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.

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First Colonial/Lunatec/Safe Touch
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11 Secrets of Aldi Employees

Aldi is known for its unique cost-cutting measures that allow the chain to have some of the lowest prices for groceries.
Aldi is known for its unique cost-cutting measures that allow the chain to have some of the lowest prices for groceries.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Since opening its very first store in Germany in 1961 and then coming to America in 1976, discount grocery chain Aldi has grown to over 1900 stores in 36 states. Using inventive cost-cutting measures—customers are responsible for returning their own carts and the store charges for bags unless you bring your own—the brand has become synonymous with quality at an affordable price.

Tasked with overseeing the long hours of daily operations are the company’s 25,000-plus store employees, who are typically part of a small team of 20 or fewer people per location. Aldi workers are expected to be proficient in everything from unloading pallets and stocking shelves to checking out customers at a speed that meets or exceeds standards—employees are even timed on how fast a customer pulls out their credit card.

To find out more about this challenging line of work, Mental Floss reached out to several current and former Aldi employees. Here’s what they had to say about memorizing barcode numbers, how many miles they walk during a typical shift, and why sitting down at the register is actually more efficient than standing.

1. Working at Aldi means walking. A lot.

At Aldi, employees aren’t given set roles when it comes to unloading, stocking, cleaning, or working the register. Everyone is expected to be able to do everything, which means a lot of physical effort. “Our job is considered physically demanding, because Aldi has very few employees running per shift, meaning there are more expectations placed on each of us,” Jonah, an Aldi employee in Pennsylvania, tells Mental Floss. “If you aren't ringing, you are expected to be cleaning, stocking, re-stocking, or organizing the shelves. There is no ‘down time.’”

That suits many employees just fine. “I don’t like to sit around and do nothing, and this job is the complete opposite,” Kyle, an Aldi employee in Virginia, tells Mental Floss. “I actually wear a Fitbit when I work, because I have been curious about how many steps I take. I average about 127,000 steps every [five-day] work week. I’d say an estimate is 25,400 steps a shift.”

2. Aldi employees sit down at the register for a very good reason.

An Aldi employee is pictured ringing out a customer in Chicago, Illinois in June 2017
Aldi employees are expected to ring customers out as quickly as possible.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Employees can sit on stools while ringing guests up at a register, but getting a little rest isn't the sole reason for the seat. “While [resting] is true, Aldi says that cashiers sit at the register because, according to their testing, it allows us to ring up items faster,” Jonah says.

3. Aldi employees are monitored for their ringing speed.

Part of the reason Aldi can get away with as few as three to five employees in a store at any one time is because customers can be processed quickly. Aldi typically sets performance standards for employees at the checkout, who might be expected to process as many as 1200 items per hour. “We are given reports at the end of each day for our ringing statistics,” Jonah says.

And that’s not the only performance metric used to evaluate workers. “Ringing is the only part where we get an actual report, but managers will tell us that we are expected to knock out two pallets per hour, or one pallet every half hour," Jonah says.

4. Aldi employees “train” customers to move quickly.

Part of an employee’s register performance review depends on how quickly they can get a customer away from the register and toward an area where they bag their own groceries. To do this, employees encourage customers to have their payment method ready and inserted into the card reader before their items are done being scanned. “Aldi is all about efficiency, and encouraging our customers to ‘pre-insert’ their card while we are ringing allows the payment process to be near instant, rather than having our customers wait for us to finish ringing and then pull out their card and insert it,” Jonah says.

5. Aldi employees need Tetris-type skills to load carts.

Aldi shopping carts are pictured in Chicago, Illinois in June 2017
There's even a science behind how an Aldi cart is loaded.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

When an employee rings up a customer, items are loaded from the cart to the conveyor belt and then back into the cart. Because heavier items need to be placed first, employees need to be strategic when placing products. “[We put] light items like eggs, bread, chips, etc. at the top of the cart and everything else on the bottom,” Sara, an Aldi employee in Indiana, tells Mental Floss. “However, it really just depends on the order that customers put their items on the belt.” (They prefer you put heavy items like bottled water first.)

For maximum efficiency, Jonah prefers customers take products out of their display boxes and avoid trying to bag their groceries while cashiers are still ringing them out. “It slows us down and causes a longer wait for everyone,” Jonah says.

6. Aldi employees memorize barcode numbers.

An Aldi shopping basket is pictured in Cardiff, United Kingdom in August 2018
Aldi employees know the barcode numbers for several products by heart.
Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

Ringing speed is so crucial to Aldi’s success—and an employee’s job performance—that many workers memorize barcode numbers to keep the line moving. “Items like milk and water have codes that we memorize,” Sara says. “For example, someone could be buying six gallons of milk, and instead of having the customer put all of them on the belt for us to scan one by one, we tell them to leave them in their cart and we key in the codes, making the checkout process faster.”

7. Aldi employees may or may not give you a quarter if you forget one.

Because it would take time and money to collect shopping carts, Aldi has a system where customers insert a quarter to unlock a cart from the collection area. When they return it, they get the quarter back. But not all customers remember to bring a quarter, and first-time shoppers might not even know they need one. And if they ask an Aldi employee to borrow one, they may or may not get it.

“I try not to give them a quarter because the quarters we give come out of our own registers,” Kyle says. “So if we don't get them back, we end up losing money out of our own drawer. If it's a first-time shopper, I gladly give them a quarter and explain to them why we have this system in place, and pretty much every person is very understanding on why we do it.”

If you’re short a quarter, don’t try shoving anything else in the slot. “People will try to use foreign currency that are the same size as quarters,” Kyle says. “Doesn't hurt us; it's just annoying to deal with.”

8. Aldi has a store phone, but customers shouldn’t bother calling.

Customers are pictured in front of an Aldi store in Edgewood, Maryland in December 2017
Aldi employees are too busy in the store to answer the phone.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Aldi keeps the phone numbers for individual stores unlisted, preferring that employees deal with customers already in the store. Limits are placed on when the phone can be used. “We do technically have a store phone, but this phone is strictly used for receiving calls from the warehouse, global help desk, and to our security company we use,” Kyle says.

9. Aldi’s return policy is something employees can find a little too generous.

Aldi has a unique return policy for items purchased in their stores. Under their Twice as Nice Guarantee, customers can return a product and not only get a replacement item but a refund, as well. “Our Twice as Nice Guarantee is a very good system; I'd say one of the best in grocery,” Kyle says. “That doesn't mean it's perfect, though. I have seen people abuse this system. It's happened in my own store numerous times.”

Kyle declines to explain how it’s abused, though anecdotal reports are that perfectly good items are sometimes brought back to exchange for the benefit of a new item plus the refund. Serial returners are sometimes flagged and told to ease up. (The policy is currently suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic but is expected to return in the future.)

10. Aldi employees are required to wear steel-toed boots.

Work boots are pictured
Aldi employees need to protect their feet from inventory mishaps.
banjongseal324/iStock via Getty Images

Check out the footwear of an Aldi employee and you’ll notice they have on steel-toed boots normally seen on construction sites or warehouse jobs. That’s because workers are expected to unload the massive inventory pallets that arrive regularly. “All associates are required to wear steel-toed boots because of the equipment we use on the job,” Kyle says. “We use pallet jacks and it is just a safety precaution.” (Aldi does reimburse workers for the boots.)

11. Aldi employees appreciate you taking the survey.

Customers are pictured inside of an Aldi store in Chicago, Illinois in June 2017
Aldi employees say that receipt surveys can make a real difference in stores.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

The customer surveys that appear on Aldi receipts might go ignored by many, but they serve a real purpose. Employees are expected to meet a store quota of completed surveys, and customers can actually influence the selection inside the store. “We encourage customers to fill them out if they want a certain item brought in since the surveys go straight to corporate,” Sara says.

Regardless of how they offer their input, customers can often get what they want. “One thing that may surprise people is that you have a very strong voice on what items we should carry in our stores,” Kyle says. “A prime example of this is the [L’Oven Fresh] Zero Net Carb Bread. It was an Aldi Finds [a limited-time item] and people wanted this item to be a normal item so badly, and the company listened.”