The Name Game: Mark Skoultchi of Catchword

We here at Wordnik love talking to professional namers about the naming process. So we were delighted to have the chance to chat with Mark Skoultchi, a partner at Catchword, a full-service naming company founded in 1998.

Mark spoke with us about Catchword’s naming process, some of his favorite (and not so favorite) types of names, and what playing Scrabble can teach you about naming.

What are some of the reasons that bring folks to the naming business, and in particular, Catchword?

Most namers follow a rather circuitous route to the profession, making stops as brand managers, advertisers, linguists, editors, creative writers, and lawyers (not surprising when you consider the importance of intellectual property law to the field of naming).

Regardless of background, almost every namer is a word lover with a passion for branding and an appreciation for how effectively a great name can influence customer loyalty and differentiate a product. In addition, namers enjoy the diversity of responsibilities that the business tends to provide. Certainly naming is a creative exercise, but it’s really so much more than that.

On top of the variety of responsibilities that working in this industry generally provides, folks gravitate toward working at Catchword because, at the risk of sounding immodest, we’re a leader in this business space, and we promote a culture of innovation. In fact, we hold quarterly Innovation Weeks during which we ask and try to answer how we, as a company and an industry, could be evolving and doing things better.

What types of customers and clients do you work with?

We’ve named pretty much everything you can think of, having worked with over 500 clients in all sorts of industries, including Canon, Chipotle, eBay, Fitbit, Intel, and Starbucks.

In general, we tend to service larger, multinational organizations that have broader naming needs, such as naming strategy, architecture, and protocol as well as global linguistic analysis and international trademark counsel. Sure, we come up with cool names for products that span technology, healthcare, F&B [“food and beverage”] and everything in between, but our clients require more than just a cool name. They require strategic guidance and help ensuring names are available and non-offensive in the global markets in which they compete.

Lately, we’ve worked with many more tech and healthcare clients, as those industries are really flourishing. In fact, the naming industry is a pretty useful barometer of which industries are doing well.

Please describe your naming process. Do you usually start with ideas, or do you find your customers often have their own ideas already?

Catchword’s naming process involves both strategic and creative phases. At the outset of an assignment we’re focused on understanding our client, their portfolio of products, the space in which they compete, and how they position themselves in the market. It’s imperative to understand their business and overall branding objectives before beginning any creative work!

Once we have a really solid understanding of their business, we’ll develop a range of strategies and approaches to naming the brand in question, and codify all the information (including messaging, style and tone) in a creative brief for the assignment. At that point, we can begin the actual creative work, which involves the development of literally thousands of names.

Catchword is a strong proponent of quantitative creativity – i.e., the more is more approach. Given the enormous legal, linguistic, and subjective hurdles names must clear, it’s essential to exhaust every creative avenue, and ideate as many names as possible!

Over the course of several name review meetings with our clients, we’ll present a selection of names that map to our strategies, reflect the creative parameters, and have cleared a preliminary trademark screen. Depending on the client, we’ll often conduct either linguistic and cultural screening on preferred names, or customer research to gain further insight to assist with the decision making process.

The goal is to help guide our client toward a shortlist of viable brand name solutions that can advance to a comprehensive trademark evaluation.

How do you use linguistics and psychology in the naming process?

This question is interesting because it demonstrates how the best naming process takes on a multidisciplinary approach.

From the outset of a project, we make sure we know exactly how our client identifies themselves and how their audience perceives them and their products or services. When we really understand the target demographic, we gain insight into what motivates them to make a purchase and the factors that might influence a purchase decision.

For example, if our client’s target demographic is highly educated, sociable young women, we know that we’ll want to focus on names that suggest femininity and fun, but only with a sophisticated and mature tonality. In short, we use psychology to understand what types of names will most resonate with the audience in question.

Our inner linguist comes to the forefront when we perform a linguistics screen near the end of the naming process. We’ll ask respondents in relevant foreign languages to help us determine if name finalists have unforeseen connotations or are difficult to pronounce because of things like consonant clusters or nonnative vowel sounds. If a company is going to release a product in Germany, they want to ensure that it doesn’t sound like the German word for ‘vomit.’ Equally often, though, linguistics screening will uncover unintended positive associations that might make a name an even stronger candidate in that particular region.

In addition to looking at semantic associations of a name in a particular region, we’ll often evaluate the name’s compatibility with a brand’s pre-existing associations as well as the new concept being marketed there.

What are some mistakes you’ve seen companies make in terms of naming?

There are countless mistakes companies make when attempting to name their products, services, or themselves! The most common mistake is underestimating the enormous challenge of legally clearing a name, developing too few ideas, and ending up with no viable name options after comprehensive legal evaluations.

Another mistake is becoming fixated on adopting an obvious real English word for a brand. Certainly real English words are great and oftentimes viable name options for brands, but expecting a name like “Beacon” to be available as a trademark in the financial business space, for instance, is setting yourself up for naming failure.

Another common mistake companies make is to pigeonhole their products and services by adopting names that are appropriate today and even next year, but perhaps not in five years. When naming, it’s critical to plan for the future and try to anticipate shifts in business and product focus. You don’t want to outgrow and have to rename your products just as they’re achieving market success!

What’s one of your favorite naming stories?

In the 17 years since Catchword’s founding we’ve collected countless naming stories. From the time we were invited to Ben & Jerry’s almost magical Vermont office to present wacky and wonderful name ideas for a new ice cream sandwich (“Cookie Wookie” was a big hit), to working with Meg Whitman of eBay to develop a name for an international online classifieds business (i.e., “Craigslist” for the rest of the world), we’ve had our share of fun, funny, exciting, and sometimes weird experiences.

However, the most memorable naming stories are probably the ones that involved the most exceptional outcomes. That is, projects that presented huge challenges and delivered incredible results.

One recent example is Premise Health. Premise Health is a merger of CHI and Take Care, the two largest companies in the onsite healthcare space. The client team included the top executives and boards of both companies as well as the investment firm that was financing the merger. The size and complexity of the project team alone qualified this assignment as unusually challenging. Add to the project team makeup an incredibly saturated set of trademark classes (both healthcare and technology classes, yikes!) and we knew we had our work cut out for us.

Amazingly, we were able to reconcile the varying name preferences among the team members, navigate the choppy legal waters, and guide the group toward not just one name that everyone loved and that was available as a trademark, but SEVEN. That sort of outcome is unusual, even for Catchword!

What are some names that you particularly like?

Naturally, we love so many of the names we’ve developed, from the highly intuitive and descriptive names, to the suggestive, to the more abstract and fanciful. Certainly we adore the assignments that allow us to stretch our creative wings and produce really clever pieces of wordplay, coinings or linguistic manipulations, but we’re no less proud of the more straight ahead names we’ve created that serve as smart business solutions for our clients.

With that in mind, some of the names we’re particularly proud of are Crazy 8 (Gymboree’s children’s clothing store), Dreamery (Dreyer’s ice cream brand), Javiva (Peet’s blended iced beverage), Refreshers (Starbucks’s beverage line), Photoshop Elements (the lighter version of Adobe’s leading image editing software), Upwork (Elance’s freelance platform), Mochidoki (a premium mochi ice cream product), Vudu (a streaming video service), and all the Fitbit fitness trackers we’ve named, including Zip, One, Flex, Force, and Surge.

Are there any naming trends you’d sooner see die off?

The names that try to be so unique that they sacrifice all meaning, ability to be spelled, and memorability are not long for this world. We recognize that many naming trends stem from the challenge that new businesses face of obtaining a domain name and trademark, but there are ways to get around these obstacles that don’t involve using a combination of letters you’d normally exchange in Scrabble.

We make sure to steer our clients clear of naming trends, because a name should allow you to stand out, not show how you’re the same. Nevertheless, there are certain ‘trends’ that are timeless, such as short, real-word nouns (e.g., Nest, Apple, Clover) and smart wordplay. The best names tell a story that is unique to the client’s brand, resonate with audiences and therefore stand the test of time.

Now for the most important question of all: please tell us about your stress reduction specialist, Doogie.

Doogie is our best compensated employee at Catchword, receiving far and away the most hugs. An expert in the “arf” of naming, he often inspires the creative team with his diligent, prolonged meditations on his favorite chair and his dogged pursuit of the UPS man.

Few people know that he is actually an intergalactic superhero from the planet Endor (he misses his Ewok brothers dearly). One day he forgot to switch back to his alter ego before coming to work and we snapped this picture of him still dressed as SuperDoogie.


Want more on naming? Catch up on all the interviews in our Name Game series.

The Name Game: Steve Rivkin

In the latest of our series of interviews with professional namers, today we speak with Steve Rivkin.

Steve is the founder of Rivkin & Associates LLC, a marketing and communications consultancy that specializes in naming. He is the co-author of The Making of a Name (Oxford University Press) – described by its publisher as “the definitive work on names and naming” – and has been called “America’s leading nameologist” by Asian Brand News.

How did you get started in the naming business?

It was an outgrowth of my consulting work in developing and then executing marketing strategies. The need for a new name was an integral part of the majority of these projects, and I was dissatisfied with the methods and narrow focus I saw.

Any new name, I believe, should embrace several disciplines. First and foremost, a new name must have a strong positioning orientation to help differentiate the brand. It also should have a strong consumer sensibility, and it should have a realistic basis in linguistics.

To do this requires seasoned professionals with hands-on business experience in marketing and communications. There are no rookies or academic linguists on our team, which is a common practice at the big naming factories.

What types of customers and clients do you work with?

All sorts. We have naming clients in the food, healthcare, communications, financial services, and technology sectors.

Please describe the naming process. Do you usually start with ideas, or do you find your customers often have their own ideas already?

We start with a clear briefing from the client on their objectives, likes and dislikes regarding a new name.

Next, we develop a specific vocabulary list about the client’s business, product or service. That list is then enlarged by adding roots, synonyms, analogues, idioms, collocations, and translations, to create the building blocks we need.

Then we employ a series of techniques that we know will generate large numbers of possible names: construction of new words (neologisms) from recognizable roots, by using word fusions, suffixes joined to building-block terms, and other methods; existing terms or words used in new ways, such as adapted metaphors; compressions or contractions of existing words and phrases; application of imagery and symbolism; and other techniques and inspirations.

What are some mistakes you’ve seen companies make in terms of naming?

Devouring their own. Alpo Cat Food, A-1 Poultry Sauce, V8 Fusion Plus Tea, Tanqueray Vodka. These marketers have stretched the original meaning of their names past recognition – or believability.

Yes, all brand names are elastic, to some extent. Consider the brand ESPN. It started out in 1997 as a single cable channel, but has since mushroomed into half a dozen other channels, two radio channels, Internet access, and a print magazine – all built around the concept of sports coverage and commentary. But note the core concept behind everything ESPN does. A name can only be stretched to a certain point before it “snaps” in the consumer’s mind and no longer stands for a clear concept.

Another common mistake: the impolite utterances that others have commented on, such as the shoe brands named Incubus (a demon) and Zyklon (a poison used by the Nazis). Ikea has a catalog offering for a workbench named Fartfull. (I’m guessing that moniker is attractive in Swedish.)

Foreign language stumbles are particularly embarrassing. Pajero, an SUV from Mitsubishi. (You can look it up in any Spanish dictionary:  “One who masturbates; a wanker.”)  Country Mist, a cosmetic product that Estee Lauder shipped to Germany. (In German, “mist” means “manure.”) Burrada, used to identify a frozen Mexican food entrée. (Burrada translates as “a stupid deed” or “ big mistake.”)

What are some names that you particularly like?

You know I’m going to embrace our creations for clients. Here are a few of them: Behold single-vision lens, Premio Italian sausages, Trueste perfume, Celsia Technologies, Global Impact for charitable assistance.

I’m also drawn to names that are unexpected combinations of language, because they engage the brain on several levels. They’re surprising, meaningful and playful – all at the same time. Examples: Geek Squad. DreamWorks, which combines the magic of movies with an old industrial term. Zany Brainy, the educational toy store. Sky Harbor, the name of the airport in Phoenix.

And I applaud companies which do not blur the distinctions among their brands. For instance, American Honda Motor Company applied its mid-range Honda brand name to a lineup of vehicles – Civic, Accord, CR-V. But as Honda climbed the ladder of performance, styling and luxury, it realized it could not “stretch” the Honda brand indefinitely – and the upmarket Acura brand was born, with a completely separate identity. (You have to search long and hard in Acura materials to find any references to Honda.)

What are some trends you’d sooner see die off?

One: The fascination with what I call techno-babble. Or we could call it geek-speak. Names such as (and I’m not making these up) @Climax, 1-4-@LL, 160 over 90, Design VoX, mmO2, and $Cashnet$.

Another: The epidemic of me-tooism of “Ameri-something” names:  Americare, Americone, Amerideck, Ameridial, Amerihealth, Amerilink, Amerimark, Ameripride – enough!

And one more sin in naming: Thou shalt not prepare alphabet soup. “JCP&L, a GPU Company.” How that’s for dead-end communication? Or these recent adventures into anonymity from the Fortune 500: AES, BB&T, KBR, URS, SLM. That’s a total of $35 billion in corporate revenues, all cloaked in an invisible, all-initial shield.

The Name Game: Tate Linden and Stokefire

“Let me be clear; this is going to suck.”

Those are usually the first words out of the mouth of today’s interviewee, Tate Linden, the latest in our series on the art of naming, when he discusses what working with his firm is like. He’s been heading up Stokefire, a strategic branding and advertising firm in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, since 2005. All things considered, he seems to be doing pretty well.

In an industry where fun times, team building, and corporate retreats are the norm, Linden’s approach to developing names and brands tends to raise eyebrows and voices. With an education in philosophy and classical music performance from UCLA and a background in Fortune 500 product management, you might think he’d be mild mannered.

He is not.

He’s constantly poking, prodding, and provoking. A quick scan of his @Thingnamer twitter feed or Stokefire’s blog makes this abundantly clear. He’s not afraid to stir things up or to call into question the very foundation of the industry in which he makes his living.

His Twitter bio reads, “I brand stuff. With… My… MIND.” But we’re hoping he’s not quite so succinct in our interview.

How did you get started in the naming business?

The official version of the story has me figuring out how to brand stuff while employed for a decade by various Fortune 500 firms, and then parting ways to start up my own firm to specialize in it. Unofficially, the things that made me great at branding also made me intolerable as an employee of a conglomerate.

Around 2002 I left and began freelancing, then started up Stokefire in 2005 to focus almost exclusively on the verbal aspects of branding. Today we’re no longer a pure naming agency, but we do take on projects that have naming as one component of the larger brand.

What types of customers and clients do you work with?

Early on a pulse and a bank account were the only qualifiers, and the pulse was just a ‘nice-to-have.’ Now we have a bit more leeway to engage in projects that present the most interesting and unique challenges.

I look for great organizations that may be struggling to better connect with or have an impact on their audiences. We’ve worked with organizations like Google, Motorola, Charles Schwab, Heinz, and the largest caucus of the United States Congress. A couple of the most intriguing projects we’ve taken on have been the branding and advertising of concrete in North America, and a complete overhaul of the US Department of Defense’s DARPA brand.

Oh. And there’s also a living online dictionary whose leader called us a few years ago and asked us to help her team figure out a name. The result of that project was something your readers may know: Wordnik.

How would you describe your naming process?

Pretty easily. “Painful” or “cathartic” both fit well. And I’m not stretching the truth. We put an immense amount of pressure on the name and the people and products that will be defined by it. We do this in order to ensure everything works effectively together and will stand up to the potential real world pressures to come. In my view a fun naming process is one that is likely to result in a name that serves a client well only until something goes wrong. As Mike Tyson said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.” A client is better served by experiencing those blows in private and learning to respond to them than they are by the experience of being TKO’d in public.

Process? We’ve got all sorts of proprietary tools, worksheets, and tables, but so does every branding and naming pro out there. Our stages are roughly in line with what you’d see anywhere else. It’s the guiding philosophies and the way that we apply them to what we do that makes us different and potentially more effective.

As for those philosophies, the one I reference most frequently is based on a quote attributed to Gandhi. He said, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” Ultimately Gandhi’s concept of happiness is the framework for all of the brands we craft. It’s not about slathering on a new coat of paint that will begin flake off the moment our team leaves. We strip organizations to the bare wood and help them display what makes them genuinely strong. When we leave there’s no questions from panicked leaders asking how to respond to something because what we’ve left them with is who they genuinely are rather than what Stokefire or their target audience wants them to be.

What are some resources that you use?

When naming, the books I pull down more than any others are my crossword dictionaries. They present words as answers to the questions a strategist might ask rather than as definitions we might not know to look for. Strangely, I’ve not migrated to the web for this resource, though I’m sure there’s something equivalent available.

When I do go online I have a few sites that draw me back time and again. There are some good reverse-lookup dictionaries, and there’s Wordnik’s ability to show how a term is currently being used, and to link to various kinds of related concepts. It’s a site I hit consistently with every project.

My best resource, though, is the network of creative professionals I’ve had the good fortune to work with over the years. Knowing that I can turn to someone like copywriter and naming pro Nancy Friedman when I need perspective or have a project that isn’t in my specialty area is invaluable. Back in the day I even relied on Wordnik’s own Erin McKean to share her lexicographical chops and entice a client to take the right path.

Living resources trump static resources almost every time, and you don’t get much more living than a person. Well, unless they’re dead.

What are some mistakes you’ve seen companies make in terms of naming?

Contrary to what I read in blog chatter and in the news, I think risk avoidance causes more problems than anything else. The number of brands that fail for lack of risk far exceeds the occasional Icarus-like ones that fail for too much of it.

The next time someone tells you that they can’t accept a name with risk, consider asking them if pouring money into a brand that no one notices and no one cares about is more or less risky than investing in one that just might have a shot.

What are some trends you’d sooner see die off?

All of them.

Back in early 2007 I spent about a week analyzing the impact of naming trends on the success of organizations. At that time the trends mostly involved prefixes like the e in eBusiness and the then revolutionary concept of personalization through the use of I, My, or You, as in iPod or YouTube.

My findings suggested that names that followed trends had only a 4% chance of being attached to a successful organization while those that avoided any identifiable trend had a success rate more than 250% higher. I knew copycat naming was a bad idea on principle, but I’d had no idea it was so strongly linked to organizational success.

I’m not suggesting that the trends themselves are causing companies to fail. I think that any organizational leadership that believes following a naming trend would be more effective than discovering a genuine way to express itself has larger problems. A copycat name is like a warning beacon to clients and investors that the organizational leadership views their product as a commodity, takes shortcuts, lacks strategic vision, and isn’t comfortable in their own skin.

Other than that, though, it’s no big deal.

Any last words?

Just that I’m honored to be included with the likes of Nancy Friedman, Anthony Shore, and the : : CRONAN : : crew; a talented group by any measure.

Also. It was mostly pain free. So, thanks Wordnik!

After our interview but before publication we learned that Michael Cronan passed away and reached out to Tate for comment.

I met Michael very briefly around 2006 and recall being awed by how his work and thinking consistently avoided trends, and even started them on more than one occasion. His passing this New Year’s Day was a blow to the identity industry, and indescribably difficult for the friends, family and peers that battled cancer alongside him for the past five years.

If Gandhi was right and happiness truly is “when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony,” then from my vantage point, even considering his more recent health battle, Michael looks to have led a wonderfully happy life.

To my way of thinking there’s no higher praise a man can earn.

The Name Game: Anthony Shore of Operative Words

“I do what I do because I hate ugly words,” says Anthony Shore of Operative Words.

Continuing our series on naming (check out our interviews with Nancy Friedman and : : CRONAN : :), we spoke with Bay Area-based professional namer and logophile, Anthony Shore. Anthony has a background in linguistics, typesetting, copywriting, software marketing, and product management, and has named products such as the Lytro camera, the Fanhattan entertainment app, and Pause beverages.

Anthony tells us how he got into naming, the method behind the madness of the process, and about one very badly named shoe.

You can also find Anthony on LinkedIn and Twitter.

What got you interested in the naming business?

The first book I became fascinated by was the American Heritage Dictionary, specifically the section on Proto-Indo-European roots. I’d spend hours going over these roots from a hypothetical language spoken 5,000 years ago that gave rise to Latin, Greek, English, German, Hindi, Sanskrit, all these languages. I was fascinated that one little root could end up meaning so many different things in so many different languages.

When I was college, I studied artificial intelligence and did some natural language processing and Lisp. From linguistics, I got into a different kind of obsession with words in typesetting. It’s not too far related from the world of computational linguistics in that typesetting, back when I was doing it, was photomechanical. You’d work on a terminal that was not WYSIWYG and would enter codes to format the type.

My obsession with the written word continued and I ended up getting another job at an ad agency who needed a typesetter. At that point I got my foot in the door doing copywriting and ad conceptualization, then moving on to desktop publishing. Later, I moved on to a wine distributor, typesetting wine list publications and looking at the taxonomy of wines and restaurants, helping to organize and present their wine lists.

Next I moved onto a software company, where I became a marketing communications generalist, and then Landor Associates. I started as a naming manager, and eventually became global director of naming and writing, responsible for all word work and expressing strategy.

What types of customers and clients do you work with?

I’ve worked with well over 200 companies, and in every possible industry there is. Consumer packaged goods, wine and spirits, industrial and manufacturing, insurance, healthcare, and a lot of technology. There’s a great need for names in technology because technology is so prolific. Obsolescence is built into the category. Because there’s so much creativity, generation, and production in technology, there are many naming opportunities.

How do you work with your clients in the naming process?

Coming up with the story and telling that story is in some ways the most important part of naming, because what you’re doing is looking for different ways to express the essence of a brand, company, or product.

An important element is what makes the company different, and what their personality is as a company. This is something you can only understand by paying attention to the people in the room. You can come up with a great name that has logic and rationale, but if it doesn’t reflect who the people are in the room, it’s never going to get adopted.

The name development will start very broad, a mile wide and an inch deep. The second round is an inch wide and a mile deep, and focuses on the types of names that are really going to resonate with [the client]. When you begin creative, you have some idea of what’s going to work for the client, but you never know exactly what their reactions will be until you present the names.

That’s also why it’s dangerous to have proxies on naming projects. If a VP has a senior manager or director stand in for them, that’s a very dangerous situation because that person doesn’t really know how their superior is going to react to a specific word.

Something else I do is show names that are both on strategy and that violate strategy. We may all agree what looks good on a white board strategically, but the reality is there may be a great name that takes a different approach. The name never lives in isolation. There’s always context around the name that can help support other strategic elements. A name might follow a strategy that is different than the one they thought they wanted.

What are some resources that you use?

I like using all kinds of resources, the more the better. I’ll use websites like Wordnik, OneLook, Rhyme Zone, and Word Menu software.

I’ve been doing a lot of work in corpus linguistics, using Sketch Engine for example. It’s the ultimate concordance of words. Typical databases have over a billion text entries in them. So if I’m looking for an idea like love, I can be exposed to 10,000 words that have appeared near the word love. There might be a series of syntactic structures like love of blank, and then suddenly you’ll find a whole list of things that people love, like music, the ocean, neighbor or laughter.

I’ll use Wordnik to help me find words related to things I’m working on. I recently named an interactive children’s book line Wanderful. In the exercise that eventually led to Wanderful, I was looking at the world of children. There are great lists on Wordnik that have to do with kids. Words my two-year old daughter says. All the names of My Little Ponies. I’ll start with one list on Wordnik, which might lead to ten new lists.

I might be looking for the word fun. I’ll open all the lists that contain the word that look interesting to me. From one of those lists, I might find a word like wonder, and look at all the lists that contain the word wonder. Then I’ll enter the word wonder into something like Rhyme Zone, looking for words that rhyme with wonder, such as thunder. I’ll put thunder into OneLook and find all the words that combine with thunder, like thunderclap. I’ll substitute wonder for thunder. Wonderclap. It’s a very generative approach to finding natural, fun, unique brand news. And it’s been very fruitful as a technique.

I try to algorithmize my work. Because I like computers and think analytically, and I’m a linguist and I like looking for rules of language, I create formulas that produce creative, good, natural names.

What are some mistakes you’ve seen companies make in terms of naming?

There are names out there that are thought to be very bad. There’s the story of the Chevy Nova. The myth goes that it means “It doesn’t run” in Spanish, but actually the Chevy Nova sold very well in Latin America.

Then there was the woman’s running shoe Reebok launched called the Incubus. An incubus  is a demon that attacks women in their sleep, and so naming a shoe after this demon: bad idea. You hardly need a naming expert to tell you that.

It’s pretty easy to get a large group of people to agree on a word that doesn’t mean anything because there’s nothing to disagree with. The hardest words to sell are those with the greatest emotional resonance and affect on people.

The naming process is more than about taking a bunch of roots that mean love and tacking on prefixes and suffixes, although that’s also a part of the creative development process. The other part has to do with looking at words that are deeper and richer because those are the names that are going to give the client much more to work with and have much more emotional resonance.

Having a more memorable name means the client will need to spend less money on media to have their name remembered. Words that are polysemous, that have many meanings and associations with them, are the ones that are more memorable. But it’s also those words that are hardest to build consensus around.

I recently saw a company change their name from Watson to Actavis. Maybe they were legally compelled to change the name Watson, but Watson is fantastic. It’s human and rich. It has a history and a kind of mythology. This other name is pretty much an empty vessel. Maybe there’s some Latin root that you can latch onto. However, if there was a legal reason they had to change the name, I have compassion for that.

I also have compassion for the issue regarding international brand names. People feel differently about names in different parts of the world. Like Steve Martin said, the French have a different word for everything. For instance, in Europe they generally like these more empty-vessel, Latinate-sounding names. Those kinds of name speak to them more because English is not their primary language.

In Asia, the sound and the backstory of a name are more important than whatever obvious meaning is communicated by the word itself. You can spin any story, no matter how far removed it is from the name.

What are some other challenges namers might face?

Naming has become a specialized industry in part because of the proliferation of trademarks and the difficulty of finding a good name that you can use without infringing on another company’s trademark.

People have said all the good names are taken, and that’s absolutely not true. There are great names out there waiting to see the light of day. It’s only the obvious names that are taken. Finding the non-obvious names requires skill, diligence, and focus, as well as expertise in things like trademark screening – all of these have compelled the birth of this new industry.

I believe, however, that great names can come from anywhere. There are fantastic brands and brand names out there that were never developed by a naming expert, like Virgin, Google, Apple, and Yahoo! These weren’t developed by some naming geek but by creative people who found the right word that captures the essence and the spirit of their organization.

The Name Game: Michael Cronan and Karin Hibma of : : CRONAN : :

Continuing our series on the art of naming, today we talk to Michael Cronan and Karin Hibma, founders of : : CRONAN : :.

: : CRONAN : : is a Bay Area-based naming and brand design agency that has named many iconic consumer products and companies, including TiVo, Amazon Kindle, and the Kno tablet.

Michael has a background in fine arts. He taught at the California College of Art, Oakland and San Francisco for 20 years, was consulting product development and design director of the SFMOMA MuseumStore, is a founding member and former president of the American Institute of Graphic Arts San Francisco chapter, and much more.

Karin also has a fine arts background, working as a freelance design researcher and founding a creative research company and an award-winning product development company. She also recently received the AIGA Fellow lifetime achievement award.

How did you get started in the naming business?

It has become our sweet spot. Designers have the opportunity to understand a client’s business deeply and help them achieve their goals. We were fortunate to cut our teeth with designing for national and international branding, corporate identity packaging, store design clients – in a very wide set of activities.

We’ve had spectacular long-term relationships with Levi Strauss, Estee Lauder, William Sonoma, Blue Cross, Apple, the San Francisco Symphony, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and many more. Naming products and then entire companies came as a natural extension of those pursuits.

During the early 2000s, we began to work more remotely with our teams and clients, coming together at key moments in the process to move projects along very effectively. We realized that we could focus more and more on what for us is the most generative part of the process – the naming and identity design. And we could do it as a collaborative process, helping the clients evolve and grow their business through our approach.

We’ve found that our approach has been productive for our clients. One recently referred to us as “ninjas” as we helped his company move through a very narrow time window to create a new business personality, unify the team, and create a platform for their growth, all announced with new company, brand, and product names, as well as a dynamic new identity.

What types of customers and clients do you work with?

We work with companies in high technology, consumer products and mobile apps, community foundations, banking, movie and music entertainment – the category of clients is always mixed. We work with those companies who are making a strategic change with an eye to national or international reach, from conceptualizing a new service, starting a new company, launching a new product, all the way to re-energizing an existing brand. There is a spectrum of points where we get involved.

Minimizing the risk of change and expanding change’s positive branding opportunities for company leaders is essentially what we do. We help our clients answer who they are, and move from where they are to where they want to be. We only work with the leaders and the key decision-makers in a strategic team they pull together. We always have the leader’s direct line and they are in the majority of meetings. As it turns out, that is very powerful. It is one of the things that makes what we do work.

Please describe the naming process. Do you usually start with ideas, or do you find your customers often have their own ideas already?

We never start with ideas just because we will get distracted before we truly know what it should be, or even what it can be.

And we do find that clients come with and have pretty terrific ideas. Sometimes they have exhaustive lists of names they’ve generated but not found yet the answer. If they don’t bring ideas and lists, they do work with us in a collaborative environment created to give them the confidence and excitement they need to bring their ideas forward, appreciate ours, and to find what they need and want to get to YES – that’s the answer!

We design the exact approach around each client and for their project. We work in various ways but the core of our process begins with what we call Deep Listening. We listen and picture the results of what the client intends to do with all the positive outcomes and everything fitting into place, essentially focused on long extended success. We do this as a thought experiment, but we remove any critique from our thinking. We try to live in that positive outcome reference before we come back and look at the project from a critical point of view. There is always plenty of time to critique and evaluate what may or may not work.

Deep Listening helps us understand that an idea needs a chance to live before it can work. It is our way of getting on the same page with our clients and quickly sharing their vision without forsaking the discriminative abilities and successful outcomes they pay us for.

That Deep Listening phase includes a one-room meeting with all the people that will have input on the decisions including the CEO, founder, partners, executive director, chairman – you name it. We get them to speak about why they believe in what they do. We call the meeting an Intensive because many times the outcomes are well, intensive, with everyone speaking personally and responding directly to the questions we ask.

At the same time there is a lot of laughter in the meetings. Plato said something about learning more about a person with an hour of play than in a month of conversation. When you play or laugh, you drop your guard and new ideas can enter your consideration set and the realm of possibility.

And finally finding the right naive questions to ask of our clients and ourselves is probably the key to our process and the success we’ve enjoyed. Asking the right questions is a way to rapidly uncover what is not being considered and many times, leads to higher order thinking. When you get to that point the choices and design become easy.

What are some resources that you use?

We use a mad set of classic and multi-lingual dictionaries and of course Wordnik, plus comparative linguistics, standard search, the US Trademark resources and search urls, all without getting wonky. We need to keep current on business, communication, cultural and design trends while trying to stay as naive and open as possible to new ideas. One thing for sure, experience is and becomes the brand, so we use any means we can to understand and live the client’s product and business experience.

What are some mistakes you’ve seen companies make in terms of naming?

Our favorite is a successful Japanese fermented milk based soft drink that tried to capture the American market, named CALPIS. Sometimes a name can spell doom, or at least something you really do not want to drink.

One client we averted from a potential name disaster years ago was a company that syndicated internet services. They came to us to design their identity after recently investing in the name SYNDIC. They felt the name they had commissioned described what they did. We did not like it because it had SYN in the name as well as a DIC, and the graphic we could envision was funny but wasn’t where we thought they wanted to be.

Syndications were not happy new opportunities, and the name also seemed cold and selfish. We suggested that the naming firm should maybe take a second look. After two weeks the client came back unhappily with SYNDICA, a feminized version of the same name. We renamed and branded them Verio, from the Latin veritas or truth. They lived up to the promise in the name and today are one of planet earth’s largest internet service providers.

What are some new names that you particularly like?

Of those we did not name, how about Pinterest, Instagram, ModCloth, and Zite? They are not overly descriptive yet they communicate the core value being offered in a fresh and appealing way.

What are some trends you’d sooner see die off?

We generally would love to see arcane (fill in the culture) sky god names go the way of the white clouds. If you have to explain the attributes of the sky god and how your company has the same attributes, you have lost.

We’d like to see the overly cute double entendre names split from the scene. Constantly cute works for cupcake shops but a cute name will get more foolish with time. And too geeky names are a dime-a-dozen, indistinguishable from one another.

The oooga booga, zoooma, looma oomph names with too many vowels are hard to remember. Try keeping track of where you are driving in Hawaii. Without GPS all you have are lovely words with extra vowels.

And consumer drug names in general – it is completely confusing to have 2-3 names for the same product, all un-memorable.

UPDATE: We were saddened to hear of Michael Cronan’s passing on January 1, 2013. Our condolences to his loved ones.

The Name Game: Nancy Friedman and Wordworking

Many of us take brand and company names for granted. We run in Nikes, stare at our iPhones, and hit Target on the weekends. Some brand names become so common, we forget they were even brands to begin with. But how did these names come about?

We decided to talk to a few professional namers about the art of naming. First up is Nancy Friedman of Wordworking. In addition to verbal branding, Nancy writes about words and language at her blog, Fritinancy, and as a contributor to the Visual Thesaurus. You can also follow her smart word snarkery (we do) on Twitter.

Stay tuned in the upcoming weeks as we interview more naming experts.

How did you get started in the naming business?

I was in the right place at the right time. I’d worked as a journalist and copywriter and moonlighted as a poet, and a friend with a similar background asked me casually whether I’d like to get into the name-development game. I started freelancing for an agency that trained all of us in namestorming techniques such as mind-mapping and word-building. I got to work with uber-smart people, exercise my word-play muscles, and get paid! And, usually, fed! (Agencies do like to put on a spread.)

As it turned out, journalism and marketing were the perfect preparation for my name-development career. The first phase of any name-development project involves asking a lot of questions, so that who-what-where-when-how-why training proved indispensable. Later phases require a strong sense of the market, the audience, and the competition, which is what marketing is all about.

What types of customers and clients do you work with?

Well-funded ones.

Seriously, though, I’ve worked with small, medium, and large businesses in virtually every industry: software, hardware, middleware (yes, there is such a thing), hospitality, fashion, medical devices, furniture, food, transportation, nonprofit … I even did one pharmaceutical-naming project, although that’s a highly specialized field that nowadays is handled by niche agencies.

Please describe the naming process. Do you usually start with ideas, or do you find your customers often have their own ideas already?

A professional naming process ideally starts with a blank slate and a lot of questions. The answers to the questions become the basis of the naming brief, a detailed written document that describes the objectives and criteria for the name: what it needs to say and how it should (and shouldn’t) say it. Most do-it-yourself namers skip – or aren’t even aware of – this crucial step.

In many cases the slate isn’t 100% blank: I’m renaming an existing brand, or the client has already developed a list of names that haven’t passed the test (usually because the test hasn’t been well defined—that’s why you need a naming brief), or there’s a code name that’s for internal use only. I do an audit on those internal names as well as on competitors’ names.

What are some resources that you use?

I have several shelves full of specialized dictionaries: The Surfin’ary, The Cowboy Dictionary, From Juba to Jive, The New York Times Crossword Puzzle Dictionary, a word-parts dictionary, and many foreign-language dictionaries. And that’s a very partial list. I use online resources, too, including Wordnik, of course!

But mostly I use my stored knowledge about how language works – sound symbolism, market-appropriateness, and so on. I use lateral-thinking techniques to get beyond the obvious and the descriptive: for legal and other reasons, a “suggestive” name is much stronger than a descriptive one.

What are some mistakes you’ve seen companies make in terms of naming?

Not taking the time to develop the naming brief is the biggest one. The naming brief is a road map for the creative process and a benchmark for evaluating the results.

Next in line: confusing a domain with a brand name. Trademark is a much more important consideration than domain availability; there are all kinds of ways to get a domain, including, yes, buying one from a domainer. You have to face reality; this isn’t the wide-open domain market of 1997.

Next: Confusing a name with a brand. It takes much more than a name to build success: word of mouth, advertising, customer service, consistent communication. Don’t say “We want a name like Zappos” when you mean “We want to build a company like Zappos.”

Other mistakes: Too many decisionmakers. (I like to keep it to four or five, max.) Not generating enough names. (Only about 5% will be available, so you need to create at least 300 names, preferably more. That’s not a challenge for professional namers, but most amateurs find it very difficult.) Not understanding how long the naming process takes or what it should realistically cost. Resistance to metaphor. Fixation on an internally developed name, even when it’s clearly problematic. Ego.

What are some new names that you particularly like?

Beeminder is the very nice name of a website that helps people set and meet goals. It suggests industriousness and reminders, and it’s fun and easy to say – much better than the company’s original name, Kibotzer (sic!). The original tagline, “Reminders with a Sting,” made me smile. The current tagline is more pedestrian: “Solving the Self-Control Problem.”

I also like Weightless Books, which sells DRM-free publications in a variety of formats. They’re e-books, so they are literally weightless, and you get them instantly, so they’re waitless. Very nice.

In big-company-land, I’m a fan of Surface, the name of Microsoft’s new tablet device. As a noun, it draws attention to the device’s near-two-dimensionality; as a verb, it suggests “coming up for air.” And it subtly reinforces the Windows brand: windows are, after all, mostly surface.

What are some trends you’d sooner see die off?

What’s up with the adverbs and forced verbs? So many names end in –ly (I’ve created a Pinterest board with 117 examples, and I add a few new ones every week). So many names end in –ify (Storify, Zenify, Securify, Themify…). And in retail I’m seeing a lot of X+Y names: Circle & Square, Imogene + Willie, Time & Silence, Georgi & Willow, Holler & Squall. These concepts may have seemed fresh early on, but now they all blend together.

Oh, one more: the all-caps, no-vowels name. BHLDN. STK. BLK DNM. It’s as though we’re all shouting while texting. UGH.

Anything else to add?

I tell my clients that a brand name is an arranged marriage, not a love match. If you’re waiting for your heart to pound and your pulse to race, forget about it! You want a name with a good background (meaning, spelling, pronunciation) and good prospects (able to stand the test of time) that won’t embarrass you in front of strangers or bore you at home.