and pop culture trends can shift their plans, but one theme is a constant: People love to dress up as food. “We’ve had big success with food items. Bananas, pickles. We did an avocado.”

7. Adding ”sexy” to a Halloween costume doesn’t always work.

It’s a recurring joke that some costume makers only need to add a “sexy” adjective to a design concept in order to make it marketable. While there’s some truth to that—Quintana references Yandy’s “sexy poop emoji” costume—it’s no guarantee of success. “We had a concept for ‘sexy cheese’ that was a no-go,” she says. “'Sexy corn’ didn’t really work at all. ‘Sexy anti-fascist’ didn’t make the cut this year.”

8. People ask for some weird stuff when it comes to Halloween costumes.

In addition to monitoring social media for memes and trends, designers can get an idea of what consumers are looking for by shadowing their online searches. Costumeish.com monitors what people are typing into their search bar to see if they’re missing out on a potential hit. “People search for odd things sometimes,” Weeks says. “People want to be a cactus, a palm tree, they’re looking for a priest and a boy costume. People can be weird.”

9. Halloween costume designers have workarounds for big properties.

Go out to a Halloween party over the past few years and you’re almost guaranteed to run into the Queen of the North. But not every costume maker has the official license for Game of Thrones. What are other companies to do? Come up with a design that sparks recognition without sparking a lawsuit. “Our biggest seller right now is Sexy Northern Queen,” Quintana says. “It’s inspired by a TV show.” But she won’t say which one.

10. People love sharks.

From the clunky Ben Cooper plastic costume from 1975’s Jaws to today, people can’t seem to get enough of shark-themed outfits. “We do a lot of sharks,” Berman says. “Maybe it’s because of Shark Week in the summertime, but sharks always tend to trend. People just like the idea of sharks.”

11. Dead celebrities mean sales.

It may be morbid, but it’s a reality: The high-profile passing of celebrities, especially close to Halloween, can trigger a surge in sales. “Before Robin Williams died, I couldn’t sell a Mork costume for a dollar,” Weeks says. “After he died, I couldn’t not sell it for less than $100.”

12. The Halloween costume business profits from people shopping at the last minute.

Ever wonder why food and other novelty costumes tend to outsell traditional garb like pirates and witches? Because costume shopping for adults is usually done frantically and they don’t have time to compare 25 different Redbeards. “People tend to do it at the very last minute, so we want something that pops out at them,” Berman says. “Like, ‘Oh, I want to be a crab.’”

Weeks agrees that procrastination is profitable. “We make a lot of money on shipping,” he says. “Some people get party invites on the 25th and so they’re paying for next-day air.”

13. It’s not actually a seasonal business.

Everyone we spoke to agreed that the most surprising thing about the Halloween business is that it’s not really seasonal on their end. Costumes are designed year-round, and planning can take between 12 and 18 months. “It’s 365 days a year,” Quintana says. “We’ll start thinking about next Halloween in December.”

This piece was first published in 2017 and republished in 2019.

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