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June 25, 2007 | Tate Linden
Managing expectations is one of the hardest parts of developing powerful names. We work hard at the beginning of a project to ensure that expectations are set correctly. There's a misconception that names can do absolutely everything for a company. For example, here's a (slightly modified) list of things a client wanted from their name on a recent contract - before we helped them pare it down.
  • The name should not use any of the current buzz words or industry descriptors
  • The name should double as the new industry terminology of choice
  • The name should publicize both the existing industry and our own company
  • The name should be easy to say and spell
  • The name should not feel out of place amongst the existing company names in the space, but should still be unique.
  • The name should be intuitive
  • The name should make people feel good about being associated with us
  • The name should attract upper-echelon clients
  • The name shouldn't alienate or existing lower caste clients
  • The name should help to keep clients engaged with us for multiple purchases
  • The name should be progressive and contemporary but should not need to be renamed again due to it going out of style.
  • ...
The list went on from there. And it got even more conflicted as we got into it.

Let me be very clear: Names are the starting block, not the finish line. A good name can help set you apart from your competitors - and can perhaps help with a couple other goals as well... but it cannot get you repeat customers in most situations.

You cannot, I'm afraid, have a name that does absolutely everything for your company. You also cannot have a name that doesn't have at least a few drawbacks. All the best names in the business have flaws - Google sounds like baby-speak, Caterpillars are squishy and eat crops... But the names set them apart - allowing them to get noticed and position themselves versus the competition. From there the companies can take over.

Memorability, evocativeness, pronunciation, strategic fit... these are things we can work on with a name. (We have twenty-six other variables we throw in there too... but you can't have a name with all thirty variables pegged at "10.")

For anyone out there struggling to find the perfect name... just stop. Perfection is not attainable. When you break a name into its constituent variables some will be strong and others won't. Just ensure that the portions that you're leveraging the most for your business are associated with the strong aspects of your name and you'll be set.

Forget the All-Everything name. Just try to get one that is good at something while avoiding any major pitfalls. You'll be so far ahead of most other companies that you'll forget you ever wanted anything more.
4 Comments
Nancy Friedman June 25, 2007 1:52 PM

GREAT post, Tate. I'm going to make sure all my clients read it.

Evan June 26, 2007 1:16 PM

I think this process leads to the rise of meaningless names. If a name means everything to everyone, what is the risk it means exactly nothing to no one? As we've seen before, a name demonstrating one person's "optimism" is another person's "contact solution."

One question though, brought on me by the names you cited is...Google and Caterpillar certainly among the most powerful recognizable brand names today, so much so they've almost completely entered our language. But both were named by amateurs - in both cases - by their founders in the early days of their existance. This is true for many of the most successful names. I would think most names that have entered the common use were created by amateurs - Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, etc. etc. What is the implication for potential naming clients? That naming firms are unnecessary? How do you persuade them to take on your services?

Tate Linden June 27, 2007 9:30 AM

Great question, Evan.
Interestingly - I do not suggest that naming firms are the only ones that can develop names. I think there are competitors out there that say such things, though. Nope - I believe that naming consultancies that are worthwhile are probably excellent at expanding the universe of names and helping to cull the list to the best candidates. But where we shine is in the development of the story and the analysis of where names are strong and weak.
Incidentally "Google" may have been created by amateurs - but only after they had the misfortune to be called "Backrub" first. Someone told the founders that changing the name might be a good idea. The jury is still out on whether or not Google was intentionally misspelled.
What a strong naming consultancy gets you is the ability to launch a name that is fully vetted and linked to who you are as a company, organization, or product. You'll know how to leverage the name's strengths and what aspects you should shy away from when doing your marketing. You'll know how to answer the question "What does your name mean" with something other than "It just sounds cool" - a faux pas that Steve Ballmer pulled with Zune.
Strong naming consultancies remove barriers to success and prepare your executives to speak intelligently about who you are. They turn your name into a marketing tool from day one (or perhaps even earlier.)
Strong naming consultancies - as Nancy (see above) could tell you - provide "your story, well told."
You don't get that from a typical back-of-the-napkin name.

Evan July 3, 2007 9:36 PM

But I would bet that the name Zune had Many name consultants and a fully formed Meaning, but that there was a failure of communication between the namer and Ballmer. That is probably the real lesson from that story.